Tag Archives: Cross

010.033

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She might be replaced.

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

What a disaster.

Nel shook her head and stared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” “Him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only for Ylva to say, “Stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here will suffice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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010.029

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Catherine snapped a quick picture of the ritual circle Devon had devised to close the portals. It could be handy in the future given her other plans. For the moment, it had served its purpose. Magic now spent, the faint glow dimmed and was extinguished, plunging the entrance to Brakket Academy in the dark of the night.

As it should be. Her phone’s clock and the light of the sky now matched without the portals flooding daylight everywhere. She scanned the dark, starry sky—cleared of any clouds by the final blast of magic—for any hint of a leftover scar. Not a sign of the portals remained. No shimmering streaks. No slight distortions in the sky. It should be fairly easy to spot anything as the portals glowed. Against the backdrop of night, they would stand out. Later on, she could set up a camera to record the moon transit just in case. With its distinctive pattern, any distortions should be easy to spot.

For the moment, everything seemed to be winding down.

For Catherine.

Who could say how many monstrosities made their way to earth before the portal closed. Someone would need to deal with them. They would probably need to scour a fairly large area around Brakket as well. If any escaped… well, it wouldn’t be another apocalypse, but tons of people could get hurt.

Tons of people who Catherine didn’t care about in the slightest. A clear job for someone else.

As she heard the academy doors opening behind her, Catherine gave the approaching woman an appraising look.

Yes, she thought. Perhaps someone like Lynn. Or the whole of the Elysium Order. The Elysium Order specialized in things that didn’t die properly and Lynn had been working on that captured enigma for quite some time. Ylva as well, though she had been conspicuously absent for quite some time. Last Catherine had heard, Ylva had gone to visit the Elysium Order’s headquarters. Perhaps she had finally been done in by them.

Wrapped in Lynn’s arms while putting up a marginal effort to escape was the more useless of Eva’s mortal friends. Really, Catherine couldn’t fathom why Eva had her as a friend. Pity, perhaps. Though, seeing the brunette reminded Catherine that she hadn’t checked in on Irene since the end of the ritual.

She just about started heading off to find Irene when she realized that the former nun was trying to talk to her.

“What was that?”

“Is it over?” She sounded tired. Exhausted. Looked it too, with her dark hair hanging disheveled off her head. Catherine wasn’t sure what for. It wasn’t like she had done anything at the ritual site or elsewhere.

“Somewhat. Cleanup is needed. Killing enigmas and such. I expect you have it well in hand, given your research.”

“I… I haven’t actually finished a spell to kill enigmas. I’m close, but Eva took away my test subject.”

“Ah, yes. She did show up with that thing.” Catherine sighed for a moment and checked her phone. “Pity about your research. I’m sure you can find another enigma lying about,” she said with a casual wave of her hand. There were enough pieces of enigma scattered around the courtyard. Surely Lynn could scrape some up and resume her tests.

Before Catherine could walk away, the younger version of Lynn escaped from the elder’s iron grip. She stepped right up to Catherine without looking like she had been pulverized and broken in the slightest. “Do you know where Eva and Juliana are?”

“Not a clue for either. Eva isn’t on Earth. Or she’s extremely far away. For all I know, she was in those fireballs that launched towards the eye.”

The girl gasped as she looked up. Obviously there was nothing to see. Catherine tried to step away again—she really wanted to get some notes down while everything was fresh in her mind or go bother Irene—but the girl glared at her with a look befitting Eva.

“You don’t even sound concerned!”

“Should I be?” Catherine said, shifting her eyes slightly towards Lynn—who just gave her a shrug in return. Given a few of the former nun’s comments about Eva, Catherine wouldn’t be surprised to find her throwing a party upon finding out that Eva died. For herself, Eva would have been a valuable subject to repeat the treatment ritual with. Given recent plans, Catherine was slightly less concerned with that than she otherwise would be.

“As for Juliana…” She shrugged. “I don’t know why she wouldn’t be on Earth, but I am not her minder.” Catherine doubted that she would have died given who she was hosting, but that was a separate matter entirely.

Catherine tried to step away once more, yet found herself nearly walking into Lynn.

“You said that Eva appeared with my engima? Is it still around?”

“I suppose somebody should clean up the ritual circle,” Catherine said after a long sigh. And, now that she was actually thinking about it, ensuring its destruction sooner rather than later would be a good idea. Not only would it prevent others from inadvertently pulling things to this plane that were never meant to be on it, but it would keep more people from stumbling across what she intended to make her magnum opus.

Yet neither were earth mages. Leading them there would ultimately be a waste of time. For her, at least. Besides, the girl knew the way.

“Hold on for a few minutes. I’m going to get Genoa to take you out there. She can destroy the ritual circle while you collect your enigma. Also the other nun there. A certain Cole, I believe Eva said.”

“Sister Cole?”

Catherine didn’t bother humoring her, instead pulling out her phone. “Oh,” she said as she typed out a message, “tell Srey that he is free to leave once the circle is destroyed. If Saija is still out there… you can probably leave her out there. I’m sure she’ll heal someday.”

And that should be the last thing she had to take care of. At least for now. Time to go write down a few notes. With maybe a stop to check on Irene on the way.

— — —

Zoe slumped back in the couch in her office. The nurses had tried to shove her into one of the infirmary beds the moment Devon left, but they needed those beds for others. Maybe that was a bit too selfless. She was missing an arm, after all.

She stared down at her arm, half expecting it to be there yet knowing it wasn’t. It gave her a strange sensation. Like she was constantly off-balance. When she had been walking towards Devon, she felt almost certain that she was tilted to one side even though everything looked straight.

Of course, how much of that was her injury and how much of it was the cocktail of potions keeping her sensation of pain numbed, she couldn’t say. Frankly, she was surprised that she was conscious and lucid at all. Then again, maybe she wasn’t conscious or lucid and everything was a pain induced hallucination.

She shuddered at the thought that she might be hallucinating and decided that no, the bed was real. Her body was real. Her eyes were really seeing and her arm was really sitting under a stasis ward not far from the bed. Just in case it could be reattached.

It should be able to be reattached. Even mundane medicine was capable of fixing a severed limb so long as it happened within six or so hours after being severed. Unfortunately, the doctors and nurses were far too busy dealing with all the other injuries sustained to look much at her own arm. Eva’s cap was adequate enough while there were more serious things to attend to.

After ensuring that she wasn’t going to bleed out, they had dumped a few potions down her throat and went on their way.

She sighed as she stared out a window. The sky was back to normal, but she could still see security guards patrolling about. Not so long ago, she had watched them fight off an enigma as large as a bear, though it lacked the tentacles dangling off its back. Maybe it actually had been a bear.

At the ritual circle, everything had seemed so calm. Relatively, anyway. The ‘brain’ had lashed out its tentacles and Eva had fought back, but aside from that, nothing had really happened until the hunter attacked well after the ritual had ended. Well, lots of things happened, but not fights or attacks. Shalise’s incident excepted.

Spotting Shalise around the infirmary had been such a relief as well.

But outside the ritual circle, all those lightning bolts, meteors, and earthquakes hadn’t been for show. All of it had meant chaos in the city.

Luckily, it was holiday vacation. Plenty of students left to visit their families. Some did not, however. With how many people were inside the infirmary, Zoe couldn’t help but fret over what had happened. Had an enigma made it into one of the dormitory buildings? Were they having a party out on the streets or in a club?

Zoe couldn’t help but jolt as the door opened. Her hand—her only hand—tightened around her wand. Only for a moment. Her fingers relaxed as Wayne entered the room.

“How are things?” she asked before he could speak, ignoring the way his eyes darted to her arm. Talking about her arm wasn’t something she cared to do at the moment. It would either be reattached someday or she would learn to work with a prosthetic.

But Wayne didn’t respond. He crossed the office, stopping at the table to her side with… not a scowl on his face. A gentle frown. He stared down at the severed arm. His hand reached out.

Not to grab it. Zoe didn’t know why he would want to touch it. Just looking at it sent a wave of nausea through her stomach. There was something disturbing about looking at a part of herself that wasn’t a part of her.

No. His fingers never touched the stasis ward over the severed arm. He picked up her once elegant dagger, frowning deeper as part of the handle fell to the table. Glancing over, he managed to ask about a hundred questions without opening his mouth.

Zoe just sighed again. “I don’t think I can repair it this time.”

It had been damaged not too long ago. But only the handle. This time, the blade itself had been shorn in two. And not a clean cut either. The hunter’s sword connected with the edge of the blade and cut right through it to the base of the wooden handle, which had split in two. She could look over to her severed arm and see where the hunter’s blade had bit into her hand.

If she were a little less lucky, she could have wound up not with a severed arm, but with it mangled and torn to shreds. Something that would have been significantly more difficult to repair than a clean cut.

The dagger would never function as a dagger or a focus again. Not unless it were completely reforged. And if she reforged it, would it even be the same dagger? No. It would be no different from going and purchasing a new one.

“I think I’ll frame it. Put it in a thin glass case and hang it on the wall.”

“It was all we salvaged from Lansing. From your home.”

“Which is why I’ll frame it.”

“I thought this ritual was supposed to be safe,” Wayne said, dark eyes moving to stare at Zoe’s arm before looking up to her eyes.

“It was safe.” Mostly. Minus the Shalise part. She didn’t feel the need to mention that at the moment. Sometime when she was feeling better, she was certain that they would go over every detail together. “This happened afterwards. That demon hunter attacked.”

“Where is she?” Despite the calm of his voice, she could see a fire in his eyes. A different kind of fire compared to that of the Elysium Order. More of a hatred than anything magical.

“Last I saw, at the ritual site. The hunter killed Eva–”

“At least that’s one problem solved,” he grumbled, though immediately looked ashamed of himself. Mildly. More for Zoe’s sake than actually caring about Eva.

“She came back roughly fifteen minutes later,” Zoe said, to which Wayne just made a disgruntled grunt. “In the interim, I held off the hunter as best I could. She had said that she wanted to kill everyone at Brakket. I couldn’t let her walk away.” Zoe let a sorry chuckle escape from her lips as she nodded towards her arm. “My best wasn’t good enough.

“Based on the sky,” Zoe said, turning towards the window without looking at Wayne’s face, “I assume that Eva won her second fight with the hunter. She and Catherine likely fixed everything.”

“I’ll believe it when nothing happens over the next year.”

Rolling her eyes at Wayne’s grumbling, Zoe looked back to him. “How are things outside? I didn’t get much of a chance to go and look for myself.”

“Lots of injuries. One of those flaming meteors struck the Gillet,” he said, confirming Zoe’s fears. “It burrowed down to the second floor before stopping. Things crawled out not long after. Anderson made an announcement shortly before that everyone should remain indoors. Had he gathered everyone in the gym, several injuries could have been avoided.”

“Perhaps, but he couldn’t have known.”

“The people… and demons, I suppose, that he has guarding the buildings have been doing an adequate job aside from that incident.”

“That covers the students. What about the rest of the town?”

“Genoa’s mercenaries are proving that the money she spent on them did not go to waste. Or so I understand. Haven’t left Brakket’s campus myself.” He paused for just a second, glancing towards the door the instant it opened.

An ashen-faced Anderson entered the room, flaps of his undone suit billowing behind him in his haste. His eyes flicked between Zoe and Wayne for just a moment before he crossed the room. “Good,” he said as he dragged one of the chairs in front of Zoe’s desk over to the couch she was lying on. “I’ve been looking for someone who can explain to me exactly what happened. The nurse told me I might find you here.”

“Some nurses should mind their own business,” Wayne grumbled just barely loud enough for Zoe to catch it as he moved to lean on the wall next to the couch.

Anderson’s eyes flicked to the severed arm on the table for just a moment before he looked back to Zoe. He showed no disgust or revulsion at its presence. “I need to know everything.”

All so he can come up with a proper excuse for the public, Zoe thought with a slight frown. Then again, so long as he was up to it, she wouldn’t have to go in front of a camera and mention all the injures. Had there been deaths? Wayne hadn’t said. Maybe he didn’t know. Regardless, Anderson’s task was not a job that Zoe envied.

So she decided to start from the beginning, just in case he actually believed Martina’s lie about the sky being an agricultural project.

— — —

Things are winding down, it seems.

Juliana jolted at the foreign thought intruding on her stream of consciousness. That jolt just about turned the street inside out. She quickly released all holds she had on Zagan’s magic. “Don’t scare me like that,” she snapped.

But she couldn’t deny Zagan’s words. Ever since those lasers appeared in the sky, there hadn’t been any earthquakes, bolts of lightning, or any teardrop meteors. That didn’t get rid of all the enigmas already on earth. Those were slowly being cleaned up. At least none of the enigmas falling from the sky had been the demonic enigmas that left behind bits of Hell when they died.

Which raises an interesting point. Go, seek out one of the locations. See if it has vanished back to normalcy.

“The closest one is on the other side of the city.”

Is that whining coming out of your mouth?

“No,” Juliana said as fast as she could. “Merely an observation.” As she spoke, she turned and started walking. There were probably more enigmas up ahead. At the same time, there were probably more enigmas in the direction of the remnant of Hell. Which direction she chose to go hardly mattered.

“So, you’re talking again,” Juliana said as she slipped into a narrow alley off the main street. Of course two enigmas were trying to eat each other—Juliana had a feeling that they would be cleaning enigma out of the streets for months in the future—but neither posed her the slightest bit of a threat. With a single tug on Zagan’s power, their insides were their outsides. “I hope that doesn’t mean anything bad,” she said as she exited the alley.

Your usage of my power leaves much to be desired.

Despite the casual tone, Juliana couldn’t help but feel her mouth run dry.

Once you find something that works, you repeat it. Again and again and again. No variation. It is, suffice to say, less than amusing.

Juliana started biting her lip. The moment Zagan spoke, she spotted another enigma wandering down the street. She froze, staring at it.

What are you stopping for? We don’t have all night.

The undercurrent of laughter was plain in his tone.

She took hold of a tendril of his magic. Gnawing on her lip, she tried to think up another way to kill one of the monsters. It shouldn’t be that hard. Life, she had discovered, was fairly fragile when one had Zagan’s power. Since she got it, she had considered plenty of possible ways of killing enigmas or even the hunter.

At the moment, the only thing on her mind was turning the enigma inside out.

Which it promptly did.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered out. “I’ll do it differently next–”

Zagan burst into a raucous laughter before she could finish her pleas. She pinched her eyes shut, hoping that Zagan tearing himself out of her body wouldn’t hurt half as much as it sounded like it would.

Just get a move on already. Before I really do decide to go myself.

Juliana didn’t need telling twice. She sprinted down the streets, ignoring the enigmas she came across, until she reached the spot where Eva had killed the demonic enigma. There, she stopped and froze, staring with a gaping mouth.

After Eva had killed the demonic enigma, Anderson had set guards around the spot. Both Eva and her mother had described it as a dark spot. A taint upon the land. Her mother had added that it was just a little too dark, unable to be lit by any source of light. Anderson’s guards put up an enchanted glass dome to keep things from escaping easily while allowing them to see any possible interlopers. Demonic shackles surrounded the entire thing as an added layer of security.

But the glass dome had shattered. An obsidian pillar reached out, stretching high into the sky. Its smooth, glossy walls towered over the surrounding buildings. The pizza shop’s facade was the highest thing around and it didn’t even reach the halfway point of the obelisk.

“Please,” Juliana said in a slight whisper. “Please tell me this is just a harmless monument from Hell and nothing dangerous in the slightest.”

This is just a harmless monument from Hell. Nothing dangerous in the slightest.

“I think I hate you.”

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010.025

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Eva left Devon behind to finish his ritual design and to continue managing the defense of the prison. There wasn’t much to defend. Devon himself and whatever research notes he might have had lying around. Eva didn’t think that the enigmas would be too interested in a bunch of notebooks and papers, but who knew with them.

As for Eva, she didn’t think that she had left anything irreplaceable around. Most important things were over at the dormitory. Which, if she was being honest, was probably under attack as well. Brakket Security should be able to deal with enigmas. With the help of the teachers, students, and the demons who Eva hadn’t recruited, they should be fine.

Still, it was a good thing that there wasn’t much here. Her women’s ward had been half demolished. Presumably by enigmas. Eva didn’t know how that had happened, but it had explained why she had returned to the mortal realm outside the walls of the prison to find her beacon shoved down an enigma’s throat.

There was always the chance that the dormitory wasn’t under attack. The enigmas’ interest in her prison might be more an interest in her prisoner than anything else, or so Devon had suggested.

Eva threw open the door to the cell block and walked straight into a mass of violet blood and organs.

The demonic enigma that they had originally captured had been strapped to a table within its cell. A bar, perhaps cut from another cell door, held open its ribcage. Almost every organ had been removed from the cavity. Most were scattered around the room on various tables. An eye and a tongue each had their own jars.

Walking into the cell and around to its head, Eva nudged it with a finger. It didn’t react. Not even a little twitch.

Shooting a glance to the nun following behind her, Eva said, “I would have expected this from Sawyer. Not you.”

Lynn Cross glared at Eva without the slightest hint of shame. “These things have something to do with necromantic magic. I’ve seen enough necromancers while they work.”

“Is this one of those ‘he who fights monsters’ and ‘if you gaze into the abyss’ things?”

“I am not turning into a necromancer,” she said as her eyes briefly filled with white fire. After making sure that Eva had been good and glared at for a few seconds, a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “I’m going to kill them. Permanently.”

That made Eva raise an eyebrow. From what she saw of Sawyer, he had tried and failed to kill one. Though, admittedly, she didn’t know how hard he had tried. But Ylva had failed as well. Lynn had much better motivation to find a proper way to kill them than Sawyer—simply on account of her not being an omnicidal jerk—but if a mini god of Death couldn’t manage, how could she?

“You’ve found a way then?” Eva said, asking despite her disbelief.

“Well, no.” Her shoulders drooped for just a moment before her confidence returned. “But I’m close. I can feel it. This one is the key,” she said, tapping the operating table with a latex gloved finger.

Which was another difference between her and Sawyer. She actually had proper standards for hygiene. Eva knew without a doubt that she could watch Lynn all day and she would never drop chunks of rotten flesh into her macaroni noodles and then eat them.

“Unfortunately, I need this one. And I can’t let you kill it. I need it alive.”

Thankfully, it was still alive. Even torn apart as it was, Eva could see its heart beating outside its chest. She didn’t even need her sense of blood. Her own eyes were enough.

“But I’m so close. With the proper applications of necromancy combined with holy magic, and maybe a tiny hint of demonic corruption, I should be able to kill these things to the point where we can bury them in a deep hole and never have to worry about them again. Their bodies will decompose properly.”

“And that’s great. You keep working on that. Just do it without this particular one.” Eva thumbed over her shoulder to the wall. “Summoning works again. I think. Devon should be able to summon you a demon you can feed to those things in the other room. But if I don’t take this one, we’re going to have problems a whole lot more serious than a few dozen enigmas that we have to imprison for eternity.”

Lynn just about protested again. Eva held up a hand to stall her. Arguing further was pointless. So she swallowed her sigh and put on a somber expression.

“Besides, Lynn, you should be with Shalise.”

All traces of good humor vanished from the nun’s face. Her countenance became stone-like and ridged. “Shalise?”

“She’s in the Brakket infirmary. When everything started, she was injured. It was–”

A gust of icy wind nearly knocked Eva off her feet. She hadn’t even finished her explanation before Lynn disappeared. Which was roughly what she had expected. Unfortunately, Lynn would likely find out that Shalise had been with Eva when she got injured. In fact, Eva had asked her to come to the ritual in the first place. Eva hadn’t wanted to bring the subject up, but time was short. Later on, Lynn would probably come after her with a vengeance.

Oh well. She would deal with it when it came.

Turning back to the demonic enigma, Eva frowned. She needed it. Probably more of it than an empty shell of skin at that. Some gashes in the crown of its skull had probably been made by Lynn. If Eva hadn’t arrived, she might have tried taking out its brain as well.

With light steps around the room, she plucked a stomach off a table. Eva hadn’t ever held a stomach on its own despite having cut open a number of people in the past. Her form of magic focused on blood. Hearts were really the only relevant organ in that regard. The few rituals that involved bone marrow never really appealed to her.

That presented a slight problem. She hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about putting the body back together. Trying to mentally put the organs back into place like a puzzle using her own internals as a template didn’t quite work out. There were lungs, but they had several connectors that she didn’t have. It wasn’t human.

Shrugging, Eva just dropped the stomach into the chest. She moved around to pick up one of the lungs and dropped it in as well. The other lung flew over her shoulder and into the cavity as she moved on to the heart. Being a special organ to her, Eva stared at it for a few moments.

It looked just like a human heart. For her, that would be easy to reconnect.

But was there really a need?

Eventually, she shrugged again and just dropped it in.

Around the room, Eva continued tossing everything like the body was a cauldron and she needed to make a stew. Teeth, a gallbladder, a regular bladder, the kidneys, more teeth stored separately for some reason, a uterus, several feet of intestine, and so on until she finally reached the jars with the eye and the tongue.

Jars in hand, she turned around and stared at the mound of organs. It all wasn’t quite fitting in properly. Eva took a moment to shove the organs around. She tucked the organs in as best as she was able, pressing them down into the waist and up near the neck as far as they would go. It wasn’t perfect, but close enough.

She dropped the eyes and tongue into the chest, jars and all.

Curling her fingers around the metal pipe holding the ribcage open, Eva yanked it, watching as the bone snapped shut like the jaws of life.

The body didn’t heal. Neither did it wake—for which Eva was grateful; she didn’t want to carry it around while it was trying to attack her or escape. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure if the chest would stay shut despite the force with which it closed. Eva planned to put the body through the works.

It might not hold.

Reaching out her hand, Eva dragged the tip of her finger from the start of its autopsy cut at its navel to the mid-point of its chest. From there, the incision split into a ‘Y’ shape. Rather than use her other hand or make two passes, her hand simply stretched and extended.

A trail of blood flowed from her fingers. Black crystalline blood sealed the gap in the enigma’s chest as Eva hardened it.

She didn’t actually have fingers anymore. Not as far as she could tell, and Eva could tell pretty far. Her sense of blood showed absolutely nothing but blood roughly an inch below her elbow. The same was true for her legs, though at a much higher point around her hips.

Arachne had been destroyed so thoroughly that Eva had been willing to do anything to help bring her back. For the past two years, she had been carrying around a decently sized chunk of Arachne every day. Eva had given up her arms and legs without complaint or hesitation.

She hadn’t known that she would be receiving new even better limbs in return. Void never mentioned anything like that while they were speaking.

Or perhaps Void hadn’t done anything. Her skin wasn’t like an amputee’s arm where it wrapped around the wound. Both legs and arms were open wounds, as if she had taken a razor-sharp blade and sliced straight through them only moments ago. For all she knew, she had been bleeding out everywhere yet subconsciously holding it together using her innate ability to control demonic blood.

It was just how she had woken up.

Regardless of how it had happened, it worked perfectly for now. If she needed her fingers hard and rigid, she could make her fingers hard and rigid. If she needed to split her hand in two to reach two sides of the demonic enigma’s chest, she could split her hand in two.

In fact, she didn’t even need to have hands. If the situation called for it, she could have tentacles just like Devon had on his one arm.

There had to be some odd demonic magic going on similar to what had happened during the ritual or in the past while fighting the armored hunter. Her bloody limbs could stretch out and expand for quite a distance while increasing their concentration of blood so that they didn’t thin out. But blood generation had been happening around her before ‘dying.’ It wasn’t anything Void had done. At least not recently. That one time when her treatment ritual had been interrupted with a Hell portal might have had something to do with it, but that was entirely unrelated to giving up Arachne’s limbs.

It had her slightly worried that her limbs were going to disappear after the current high-stress situation ended. But she could deal with that when it happened.

For now, she needed to get back to the ritual circle before anything bad happened. The hunter was still there. Probably the nun as well. Though Eva hadn’t seen the latter fight before she had died. Maybe she had been hit by a lightning bolt as well and didn’t take to it as well as the hunter had.

Whatever the case, Eva grabbed hold of the freshly sealed up enigma, slung it over her shoulder, built up her magic, and teleported straight to the gate circle in the Rickenbacker. The burning squeezing tube of nightmares and flesh didn’t bother Eva in the slightest anymore. Her temporary companion on the other hand… well, there was a reason she had sealed up the wound.

The once smooth flesh of the enigma sizzled and smoked as they emerged from the teleport. All its fur had burnt off completely. But it was otherwise whole. And that was all that mattered. Eva threw open the window in her dormitory room. The hallways might have students or security and Eva didn’t care to meet either, so she jumped out from the window with the enigma slung over her shoulder.

And just about landed on another enigma gnawing on the brickwork.

A wave of her hand encased it in blood. A snap of her fingers—she could snap again!—destroyed the thing enough that it wouldn’t be a problem in the near future.

With that finished, she started running.

A part of her wanted to stop by the infirmary and ensure that everyone was alright. There just wasn’t any time. Zoe and Catherine, and the others, were still at the ritual circle with that insane hunter. Besides, Lynn was at the infirmary. Eva didn’t exactly want to die again before her job was finished.

She jumped to the roof just to avoid all possibility of running into Lynn. Normally, it would have been somewhat difficult with someone slung over one shoulder. Maybe a shorter wall like the one at the prison, but Brakket Academy was a two-story building for most of the way around—three story at the far end.

But Eva could cheat. Her right arm was looped around the enigma twice over, locking it in place. At the peak of her jump, she stretched out her left arm until she grabbed the edge of the roof. From there, it was as simple as reeling herself in while walking up the wall.

Jumping down into the Infinite Courtyard on the other side of the wall was actually more complicated. She had noticed while jumping from the wall at her prison that her legs nearly gave out beneath her. Whatever they were, they were not Arachne’s legs. If she jumped from the top, she would probably splat on the ground and have to rebuild her legs. Except if they got too contaminated by dirt, she wouldn’t be able to control the blood any longer.

So Eva wrapped her left arm around the lip of the roof and simply rappelled down.

She took off running through the snow. Which was another uncomfortable part of her new body. The cold never agreed with her. It never had, and she doubted that it ever would. Now more than ever, she could feel her legs freezing over just from contact with the snow. It took an expenditure of magic and concentration to cast some warming spells around her body. None of which held together all that well on her liquid feet. The spells just slid off.

Magic resistance? Eva didn’t know. Void hadn’t exactly handed her an instruction manual—if it was his doing and not her own blood magic.

Halfway to the ritual circle, Eva stopped. She could sense Lucy nearby, but not far enough to actually be at the site. And there was something else.

Eva shifted slightly and started to run again. Tree after tree whizzed past Eva as she nearly flew towards the feeling. As she closed the distance, she started to hear something squelching. A grinding twisting writhing of wet limbs slapping against wet limbs.

“Lucy!” Eva shouted out as she skidded to a stop between two trees.

A mass of tentacles fought against another mass of tentacles. Teeth, eyeballs, and tentacles as thick as trees crashed against the much smoother more thread-like tentacles of Lucy. Neither was giving up ground. Lucy’s tentacles squeezed and crushed, destroying the thicker tentacles.

But the thicker tentacles were winning. Their mouths chewed off the thinner tentacles in droves.

Eva dropped the enigma without worrying about the possibility of giving it brain damage and rushed forwards. She snapped out an arm of blood, coating the larger tentacles as best she could with the liquid. In some places, she hardened it, in others, she stretched it. All in the name of separating the two monsters.

Only, as she continued, she realized something.

There was only one being before her.

Lucy’s tentacles merged into the larger trunk-like tentacles, and the larger tentacles were all connected to the bulk of Lucy’s mass. They were spreading.

Eva didn’t hesitate. She snapped her fingers together, detonating the tentacles she had covered at their base, as close to Lucy’s natural tentacles as possible.

As the viscera careened through the air, she spotted it. A little worm-like leech identical to the one that had been left behind after she had been shoved by the hunter’s massive arm.

Eva jumped after it, reaching out her arms to grab hold of it before it could escape and cause more harm. The blood that touched it hardened, forming into a solid sphere of blood. It had escaped from her initial detonation of Lucy’s limbs, but it wouldn’t escape now. The other one had died and so would this one.

Snapping her fingers, Eva turned back to Lucy. “Are you alrigh–”

A hole in the bloody snow opened wide. The half of the mass that was Lucy fell within, traveling down to Hell. Only a few bits and pieces remained, most of which were larger chunks of the corrupted portion of her body.

Eva stared for just a moment, feeling a sinking in her chest as she stared at the spot where the portal had disappeared. Somehow, she didn’t think that Lucy would be so lucky as to be sent back by Void as fast as it had sent her back.

Shaking her head, Eva got a move on. She couldn’t sit around moping all day unless she wanted to say goodbye to all of her friends like that. As she walked back to the demonic enigma, she coated each of the scattered chunks of corrupted flesh with blood. She didn’t exactly have time to deal with it all, but at the same time, she probably wouldn’t find this exact spot of land again. Leaving any sizable chunks behind could allow Life to do who knew what.

Snapping her fingers as she scooped up the enigma, Eva took one last look around the blood-splattered trees before taking off running once again. It hadn’t lasted long, but stopping even for a short time could cost her.

Eva reached the ritual circle before long and stopped right at the edge, staring.

There weren’t many left. Srey looked mostly unharmed as he stood next to the brain. Saija, not so much. She was collapsed in a heap towards the far end. Life—or the hunter—hadn’t corrupted her with the little worm thing and she wasn’t being pulled into a Hell portal, but she wasn’t moving either.

Aside from them, it was just Catherine and Zoe.

Eva’s eyes widened as she looked at Zoe. Her teeth ground together as she narrowed her eyes.

One of Zoe’s hands, blackened and scarred with red streaks up to her elbow, clutched tight against her other arm just below the shoulder.

She didn’t have much below that. The mangled remains of her arm littered the ground not far from where she had collapsed to her knees. Her little silver dagger was split in two, along with several of that arm’s severed fingers.

Catherine held the full attention of the hunter, dancing backwards in her full demonic form while avoiding strike after strike from the enraged hunter. But she didn’t hold the hunter’s attention for long. A sharp shift in her dance forced the hunter’s gaze to cross over Eva.

A swing from the hunter’s sword died as she stared. “No, no, no, no no no no! NO! I KILLED YOU!

Eva chucked the enigma’s body to the ground, once again not caring for its health in the slightest. Her fists clenched and unclenched as she strode forward, eyes flicking between Zoe and the hunter.

A wound like that could easily cause her to bleed out in minutes. She needed to get close enough to stop the bleeding. A cap of blood over the arm should work temporarily. Maybe shoving some of her demon blood up Zoe’s arm could help replenish some of that which she had lost. Demon limbs could be grafted to humans, so why not blood.

But the hunter was already charging at Eva.

She wished that Catherine could have waited an extra minute before shifting the hunter’s attention. But watching the succubus—a demon that personified beauty and grace—heave and pant for breath now that the hunter was leaving her alone… she might not have been able to dance for much longer.

Eva needed to get close enough to Zoe, just long enough to drop off a little blood. Then she needed to escape before the hunter decided to strike at another, far easier target.

“You’re going to have to try harder than that,” Eva shouted back to the charging hunter. “But first… Kneel.

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