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.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.025

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.005

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva popped into the gate room of the women’s ward. As Arachne hopped off her and grew back to her full height, Eva pulled out her cellphone and sent Zoe a message stating that she had put out the fires and was taking a rest at the prison.

Not entirely true, but not a lie either.

At least it would keep her from worrying when Eva didn’t end up at the apartments.

Heading out of the gate room and into her own room, Eva added a fresh bit of blood to her warding scheme. It was somewhat annoying that she had to do so. Eva had cleaned out a handful of people in the recent months—Zagan, Lynn, and half of Juliana’s family to name a few. That she was readding one of those people so soon was just a little irksome.

But things were strange. If someone who had been looking into the enigmas more than anyone else around wanted to be her friend at the moment, Eva couldn’t really deny them.

Devon didn’t care about enigmas. Especially not with his new wind on Catherine’s ritual circle—though that had hit a small snag with how decimated the demon population was at the moment. Catherine was quite picky in just who was allowed in her ritual. She kept flip-flopping over having Arachne because of her dubious demonic origins. Lucy was still out of sorts and not in any shape to participate in a ritual.

Which just left Devon’s carnivean.

To the best of Eva’s knowledge, Anderson hadn’t summoned any demons and neither had anyone else. Being able to feel demons now-a-days took a lot of guesswork out of figuring out how many demons were around.

Devon and Catherine had been planning to summon a demon. They had actually tried but wound up getting a few enigmas instead. Four separate tries ended up with them summoning nothing but enigmas. Whether that was because of the specific demons they had tried or because Hell was once again being infested with enigmas, Eva couldn’t say. And neither could they.

In regards to Catherine and Devon, the last Eva heard, they were holding off for a time before trying again.

Arms crossed in front of her chest, Eva plopped down on the couch in the common room. Lynn had said that she would be along in five minutes.

It was nearing ten.

“You shouldn’t trust her,” Arachne said as she sunk into the couch next to Eva.

Just as Eva was starting to grow impatient.

“I know. If she lies about the time to get here,” Eva said with only a slight sarcastic tone in her voice, “who knows what else she is lying about.”

“She tried to kill you. Multiple times. She will try again.”

“Probably.” Eva frowned, dropping the sarcasm in favor of a more serious tone. “The enigmas threaten life as we know it. Void, by your account, is merely bored. Potentially troublesome, but not the all-consuming horror that Nel described Life’s plane of existence as. Something that no one wants Earth to end up as.”

“You’re putting your hopes on the notion that a human will set aside their emotions because of a possible apocalypse.” Arachne paused, shifting in her seat ever so slightly closer to Eva. “In my admittedly limited experience with humans, a stressful situation will only agitate her feelings. She’ll look for an opportunity to stab you in the back. Possibly literally.”

Eva shrugged. “I’ve survived all of her attacks so far. Fought back quite decisively, as well. Sawyer’s sneak attacks have always been worse and I’ve survived all of them as well. And have come out stronger, if I may say so myself.”

Looking up at Arachne, Eva added, “I didn’t have you during any of those encounters. Circumstances always conspired against us being together. If I can help it, we won’t be separated again. Not in school or outside of it.”

Arachne stilled before a small smile grew on her face. “I appreciate that.”

“Now,” Eva said as she clapped her hands together. She didn’t clap to cause any explosions, merely for punctuation as she changed topics. “Is that woman ever going to show up?”

The moment the words were out of her mouth, Eva felt a circulatory system enter her range. She watched as it approached the front door of her women’s ward. With her real eyes, she watched a tentacle reach around the side of the door as it pushed inwards. Devon’s scraggly beard poked around next.

The rest of him soon followed.

“Good,” he said with a gravely voice, “you’re back. The carnivean mentioned feeling a demon. I was hoping it was you.”

“Did you need something?”

“The week before your school restarts, we’ll be performing both your ritual as well as Catherine’s.”

Eva nodded along. Depending on which end of the week Devon would go for, that was anywhere from three weeks away to a full month.

But he didn’t continue along. Devon started to leave.

“We still need three demons for both of us right? Arachne, Catherine and the carnivean for me, but who all for Catherine?”

“If we are unable to summon any proper demons, Arachne and you will have to suffice.”

“Me? I’m not even a full demon.”

Devon rolled his eyes. “We know,” he said with a scoff. “You’re close enough—especially after your next treatment—that it shouldn’t matter. In fact, Catherine has changed from apprehensive to excited about the prospect of having you in its circle. You represent an unknown. Something that no demon apart from yourself possesses.”

“How flattering.”

“We would still prefer a proper demon.”

“I’m sure you would.” Frankly, Eva would as well. None of the demons looked like they had been in much pain during her ritual the other month, but they were much better at hiding things like that than she was. “Was there anything else?”

His tentacle reached up, scratching through his beard. He was lucky that it wasn’t a slimy tentacle. Lucy had a constant sheen covering her face and hair while in her human form. The thin slime wasn’t too noticeable other than looking like she was sweating constantly, but that was her entire body. Just an arm would mean Devon’s face would get coated in goop every time he touched his beard.

“Can’t think of anything prominent. Don’t die. You’re almost done.”

“I’ll try not to,” Eva said, voice flat. “Not really something I’m planning—”

Eva cut herself off, standing up as Lynn Cross popped into the gate room. Just because they had parted without fighting did not mean that Eva was willing to let her wander freely around her home. Arachne was right, she could be stabbed in the back at any time.

Though, in Eva’s opinion, it would be foolishness in the extreme to attack her in the middle of her home. Lynn knew that she was a blood mage. Eva had to gather a vial of Lynn’s blood before she could enter the women’s ward. If Lynn thought to attack, Eva could instantly turn the tables on her.

And Lynn had to know that fact.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Eva said to Devon, “I’ve an operation to perform.”

Devon raised an eyebrow, eyes shifting to the gate room door as Lynn stepped into the main room.

“A guest?” His eyes narrowed as he looked Lynn up and down. “A demon?”

“Worse. A nun.”

Devon took a step back, instantly on guard. His thumb idly ran over the rings of his human hand.

Though Eva had been joking, a nun was probably much worse than a demon to him. Demons could be dominated. In fact, demons were the best case scenario for Devon. Humans, vampires, and anything else couldn’t be handled by turning them to his side.

“Calm down. I’m expecting her. Or rather, I’ve been expecting her.” Eva turned to face Lynn, putting a frown on her face. “I was excepting her a good ten to fifteen minutes ago.”

“I took a moment to check around the camp, looking for anything to salvage.”

“Find anything?”

“Not what I was looking for.”

Eva shrugged. Unless it was some anti-demon or enigma weapon, Eva really didn’t care what she had been looking for.

“Very well,” she said, turning back to Devon. “Like I said, nothing to worry about. Just have to chop some arms off.”

“You ask me not to worry and then you say things like that,” he said, shaking his head. “Whatever. Do what you want. Just keep her away from me.”

Not having moved far from the door, Devon quickly moved back to it and started to leave. “And don’t get killed either,” he said before slamming the door behind him.

“Aww, he really does care,” Eva said with a roll of her eyes.

“Charming,” Lynn said. Her voice came out toneless and without any humor.

“You know, every single person I’ve talked to who isn’t named Shalise thinks that you’re going to kill me at the first possible opportunity. Or try to, at least. Even then, Shalise didn’t sound too certain of herself. It probably says something terrible about your personality.”

“I could make do without your taunts.”

“Not a taunt. Merely a comment.” Eva waved a hand around the room. “Take a seat,” she said as she made her way towards the potions room.

Arachne and Lynn glowered at each other, somewhat dancing around each other as Lynn moved towards the couch and Arachne towards the potions room door. Eventually, with a gesture of her arm, Lynn allowed Arachne to pass by, taking a seat as soon as the way was clear.

Leaving the door open as Eva started rummaging through the cabinet, she turned her head over her shoulder to call out to Lynn. “I have to say, I’ve somewhat neglected my potions upkeep. I can’t even remember the last time I brewed any. These are all at least six months old. Most older than that. Half of these ‘beneficial’ potions are probably more poison these days.”

Lynn’s voice echoed out from the common room, derision plain in her tone. “The more you speak, the more I consider taking my chances as is. Or doing it myself.”

Despite her words, she remained seated in the common room.

Eva pulled out one certain vial from the cupboard. A muted brown color potion. Not really what it was supposed to look like, but uncapping the top and sniffing at it, Eva didn’t find anything really wrong with the light citrus scent. It probably wouldn’t kill her.

It might not work as intended, but at least she tried.

“Here,” Eva said, tossing the vial to Lynn. “Same thing I took when I amputated my legs. It should make your entire body numb for a few hours. Though I did have to take about twenty vials of it, but potions don’t work too well on me.”

Lynn caught the vial out of the air, frowning at the color as she performed the same smell test that Eva did. Unlike Eva, she wrinkled her nose, pushing the vial away from her face. She opened her mouth.

For a moment, Eva thought that she was going to complain.

Lynn brought the vial to her lips and tipped it all back in a single swig.

She shuddered as her face twisted into disgust. The disgust quickly vanished as her face regained a neutral expression.

“Well, it works on my tongue at least.”

Eva waited, watching as the nun went slack-jawed.

“And rest of my body,” she slurred after a moment.

“Excellent. Let’s get to work.”

Eva drew her dagger as Lynn started removing her shirt.

The purple blotches on her arm reached just below her shoulder—luckily for Lynn, it would be much harder to remove the corruption if it had spread onto her chest. Eva couldn’t tell that anything was odd. As far as her blood was concerned, everything was normal.

The blotches cut off below her shoulder with a sharp line. Slightly curved.

“This is where the moonlight cut off,” Lynn started, slightly slurring her words as she traced the sharp line. “I moved my arm into the light before stepping fully into it. Obviously, I didn’t follow through with the remainder of the ritual.”

“If you had finished, would the corruption have been pulled away?” Eva mused as she cut a thin line into Lynn’s arm. “Perhaps it was only temporary.”

Lynn had abjectly refused to allow demon blood anywhere near her. Even after explaining that human blood wasn’t half a strong, she hadn’t agreed.

So if it wasn’t a clean cut, it wouldn’t be Eva’s fault.

“That wasn’t something I could chance. Not with Shalise sleeping a tent over. If something had happened… if I had turned into an enigma or otherwise lost my mind…”

“Probably good that you didn’t.”

Standing away from Lynn, Eva clapped her hands together right away.

The blood dripping out of the wound Eva had cut flashed white. When the spots died out from Eva’s eyes, Lynn’s arm was lying at her side, looking a whole lot more like mutilated beef than Eva had intended. However, Lynn herself didn’t look too bad.

Eva did let out a small groan as she hardened the blood around Lynn’s stump. “I should have had you move.”

Glancing down at the bleeding limb on the couch, she gave a half-smile. “Your loss,” Lynn said. “I feel…”

Whatever she was going to say, she didn’t make it. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she fell over to the side.

Eva shifted her mask around, molding the blood over her hair to give her a smooth and solid skullcap.

Arachne wasn’t with her. She was far too recognizable for what Eva intended to do. Even Eva’s mask could be recognized by anyone who went to the Elysium Order’s cathedral. Both Zoe and Wayne as well as the nuns.

Though Eva hoped she wouldn’t be running into one of them anytime soon.

Serena could recognize it as well, but Eva hadn’t seen the vampire in forever. She had left a note stating that she was going home. After that, Wayne had disappeared for a few days before returning alone. Presumably she was fine.

Eva had been somewhat put off by the simple note as a farewell. They had a somewhat awkward situation when she had lost control after teleporting, but Eva hadn’t held it against her. It was Eva’s fault for teleporting her, if anything.

But that was all in the past. Focusing on the present, Eva had to ensure that she wouldn’t be easily recognized. She had bought an entirely new outfit specifically for tonight. Normally, Eva wore skirts and tee-shirts. She hadn’t worn shoes since her inhuman nature had been revealed to the school population.

Today, she had a long pair of suit pants with a dark button-up shirt.

And her mask.

Sitting in front of a well-lit mirror, Eva stared at herself with a frown. The mask on her face turned to a frown as well. It took a bit of practice to mimic her expressions on the mask. It wasn’t perfect. Anyone who looked too closely would realize that her mask didn’t move quite like a real face would.

But it was close enough.

“Now,” Eva said as she looked out at the array of chemicals on the desk in front of the mirror. “How do I do this?”

Reaching out, she picked up a circular container of powder that roughly matched her skin tone. Setting it down, she took hold of a jar of thicker goop. As with the powder, it matched her skin.

But Eva had no idea how to use it.

Having lived on her own since she was younger, Eva had never really gotten into makeup. People at her old school used it. Eva only rarely spoke with them. Her attending middle school had been solely to avoid any trouble involving the law coming after her for truancy that, in retrospect, had probably been wholly unnecessary.

It wasn’t like she was registered to live at the abandoned hospital.

None of her limited experience with others in school had led to an interest in makeup.

With a groan, Eva started slathering the goop over her semi-solid mask. The surface of her mask was hard enough that the makeup didn’t soak into it. Which was good for her control over the blood. If the blood became too contaminated, she would lose control and her mask would become a solid masquerade mask.

Unfortunately, the goop didn’t mesh into the mask the same way that it did with skin. Eva had to make the mask slightly porous to get it spread smoothly. There were still ridges and clumps of thicker makeup, but Eva managed to get it smoothed out for the most part.

Grabbing a brush and the powder, Eva brushed some up on her face. She had no idea what she was doing, but she was trying to give some definition to the smooth, plastic-like texture of the goop.

A bit of lipstick gave some color to her lips.

“Whatever,” Eva said with a shake of her head. It didn’t need to be perfect. It just needed to make her not look like her and not look like hardened demon blood. The makeup definitely accomplished both tasks. It didn’t really make her look like a human though.

Reaching to the side of the mirror, Eva picked up a short blond wig. Enough to cover the rest of her head that didn’t have makeup over it. It took a bit of molding of her mask to get it to stay on and not slip off, but eventually she managed.

Finally, Eva reached towards a small container. The large, full-eye contacts that Devon had gifted her long ago before she had lost her original eyes. She could have worn them earlier, but after missing eyes completely and going with the blindfold for so long, suddenly having eyes would have been strange.

And they were a nightmare to insert and remove.

She should have done so before putting on her mask, but it was easy enough to detach from the rest of her face without ruining the makeup. Not that it could really look any worse.

Eva had to pull down the lip of her eye as she slipped the edge of the contact under her eyelid. Pressing it into place, there was a bit of an air bubble on the inside. Nothing painful, but her eye would dry out if left too long.

She wasn’t planning on taking too long tonight.

“I look like a doll,” Eva said after she inserted her second contact and replaced her mask. “A doll that was left in the oven for too long.”

Whatever she looked like didn’t matter. She wasn’t planning on interacting with anyone. Her disguise only needed to function from afar. And on anyone watching on any security cameras.

Preparations complete, Eva turned to the window and blinked out onto a roof near her motel. A few quick blinks later and Eva found herself at her ultimate destination.

A hospital.

Not an extraordinary hospital by any means. Even for mages. With a simple red cross and large glass windows, Eva wouldn’t have been able to pick it out from a lineup of other hospitals.

The only thing that set this one apart was a certain patient on the third floor.

Having scoped out the building beforehand, Eva knew exactly which room to go to. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to blink straight into the room. The curtains were closed. They had been earlier in the day as well. While she could blink into the hallway, that would be too revealing. Security cameras would suddenly see her. Even if she blinked to a blind spot, it would still be suspicious to show up on one camera but not the ones before. Not enough people could blink, doing so would narrow suspects.

So Eva walked in through a main door—not the front door, but not quite a side door either. There was a small lobby and it was still within visiting hours, so nothing should be too suspicious. Eva didn’t stop by the counter, but she did give a nod towards the attendant.

Nothing odd about that. People came in to visit all the time. So long as she acted like she knew where she was going and like she was supposed to be there, no one would look twice at her.

Even with her hideous face.

With her blood sight, Eva moved up towards the third floor without meeting anyone. It was easy to avoid them when she could see through walls.

She had to wait in the stairwell for a few moments before entering the third floor hallway. Just long enough to avoid someone walking from one of the rooms to the elevator.

She couldn’t avoid the security cameras, but no one would be staring at them until later.

If ever.

Hopefully.

Once the coast was clear, she headed into the hallway and made her way to the room.

“Hello, Martina Turner,” Eva said as she shut the door behind her.

The body of Martina Turner sat in her bed. Eyes closed, she gave no indication that she had heard anything. The only noise in the whole room was a steady beep of an electrocardiogram machine.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d respond. I truly don’t want to kill you.”

Eva walked over to the side of her bed, leaning against it. She had been hoping that there would be some reaction to her words. Even a slight heart rate increase. Something to indicate that someone was home.

“But from the looks of things,” Eva said as she pulled out her dagger, “you’re already dead. Your body just doesn’t know it yet.”

An incision of any size would be far too obvious. But all she needed was a pinprick. Removing the intravenous needle, Eva pressed her dagger to the tiny hole. She widened the hole as soon as the first bit of blood came under her control. Not much. Just enough to get a bit more blood under her spell.

As the blood coursed through the husk of Martina Turner, Eva replaced the needle. She took care to insert it exactly where it had come from.

The blood reached her heart and Eva froze it solid, blocking off a ventricle.

The electrocardiogram machine started beeping, making a great deal of noise. Eva took her leave immediately, not wanting to get caught behind.

She slipped into the stairwell just as the nurses and doctors raced down the hall towards Martina’s room.

Feeling somewhat disgusted with herself, Eva stayed behind just long enough to ensure that the doctors had stopped trying. Once they had, Eva turned the blood in Martina’s heart back to liquid before making her way out of the building.

A nearby alley had a duffel bag full of far more regular clothes. Eva removed her mask, stripped, changed, and placed her disguise clothing and wig into the shell of the mask.

With a clap of her hands, nothing was left. Wig, clothes, makeup, and duffel bag all vanished into oblivion.

Building up her magic, Eva teleported straight back to the women’s ward.

“It’s done,” Eva said, stepping into the common room.

Catherine looked up, eyes blazing red in her full demonic form. “I know. Thank you for that. I don’t pretend to care about whatever emotions you might have felt, but I know that our favors weren’t binding in the slightest. I appreciate you following through.”

“I don’t appreciate being asked.” Taking a deep breath, Eva shook her head. “But what is done is now done. What is next for you?”

“I think a position as the secretary for Brakket Academy has just opened up. I’ll be spending my time with Devon, researching. We’re so close. I can almost taste it.”

“Well, I hope that works out for you. You’re free to stay here if you want. Or pick a building. Plenty to go around. We don’t get electricity or internet out here though.”

“No time for games. Maybe after this ritual, there will be time for such things.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Both of our rituals, that is.” Forcing a yawn, Eva headed towards her room. “I’m going to turn in for the night.”

Leaving the succubus, Eva tore off her clothes and crawled into bed. She had promised herself that she wouldn’t ‘play the victim’ after killing Martina. Not even within the confines of her own mind. Self-pity, especially over something she did intentionally and with full knowledge of what she was doing, did not become her.

And yet, she had never killed anyone she had known before. Sawyer not withstanding. Technically, he had killed himself. Or just died on his own. No one she had spoken to for more than a few instants. No one she cared about—even as little as she cared for Martina.

It left a weight in her chest. One she had trouble discerning the true cause of.

Eva found herself not getting her usual amount of sleep.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.004

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

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

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

She almost immediately wished that she hadn’t.

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

One of the enigmas.

Zoe didn’t know where it had come from.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a good portion of the enigma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has anyone visited your camp lately?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vacation?” Shalise snorted. “Hardly.”

“Well, you got out of schoolwork.”

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

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

“But Lynn–”

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

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

“She… means well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even if we wish she wouldn’t.”

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have I ever called you a monster?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it must be stopped.”

“Agreed.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re willing to take that chance?”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.032

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Eva smiled as she leaned back, enjoying the warm rays of the sun.

It was a nice day out. A nice blue sky with a few clouds, just enough to provide the occasional spot of shade. There wasn’t much wind, not even a light breeze. Eva wasn’t complaining. It wasn’t hot enough in early April to need a breeze and the lack of wind kept her long hair from flailing about.

The only things truly off about the day were the violet streaks that hung overhead. They were almost invisible against the blue hues of the sky, so much so that some people around Brakket Academy might not have noticed if no one pointed it out.

Despite being aware of them, Shalise didn’t appear to care in the slightest. She basked in the sun with a dopey smile on her face.

She had dragged out a set of chairs for the two of them. Shalise did not want to spend more time inside the women’s ward, even if this one was in a completely different plane of existence. It was too much like a real prison, rather than the home that Eva had intended it to be.

While she could see where Shalise was coming from, Eva quite liked the prison. It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing thing around, but it felt secure.

At least, it was supposed to feel secure.

Eva tensed as she noticed a human circulatory system approaching, her hand slowly reached for her dagger at her back. She only had a scant few vials of Arachne’s blood left to fight with and would have to make do with her own should that be consumed.

But Eva did not make any overtly offensive moves. Everything was ready to strike, but only out of sight. She was desperately hoping that she wouldn’t have to fight anyone at the moment.

“Hello, Lynn Cross,” Eva said to the approaching person. She kept her smile on her face and her tone of voice as polite as possible.

Not having Arachne around had her feeling far from secure.

So many people that Eva trusted were just gone. First Juliana–Genoa by extension–and Arachne. Even Ylva was no longer at the prison. Serena wasn’t around, she had been far too afraid to get close to Ylva. Now that Ylva was gone, maybe she could be convinced to stop by. But for the moment, no one was around.

Counting it up like that, it did not sound like all that many people. But felt like half of everyone she knew.

Upon hearing her name, Lynn shot a death glare at Eva. Her eyes narrowed to slits as her lips curled back in an expression of pure disgust. As she had done every time they accidentally found themselves in one another’s presence over the past four days.

Eva was fairly certain that she had Shalise to thank for Lynn not trying to murder her the moment they had got out of Hell. So at least she could count on Shalise being a good person and having her back.

Though her friend had definitely gained an increased respect for Lynn. Perhaps even adoration.

Shalise perked up upon hearing Eva’s voice. A wide smile spread across her face.

“Lynn?” came Shalise’s hoarse voice. Ever since the ritual, she had a slight rasp in every word. It probably hurt to talk as well; she hadn’t been talking all that much. When she did talk, she kept her responses short and to the point.

Eva kept her polite smile even as Shalise jumped up from her chair. She watched as her friend bounced on her feet as to cross the distance to the former nun.

Lynn’s harsh expression melted off as Shalise wrapped her arms around her.

Since Eva had dumped her in Hell, there would have been plenty of opportunities for Lynn to tell Shalise just who her mother was. Eva could not tell if she had done so or not. Shalise still called her by her name instead of ‘mother’ or anything similar. But they were a whole lot closer than before.

Given that Lynn had made up a majority of Shalise’s human interaction in the past months as well as removed Prax, perhaps that wasn’t so surprising.

“What are you going to do now?” Shalise asked.

We are going to leave.”

Shalise made to object, but Lynn held up a hand.

“You’ve had a few days to relax while I made preparations. Say your farewells and let us be gone.”

“But–”

Eva cut in. “Is it wise to take her with you? It could be dangerous, especially for Shalise.”

“Are you threatening us?” Lynn Cross’ eyes once again narrowed to thin slits.

“Not at all. I’m just saying that I might have overheard a certain Sister Cole talking about you getting what you deserve. How well can you, on your own, stand up to the Elysium Order hunting you down while protecting Shalise at the same time?”

Lynn’s face twisted into a sneer. More of a sneer than she already had on, anyway. For some reason, Eva got the impression that it wasn’t actually directed at her for once.

“They won’t hunt me down. They lack the resources at the moment. Your pet ensured that.”

It was a good thing that Ylva wasn’t around to hear that insinuation.

“And someone just broke into a cathedral to steal a priceless artifact. I’m sure they’ll have their hands busy dealing with that little pest for the foreseeable future.”

“There was nothing left behind for their augurs to track.” Technically, large chunks of Arachne were probably all over the floor of their main chapel. Eva somehow doubted that they would get anything useful from that until Arachne returned to the mortal realm. “I ensured that.”

“You’re underestimating them.”

Eva shrugged, not letting her smile slip from her face. “Perhaps. With said priceless artifact having been dropped off on their front porch, I doubt that they will be too interested in chasing me down. No harm, no foul, as the saying goes.”

Lynn opened her mouth to argue.

Eva cut her off. “Even if they do manage to track me and decide to attack me, they won’t be interested once they realize where they’re looking at. You did just mention that Ylva decimated the Elysium Order inquisitors. Will they really risk another confrontation?”

“Your pet isn’t here.”

“Not here here. But she’s around.”

Come to think of it, Eva considered, the prison is going to be empty these days.

No Arachne. No Ylva. Devon had run off and Eva had not seen him since visiting the Elysium cathedral.

He’d probably turn up just in time for her treatment, only to literally explode in rage at finding Arachne gone.

But, with no one else here, Eva wondered if she shouldn’t move back to the Brakket Academy dormitories. She would have to find a new room. Her old one was currently uninhabitable. It had a round-the-clock guard and several shackles set up by her around the entrance, though there had been no incidents apart from the first time.

Ylva was going to take a look at it sometime soon and see if she couldn’t sever the connection.

If Shalise left too…

Eva’s smile almost slipped from her face.

“So what will it be, Lynn Cross? Take your chances on your own, putting Shalise in danger with the Elysium Order on your tail? Or stay here, safe and sound knowing that there is an entity about that the Elysium Order dares not mess with.”

Lynn’s narrowed eyes hardened more. Eva found it hard to believe that was possible, but she watched it happen with her own eyes.

The hardening melted. For just a moment, Lynn Cross almost looked sad.

“Would that the Elysium Order be the only threat revolving around you, and I might consider. You, Eva, are a death trap.”

“Only Arach–”

“This city is a death trap,” she continued, talking right over Eva. “Between the necromancers and the demons, how many people have died here? How many students? Everyone with a hint of intelligence has already left the city. More will follow. I pity the fools who remain behind.

“Shalise has scraped the tip of Death’s scythe at least three times. Far too often for anyone, let alone a fifteen year old girl. We will not be staying.”

“Wait! You can’t–”

Lynn Cross’ eyes flared white. Shalise’s words were cut off as the two vanished with a sudden breeze of icy air.

The smile on Eva’s lips stayed where it was for a few moments longer. She didn’t feel like smiling. She hadn’t felt like smiling even before they had disappeared. The muscles in her lips just wouldn’t quite cooperate.

She had been smiling far too much in the last few days.

Her entire mouth felt numb and sore.

Ever so slowly, her muscles remembered a far more neutral and natural position. Now that Shalise had gone, she no longer felt the need to put on a happy face. No one was around to ask if she was alright again.

She was alone, well and truly, in the once again abandoned prison.

Taking a deep breath of the April air, Eva slumped in her seat.

This isn’t like me.

She needed to get up. She needed to be doing something. Reading a book on blood magic or hunting down Sawyer. Even working on school work. Finals were this week. Or they were supposed to be. Though she still wasn’t sure whether or not the school was staying open, she could be studying at the very least.

Eva drew in another deep breath through her nose, releasing it through her mouth after holding it for a few moments.

It took a good hour before Eva finally felt like dragging herself out of her seat.

Getting up took far more effort than it should have taken.

By the time she had finished dragging the seats back into the women’s ward, she was already feeling ready to just lie down and sleep for the night.

Clenching her fists, Eva shouted out. No particular words, just a frustration-releasing shout. Her rage at Lynn Cross, Sawyer, Arachne, Carlos, Juliana’s brother, annoying schoolmates, the Elysium Order, and everyone else she could think of all came out in a single continuous stream of noise.

Eva kept it up for a good minute before her lungs gave out.

Shouting, as it turned out, was mildly therapeutic. Eva really did feel at least three notches better than before. Childish? Perhaps. Some might call it a temper tantrum.

But no one was around at the moment, so screw them.

It probably would have been even more cathartic had she a certain necromancer or a few nuns to tear apart with her bare hands, but she would have to make do without for the moment.

For the moment.

A real smile grew across Eva’s lips. The first she had felt in several days.

Nel had found Sawyer before they invaded the cathedral. She had found him, and Eva wasn’t going to let the opportunity slide.

With a renewed drive, Eva started running through the women’s ward. She selected a handful of books that might come in handy and dropped them in a large bag. From her potions room, she grabbed a medium-sized potions satchel.

Most of the beneficial potions got tossed out–they barely worked on her anyway. She filled the empty slots with poisons of varying types.

While she really, really wanted to use her claws and nothing more, Eva did not want to charge into anything ill prepared. She had gotten herself captured by Sawyer once before and that was more than enough for her tastes.

Her spare blood situation was dire, however. She had a mere three vials of Arachne’s blood.

Unless she had filled some that Eva had left before they went off to the cathedral.

With a hesitant frown, Eva turned towards Arachne’s room.

She hadn’t been inside since.

Shaking her head, Eva shoved away any unnecessary feelings and pushed open the door.

The room inside wasn’t drastically different from any other room. It was just a normal cell.

In their most recent contract, Eva had offered Arachne the same thing she had offered Ylva that had allowed the hel to link her domain to Earth. However, Arachne had never actually acted on it. Eva had a sneaking suspicion that Arachne did not know how to do it. Like how she didn’t know how to make void metal, or teleport, or even use magic in general.

Arachne relied solely on her strength and natural resilience. She found books to be a chore and had turned down Ylva’s offer of tutelage.

Eva couldn’t actually blame her for that last one. Five hundred years of servitude sounded intensely unappealing, even if Ylva would probably be a kind and fair, if stern, master.

One thing that Eva could say about Arachne’s room was that it was decorated.

Tapestries of varying types hung from the walls. Some were larger, some were smaller. Not a single square inch of brick had been left unadorned. Some were of pure scenery–a forest-filled recreation of the landscape outside of the prison was done up on one of the larger ones. A number of them were portraits of people as well.

Well, not so much people.

One whole wall held nothing but images of Eva.

Red eyes with slit pupils stared back at her. For a moment, she thought she was looking at a mirror. It took a second or two to realize that her reflection wasn’t moving. Her eyes just looked so real, her hair had individual strands matching her real-life self.

But it was just a portrait. The largest of many.

One had her sitting, as if posed for a camera. Others looked like they had been created in the middle of fights. Eva couldn’t recall actually fighting any of the demons or people in most of the pictures, but they looked lifelike enough that she almost considered the idea that her memories had been modified.

One tapestry was an image of her sleeping, with Arachne asleep in her small spider form on Eva’s bare stomach.

Eva wasn’t entirely sure if she should be flattered or disturbed by the shrine of herself, but seeing that last tapestry brought a sick sensation to her stomach.

She should have been more firm. Ordered Arachne back into her spider form earlier in the cathedral.

Their most recent contract had been more verbose than the first one as it had been made in far less haste. After Arachne had exchanged her hands, Eva had decided to include a clause about following orders.

Arachne wouldn’t have been able to go against it. They could have all escaped so easily. Their task had already been finished, after all.

But Eva had never once exercised that clause. It felt gross, to manipulate someone she considered a friend. She had ignored it and forgotten about it on purpose.

Until just now. Seeing the two of them, peacefully sleeping.

It hurt.

Eva grit her teeth and tore her eyes from the portrait wall. She had come in here for any spare vials of blood that she could find.

Instead, she found something else.

Arachne had a bed in her room. Eva doubted that it had ever seen even five minutes of use.

The moment her eyes drifted from the walls, Eva spotted a dress draped over the bed.

It was a simple garment. Long and black with thick straps that would stretch from the top of the shoulder to the edge of the neck. No cleavage to speak of, though it did have an embroidered ‘V’ shape running from the shoulders to a point at the center of the waist.

With careful movements, she lifted the dress up. She had gotten much better at keeping her fingers from cutting things that she didn’t intend to cut, but they were still sharp. Accidentally ruining the dress…

Eva shook her head. Looking at the dress closer, Eva doubted she would be able to so much as snap a single thread. After giving it a small tug, she decided that it was definitely made out of Arachne’s silk.

And it was small.

Holding it up in front of her, Eva found that it would barely reach her mid-thigh.

Arachne was a large woman. Taller than Eva even after swapping her legs out–though Eva was quite certain that she had shrunk back to her normal height since then. The bust would be too tight on the demon, and the waist as well in all likelihood.

In fact, holding it up against herself, Eva had the distinct impression that it was not made for Arachne. That feeling was only compounded by the fact that Arachne had never worn clothes as far as Eva could remember.

Almost in a trance, Eva shed her own skirt and shirt to don the dress in their place.

It fit.

Perfectly.

Eva couldn’t recall ever once giving Arachne her measurements, but the dress hugged her body all the way down to her waist. There, it spread out into a short skirt down her thighs.

She spun in a circle, almost wishing that she had a mirror.

Except, she didn’t need one.

The largest portrait of her, the one whose eyes gazed in such a lifelike manner, was wearing the dress.

Unlike the dress she had on, the portrait Eva’s dress had sleeves. Short things that covered up the human skin but left all of her carapace visible. The portrait version of herself only showed off skin from her neck up.

Arachne must have decided to alter the design at some point.

Either way, this dress was meant for her.

Eva slumped down onto Arachne’s bed. She gripped the dress in her hands–it wouldn’t puncture; Arachne’s silk was far stronger than any pressure Eva could exert.

Slowly, she leaned back until her head came to a rest on the pillow.

She stared at the ceiling. Another portrait hung overhead, one that she had missed before. Arachne sat in a chair, a kind smile on her face as Eva sat opposite with her nose in a book.

Arachne wasn’t gone for good. She would be back. But when? Eva couldn’t say.

For all she knew, it could be years.

With a dry taste in her mouth, Eva decided to put off the hunt for Sawyer, school work, and whatever other responsibilities she had.

One day of rest wouldn’t hurt.

— — —

Nothing.

Absolute nothingness. An absence of everything.

An impossible sensation to describe. The moment any words were added to the idea of nothing, a relatable concept would be introduced. Something relatable that could be explained to a sentient mind would invalidate the idea.

And yet, it was a concept that Arachne was intensely familiar with.

Void had to get his name from somewhere, after all.

Eva, was the first word through her mind upon regaining consciousness. That thought vanished as she took stock of her surroundings.

Or lack thereof.

Arachne had once tried to explain a demon’s death to Eva. Not easy, given Void’s absolute nothingness. She listened intently, but didn’t understand the absolute void of everything.

Well, how could she?

Arachne had eventually decided on likening it to a disembodied brain attempting to claw its way back to its home domain.

And yet, Arachne distinctly recalled her head exploding, so that idea was obviously incorrect. She doubted that she even had a brain at the moment.

That professor had better have teleported my Eva away.

There would be hell to pay otherwise.

Arachne would hunt down the professor, her family, everyone she cared about, and even anyone she had so much as shared a pleasant word with as she passed by them in the street. Once she had them all gathered up, she would start with the youngest first. No! The oldest. The little ones might not fully comprehend their predicament. Watching her flay the older ones alive might drive home the point.

But then the older ones might die before knowing the despair that they were unable to save their children.

Quite the conundrum.

Randomly selecting might be the best course of action.

Of course, the professor would be exempt. Arachne would take her eyelids and nothing more. She would be forced to watch as Arachne slowly worked through every acquaintance–

No. Arachne clamped down on the thought. Eva didn’t want her thinking such thoughts.

Then again, if Eva was dead.

Arachne tried to avoid considering that line of thought any further. It did not stir pleasant feelings.

She had been getting so much better lately, in her own, honest opinion. Weaving was therapeutic that way.

Not to mention, thoughts of revenge were not conducive to getting herself out of the belly of Void.

What thoughts were conductive to her escape, Arachne didn’t know. Over the course of more centuries than Arachne could count, she had only died around ten times. She wasn’t quite sure how that stacked up to other demons. Arachne tended not to socialize with many others. Yet, for some reason, she felt like the number was relatively low.

Granted, that low number might have been because she hadn’t been summoned for a majority of her existence. Her domain wasn’t about to kill her and Arachne never visited other demons’ domains.

Her first death, she hadn’t had a clue what was happening. She only vaguely recalled being decapitated before finding herself out in the endless abyss.

In all honesty, it was lucky that she hadn’t gone insane.

Spending more than fifty years with nothing but her own thoughts for company was a hell worse than any she had ever imagined.

Fifty years was little more than a ballpark figure–to use a recent mortal term. There was no possible way of telling time within the void. Even once she returned to her domain, it wasn’t like she had a timer keeping track of how long she had been gone for. It was an estimate based off of subsequent deaths, ones that she had been more prepared for.

As mortal history advanced, they became far better timekeepers than they had been while she was mortal. That, combined with more frequent summons in the recent centuries, led to her estimated number.

But, I don’t have fifty years. Even if her more recent deaths had been less than fifty years, they were still far too long.

That carnivean had escaped in a mere three months. If that. For all Arachne knew, it had only been dead for a day before making it back to its domain.

Three months would have her missing one of Eva’s treatments, but it was still a far cry faster than fifty years.

But how had it managed that?

As far as Arachne was aware, she couldn’t do anything in this state. She couldn’t transform–or even feel her body. For all she knew, she literally was a brain in a jar on Void’s cupboard shelf. Or even just her soul in a jar. No brain needed.

Arachne did know that how soon one returned was somewhat related to how damaged they had been when they died. It took longer the more mutilated one was. Was it based off of their natural regeneration rate? Was the carnivean simply a faster regenerator than she was?

The carnivean had been quite thoroughly mutilated at her hands. Most of its tentacles had been severed along with having its eyes gouged out. And then there was the fact that Arachne had crushed the carnivean’s skull.

But, when she had seen it in Sawyer’s hotel, it hadn’t regenerated fully. It was still missing its eyes and several tentacles, especially the larger ones.

Arachne had never returned even partially damaged. She had always been whole and hearty no matter how damaged her body had been when she died.

There had to be a way to return early.

She had mocked the carnivean at the time, wondering if it died so often that clawing its way out of this void had become second nature. But at the moment, Arachne was willing to give anything to know how it had managed that.

Anything?

>>Author’s Note 006<<

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006.031

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one was paying attention to her.

I am paying attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not this undressed.”

Mortal sensibilities, he scoffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalise took a deep breath, nodding.

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

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

Glancing up, Shalise frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalise slumped forward. The ground was quickly approaching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

“It’s time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Ylva was confused.

“You wish to stay?”

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

Now she was being thrown away. Dismissed.

Killed?

Nel could feel her breath quickening.

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

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

But Ylva was sending her back to Earth?

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

No. Nel wanted to stay.

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

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

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

Was it a choice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she had been left with an order.

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

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

Her fetters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is done.”

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

Ylva gestured one arm towards the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was something that she had forgotten.

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

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

— — —

Embarrassed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That could no longer stand.

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall I cancel the payment?”

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

“I require no payment,” Riley said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Usually there are far less demons around.”

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

I know.

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

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

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

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