Tag Archives: Lurcher

006.029

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any plans?” Zoe called out between bolts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what you’re doing?”

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

“Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The walls were giving way more than the blackish scales.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will it attack us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did not like what she saw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wayne and I will take care of that.”

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

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

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

With a short nod towards Wayne, Eva released her hold over her basilisk.

It didn’t hesitate to charge straight through the door, taking part of the wall with it.

Lightning rained down the hallway. The majority of it sunk into the semi-organic scales of the sculpture. A few bolts did get past, but they were ones that had been angled upwards. Though she kept low anyway, Zoe doubted she needed to duck to avoid anything. The snake’s bulk was simply that massive.

Purposeful or not, the few bolts that missed the snake did impact the ceiling. Most only left scorch marks.

Zoe and Wayne had to pause their blocking of the side rooms to erect quick thaumaturgical shields around themselves. Almost as an afterthought, Zoe tossed a quick shield around Serena as well.

The vampire was visibly looking better than she had only a minute ago, but it didn’t look like she was quite ready to walk just yet.

After shielding Serena, Zoe thought to put up a shield around Eva as well. Her spell stopped mid-cast.

Arachne, ducking low at Eva’s side just behind the basilisk, plucked a stray brick right out of the air without so much as glancing in its direction. It would have struck Eva in the shoulder otherwise.

Pulling herself up to her full height, Arachne reared back and pitched the brick like it was a baseball.

It zipped through the air before coming to a stop with a meaty thud. Zoe’s enhanced ears picked up a masculine groan.

A monk perhaps?

The lightning stopped a moment later–nuns rushing to his aid?–but not before a stray bolt struck the still standing Arachne square in her chest.

Shards of carapace exploded off her front and back.

Wayne was on point in incinerating every piece that detached from the demon. They didn’t have time to land before an orb of intense heat enveloped each individual shard. Several of them were flying towards the two of them, but they wouldn’t be anything a shield couldn’t handle. It was more likely that he was incinerating them to keep them out of the hands of the Elysium Order’s augurs.

Zoe couldn’t begin to calculate how hot the flames had to be to disintegrate Arachne’s carapace, but it obviously was not inconsiderable. She caught sight of more than a few pages of his tome going up in flames as his eyes twitched back and forth between each piece. Judging by the twitches of his eyes, he had altered his mental perceptions as fast as he could go.

“Arachne!”

Eva set the obelisk down on the floor, making sure not to damage the structure. The second it was down, she had her dagger out and aimed at Arachne’s chest. The demon caught her hand just before she could plunge it in.

“I’m fine,” Arachne growled. She was clutching at her chest, black ichor dripping from between her fingers.

Wayne was incinerating the drops that touched fell through the air as well, though it was taking far less effort than the chitin.

“Focus on your snake. I can heal.”

Eva shook her head. “Have to stop your bleeding.” With a flick of her wrist, Eva’s dagger crossed the short distance between where her hand was caught and Arachne’s chest. Her other hand caught the dagger and pressed the flat of the blade against the wound.

In seconds, Eva had formed a plate wrapping around Arachne’s torso. It was the same type of blood hardening that went into making their masks. While it meshed surprisingly well with Arachne’s natural carapace, Zoe doubted it would provide even half as much armor.

“Keep your head down,” Eva said as she finished. “That’s why we have Basila.”

“I can take a hit from those pathetic creatures.”

“Obviously not,” Eva tapped the plate. “Were you not paying attention when we picked up Sister Abbey? At least that one nun has prepared for demons. Probably her whole chapter. Maybe the whole of the Elysium Order.”

Eva turned from Arachne to pick up the obelisk again. “Just be careful.” That said, Eva hefted up the obelisk and started walking the short distance between where Arachne had been hit and where her basilisk had charged off during the brief lightning intermission.

By the time they made it a good three-quarters of the way down the hall, the lightning had started up again. This time, however, they seemed to be much more careful in not missing the basilisk.

The basilisk was obviously slowing down. Zoe had a feeling that Eva was doing a lot to help push it forward and keep it going through her blood magics. Its slithering side to side had all but stopped. At this rate, they’d be stuck behind it before getting to the top of the stairs.

Zoe was tossing the occasional lightning and razor wind of her own while Wayne was doing the same with fireballs. But after seeing Arachne nearly finished off by a single bolt, she was far more hesitant about sticking her arm around the basilisk’s bulk.

She had taken a hit from the Elysium Order’s lightning before and it had not been pleasant then. If Eva was correct in that they had been adapting their magic to combat demons, then it was entirely possible that the lightning wouldn’t do anything unusual to her, as she wasn’t a demon.

Taking the chance did not seem wise.

With her attacks not doing much, Zoe kicked her mind into motion.

If their eyes are closed, how are they aiming?

It was entirely possible that they had realized the deception of the basilisk. Or perhaps thought that the nun that had originally called that out had simply been mistaken. Alternatively, all the nuns could have blindfolds on while following the directions of an augur. The augur wouldn’t need to see it directly and thus, would have no danger of looking in the basilisk’s eyes.

Neither of the two options were easily interruptible.

“Serena, any cover or distractions you can provide would be most welcome.”

“Are their eyes glowing?”

“Most likely,” Zoe said.

“Then I can’t–”

“Serena,” Wayne interrupted. “We are taking over.”

The vampire stilled as she met Wayne’s eyes. He gave her a brief nod.

“Fiine,” she said with a sigh. “If I die, I’m haunting you forever.”

“Sounds annoying. Try not to die.”

“Aww, you do care!” Serena cooed. “Set me down.” When Zoe hesitated, Serena pointed at her stomach. “This is just a flesh wound. I’ll heal it up as soon as I get some blood in me.”

Zoe put an arm on the shorter vampire’s shoulder to help steady her as she regained her balance. “What are you going to do?”

“I hate getting my hands dirty, but I am a vampire. And a hungry one at that. Smelling this mask,” she took a deep breath, “I just want to bite into it. Gobble it all up. Like a potato chip!”

Her voice took on a slightly more dangerous tone than her normal frivolous cadence. “I’ll just have to sate my appetites on something else for now.”

“Grab Spencer and get ready to run,” Wayne said, looking towards Zoe.

Wayne and Serena took off in a sprint. Serena vaulted onto the basilisk’s back while Wayne just went around its side. The moment they cleared its head, a wall of flame erupted in front of Wayne. It stretched from wall to wall, floor to ceiling.

It took off. With the sound of a jet engine, it moved from the tips of Wayne’s shoes down the hallway, growing faster and louder the more it moved.

Once enough space had cleared between the fire wall and Wayne, Serena vaulted off the back of the snake over Wayne’s head. She took off in a sprint fast enough that she was hard to track with Zoe’s enhanced eyes.

Leaving them to their own devices, Zoe ran up to a slightly shocked Eva.

“What are they doing?”

“Clearing the area, I assume. We’re following.” Taking Eva’s arm in hand, Zoe started to move after the other two.

But Eva did not budge.

“I can’t leave Basila,” she said, handing the obelisk off to Arachne.

The demon took it easily, not even shifting her stance despite the added weight.

Reaching into her backpack, Eva started digging around. She pulled out vial after vial, checking each one.

If they had the time, Zoe would have loved to have let her finish. They didn’t have any time. Wayne was getting farther away with every passing moment and they couldn’t afford to fall too far behind. If the nuns back in the sealed off rooms managed to escape, the situation would turn quite sticky.

“It was an admirable attempt and worked surprisingly well. I’m sure Genoa would be happy to know that her toy played such a significant role in saving Shalise. But we must go.”

“I can’t leave Basila. She’s full of my blood. I could try pulling it out, but a good deal would be left behind because it is too ruined from contact with the basilisk and the lightning,” Eva said as she dumped a vial of red liquid over the sculpted basilisk. “I’d rather not have it fall into the hands of the augurs.”

Zoe mistook the vial for more blood for a moment before noticing that the basilisk was slowly losing inches off its length. A shrinking potion to counteract the growth.

But it was taking too long.

“Can you use your blood to push it forward?”

“Holding it still is one thing, helping it move is another, moving it on my own is another entirely.” Eva frowned at it. “I don’t know that it will move on its own again. Once it is small enough, I can handle it.”

Zoe could understand that. From the front, it looked less like a snake and more of pulped meat. She found it mildly disturbing just how organic appearing something that she knew had been carved from stone was.

“We’ll move it,” Arachne said. She started growing a bulbous behind and several extra legs. “The professor’s air magic, Eva’s blood, and my strength.”

As she grew, Arachne handed the obelisk back to Eva. The younger girl stumbled for just a moment before Arachne stabilized her with something resembling a hug. The two stayed together, neither moving save for Arachne’s continued growth.

After reaching her full height, the full-bodied Arachne positioned herself directly over the front of the snake. She hefted the front in the air, using her arms and two of her legs to hold it against her body.

Zoe hoped that the potion had already been fully absorbed into the basilisk. As Wayne had said, it wasn’t designed for living creatures.

Still, if anyone could handle parts of themselves shrinking, it would be Arachne. Zoe concentrated on levitating the tail of the sculpture. They could worry about side effects for Arachne later.

With Eva taking care of most of the mid-section through her blood magic, they started off towards the staircase, Wayne, and Serena.

It was somewhat of an awkward situation, moving as they were. Though Arachne had the worst of it by far. The basilisk was constantly shrinking. Though it wasn’t fast, Arachne occasionally had to stop to get a better grip on the front of the snake. Combined with her walking on only six of eight legs, using the other two to help lift the basilisk, their group wasn’t moving all that fast.

But they were moving.

Zoe just hoped that Wayne and Serena could hold out up ahead for a few more minutes.

The very stone itself was on fire in some places. The occasional tapestries that Zoe had taken note of on the way down were gone entirely. No corpses, though one nun had fallen into a torpor with blood dribbling down her neck.

Zoe doubted that she had been left alive out of the goodness of Serena’s heart. More likely that someone had interrupted her feeding, or she simply decided that moving on to her next target was needed more than killing the nun.

By the time they reached the base of the staircase, the snake had shrunk by half. Still too large to carry on any one of their owns, but it was becoming far more manageable for Eva and Zoe.

They started climbing the stairs with Arachne still readjusting her grip every few steps.

“When we get to the top, we shouldn’t have much farther to go. Once Wayne gives the signal, we’re going to teleport.”

“If they haven’t set up more wards,” Eva grumbled.

“Hopefully they have been too busy dealing with us to set up wards. There aren’t many of them and several are still locked up in the rooms below us.”

“They won’t have warded against banishment. Probably. If your teleport is broken, I can get us out. It won’t be pleasant. At all. Though, judging by how the vampire reacted to your teleport, she might find it more agreeable than your teleports.”

Zoe had a picture of the mostly mutilated Sister Cross suddenly surface in her mind. She shook it out of her head as Eva continued talking.

“It is how I intended to escape before you all insisted on coming,” Eva continued. “Even downstairs, I don’t think they would have warded for banishment.”

“Can’t take Serena to your prison without adding her to your wards,” Zoe commented as she considered what Eva had said.

With how well her basilisk had performed, she might have actually been able to do this entirely on her own. She supposed it depended on the stone door and how well it held up to a basilisk ramming into it a few times. Arachne would have been able to help.

It certainly would have skipped over this portion of their theft. But, had Eva followed through with her plan to remove the two guards outside the first staircase, she would have alerted everyone much sooner. It was entirely possible that she would have been forced to retreat before even making it to the second basement.

As they reached the top of the staircase, Wayne and Serena once again came into view.

And fire. Lots of fire.

Unlike the basement levels, the cathedral had been constructed with plenty of wood in addition to stone.

And all of it was on fire.

Serena bounced around the hallway like some hyperactive child while Wayne stood his ground, unleashing powerful bursts of flame to keep the Elysium Order from moving from where they had taken cover. He only made minute movements when an attack came his way. Just enough to dodge.

Zoe used her magic to clear the smoke from the air. The snake was small enough now that Eva could handle it on her own, though Arachne continued to help out.

Catching sight of them at the top of the stairs, Wayne called out, “final push then be ready to get out.”

“Okaay,” Serena replied as she landed on top of a screaming monk. No shield appeared around him. There was nothing to keep her off or to prevent her fangs from tearing a hole in his neck.

“I can handle Basila. Arachne, latch on to me.”

Arachne stayed where she was, interposing herself between Eva and the Elysium Order. “You won’t have anything to block lightning without the snake or me.”

“You’re going to get left behind,” Eva said, exasperation clear in her voice. “Maybe if you’d learn to teleport yourself.” She glanced over to Zoe, “If Arachne continues to be stubborn, I can teleport us out as soon as you guys leave.”

Though she didn’t take her eyes off the combat ahead of her, Zoe shook her head. “I’m not leaving before you.”

Eva just sighed.

The basilisk, which had been as long as a van when they got to the top floor, was shrinking ever more rapidly as it grew smaller. It was down to the size of her arm. Before long, it would be back to its original length, able to easily wind itself around a set of fingers. Probably. Would it stop at the original size? Smaller? How would the potion know? She would have to double-check with Wayne.

Her own potion theory was lacking.

Shaking her head, Zoe decided that now was probably not the best place to worry about such things.

Instead, Zoe pressed forward with Eva and Arachne–still in her largest form. They were so close to getting away. The end of the hallway would be the end of the wards.

Should be the end.

Wayne and Serena were doing a perfect job of pushing back the Elysium Order despite their increased desperation. It helped that there were not many of them. Zoe only counted six nuns and the sole monk. A few of which were no longer able to fight back.

Zoe added her own attacks to the mix now that she was close enough to the fight. A number of Eva’s orbs of blood fired off, splattering against the nuns’ shields before exploding violently.

Now that she could clearly see her enemy, Zoe felt a pang of regret. Only one of the six here was in the proper Elysium Order attire. Her habit was rumpled and coated in blood–probably the monk’s blood. Everyone else looked to be dressed in sleepware of various sorts. One even had pink bunny slippers.

Zoe shook her head and pressed forward.

They were almost out. Only a few feet more to go.

Without a word of communication between them, Wayne and Serena found themselves with their backs against each other. He wrapped an arm around her waist. After a brief nod towards Zoe, they both disappeared. All that was left behind was a blast of cold air followed by a heat wave as a wall of fire sprung up between Zoe and the nuns.

That answers that question, Zoe thought.

“Arachne,” Eva shouted as she wrapped the basilisk around her arm, “shrink down!”

The spider-demon was already shrinking back into her human form when Eva shouted.

At Eva’s shout, Arachne dove over just in time to catch a bolt of lightning that had been aimed at Eva.

She caught it against the side of her face.

Shards of carapace exploded outwards, some cutting into Eva.

The girl didn’t move in the slightest. She stared onwards as the bright glow in Arachne’s four remaining eyes dimmed slightly.

The demon slumped over, crashing into the ground just as a dark portal opened up beneath her.

“No!” Eva dove to the ground, dropping the obelisk at her feet and narrowly avoiding a second bolt of lighting. The obelisk landed on its side with a heavy thud.

Thankfully, the stone hadn’t cracked.

Eva gripped Arachne’s limp arm and pulled. “You can heal damn it.”

In spite of Eva’s grip on Arachne’s arm, the spider demon was still sinking into the portal. Eva’s hands were inching closer and closer to it.

“Eva, let go!”

Zoe dove and tackled Eva, pulling her away from the portal. She didn’t know if Eva could get sucked into it, but she wasn’t willing to take the chance. Recovering Shalise and Juliana had been trying enough. She did not want a repeat of that incident.

“Arachne,” Eva cried out. Her outstretched claw dug into Zoe’s back.

Biting down on her own cry of pain, Zoe rolled twice with Eva before coming to a stop. They were dodging enough lightning as it was. Wayne’s flame wall wouldn’t last forever.

Gripping her dagger in hand, Zoe reached out and touched the obelisk. Wayne had undoubtedly already tried to place the heavy object in storage. The wards would have prevented his action. Here, she had already seen Wayne and Serena disappear. There were obviously no wards in place at the moment.

As soon as it was safe and sound, Zoe started to turn the teleportation on herself and Eva.

The sound of glass shattering stopped her cold as much as the color of Eva’s luminescent eyes. The slits of her eyes were drawn so tight that it was almost as if there wasn’t a pupil at all. The normally blood-red iris was glowing as if someone had shoved two dying suns into her face.

A fountain of black blood erupted from Eva’s backpack. The jar must have broken.

Except, this was far too much blood.

It just kept spewing forth like a bad cartoon. The liquid flowed up and down Eva and Zoe’s arms. A good portion of it started forming a wire frame ball around the two of them.

Zoe didn’t stand by to see what would happen. Her teleport would incapacitate Eva for a minute or two, hopefully giving the girl a chance to calm down.

She gripped her dagger in one hand and hugged Eva with the other before allowing the world to fall away as the cold white of Between replaced it.

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006.028

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Sister Abbey had turned out useful after all.

The door to the next staircase had been not only locked, but warded as well. Said wards went far over Eva’s head. She knew her blood wards and some runic equivalents to certain wards, and that was about it.

She was fairly certain that the wards were beyond Zoe’s expertise as well. At least the ones specific to the Elysium Order. Regular thaumaturgical wards, Zoe could probably have taken down herself. With study, Eva had no doubt that Zoe would have been able to do something about the Elysium Order wards, but they didn’t exactly have the time at the moment.

Regardless, both Eva and Zoe watched the sister like a hawk as she worked. Both had been in agreement that she had done nothing aside from unlocking the door.

So take that, Wayne Lurcher.

Sister Abbey walked at the head of the group. Everyone was able to keep their eyes on her. All the better to watch her and ensure that she didn’t drop any notes for other nuns to find. When she would have had a chance to scrawl out some message, Eva couldn’t say. No sense in not taking precautions.

Arachne still clung to her. Because of Arachne’s legs, Sister Abbey could barely move her arms to write a note in the first place. With the two needle-like legs pressing up against her throat, Sister Abbey had a constant reminder of what would happen should she attempt a betrayal.

So it wasn’t like they weren’t being careful.

It might not be the ideal situation, Eva would freely admit that. However, Sister Abbey was helping them get through their task faster. The quicker they were gone, the less chances they had to be discovered.

More discovered, anyway.

Though Eva wasn’t so sure that being discovered was much of a concern now that they had gone down a floor.

The ground floor was the most crowded with a good ten or so nuns–at least that came into Eva’s range. Only three of which they had had to pass nearby. The two at the doors and one wandering the hallways. For that one, they had all ducked into a janitorial closet while she passed by.

It had not had the most elbow room with all four of them inside.

The next floor had had the two augurs and the one regular nun.

But this floor… They had been walking for a good ten minutes since descending the last staircase. Eva hadn’t detected a single person.

“Where is everybody?” Eva asked, breaking the silence of their group. “And shouldn’t there have been guards at the stairs?”

Eva wasn’t asking someone in particular. She would have been happy to have an answer from anyone. Arachne apparently thought that the question was directed at the augur, judging by the sharp poke in the side that the nun received after a short silence.

“The Elysium Order has refocused their efforts overseas. Primarily Eastern Europe and North Africa. Most Cathedrals on North America are running,” she paused as a hint of a smile appeared on her face, “skeleton crews.”

Eva had to hand it to the augur. Had Sister Abbey and Nel swapped places, she was fairly certain that Nel would be bawling her eyes out between shaking herself to death out of fear. Sister Abbey was cracking jokes.

Maybe I need to do a little more threatening. Can’t have the captive getting uppity.

“Oh puns? I loove puns. Have you heard the one about the nun that married the zombie?”

Serena beat her to the punch.

“Perhaps it would be best if we limit our conversation with the sister, S,” Wayne said with a grunt.

Eva had lucked out on not being referred to as ‘S’ by the fact that Serena’s name and her last name shared initials. Wayne had almost decided that Serena should be ‘P’ for some reason, but a glare from the vampire had ended that discussion.

“Well at least someone is talking. Breaking in last time wasn’t half as boring.”

“Something you should be thankful for.”

The smile on Sister Abbey vanished and her back stiffened. “You people do this often?”

“Once every year or so,” Eva said before anyone else could preempt her. Unless Wayne and Serena actually robbed the Elysium Order on some kind of regular schedule, claiming to do it often might help throw them off the track. “Whenever we find a child in need of saving.”

“How altruistic. You threaten my life ten times over and–” Sister Abbey bit her tongue as Arachne poked her in the side hard enough to draw blood through her habit. After a quick grimace, her countenance turned to anger. “And yet you claim to work for another’s sake? If you’re so concerned about others, stand with the Order and work to better the world.”

Eva tried to hold in a bout of laughter. She really did.

It didn’t work so well.

Absently, she noted that Serena was laughing as well. A light bubbly giggle compared to her more scornful laugh.

“Ah yes, because the Elysium Order is all about bettering the world.” Eva rolled her eyes, though with Sister Abbey at the lead and facing forwards, the nun wouldn’t be able to see.

Serena, however, saw and started off on another round of giggles. “Every member I’ve ever met has tried to kill me within five minutes. If that.”

“I can’t say the same,” Eva said. “I’ve met and talked with plenty of nuns without fighting them. They usually resorted to poorly disguised death threats with me.”

“E, S,” Zoe said, voice terse. “Please desist.”

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Wayne grunted. “We’re here.”

Eva blinked. Glancing down at the map and quickly counting the doors in her head, she found that he was right.

Though perhaps she needn’t have counted. The large door before them wasn’t like most of the other wooden doors. It had clearly been made from two slabs of stone and had a deep relief carved into its surface. In the relief, a series of figures wearing garb fairly similar to the nuns’ habits were depicted laying skeletons to rest in mass graves.

There were words inscribed on the front, running around the images on a sort of carved ribbon. They looked like words anyway. Whatever language it was written in was not one that Eva could understand.

Looking at the door did give Eva a slight sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t explain why, it was just there.

Not ominous at all.

Several other, far more regular wooden doors continued on into the distance.

Really, how large is this place?

Unlike the floor above, this second basement had far lower ceilings and a certain dampness that reminded Eva of the crypt that Sawyer had used a few years prior. They could stand to have a cleaning crew go through and freshen up the place a bit.

But this floor wasn’t the last.

Eva knew for a fact that there was at least one more floor below them. She could see something down there. A lone zombie perhaps. It was dead or undead. That much was certain. The blood within its veins might be moving slightly more than Serena’s, but its heart didn’t seem to be beating. It had several golf ball sized holes dotted around its corpse. Anything further was difficult to discern through her blood sight.

“This door?” Sister Abbey whispered. “We can’t go in this door.”

“Oh? Well, I guess we’ve come all this way for nothing,” Eva said, putting as much sarcasm into her voice as possible. “Let’s pack up and go home then.”

“You don’t understand.” Sister Abbey’s voice rose in pitch, becoming more strained. She tried to turn her neck, but Arachne’s needle-like legs put an end to that. Instead, she turned her full body around. “This door can only be opened by a prioress. Or someone given specific access through the source.”

“And you don’t have that access.”

The nun scoffed. “I’m an augur. They’d tear out our eyes if they weren’t necessary to our duties. We aren’t allowed in such secure areas.”

Eva pressed her lips together. It always seemed like it came back to the eyes. Though in this case, she was probably referring to the ones implanted around her body, rather than the eyes on her face.

“Even if you could find a way to enter the room, you wouldn’t make it out. The alarms will go off without fail. Everyone in the cathedral will be waiting for you to exit.”

“We know,” Wayne said as he brushed past Sister Abbey.

That was news to Eva. She didn’t know. Not wanting to show disunity in front of a prisoner, she just nodded in agreement and watched Wayne work.

He knelt before the door, pulling out a small satchel of tools. He started fiddling with the lock on the door after selecting three thin rods. As he started jiggling the rods around, he glanced back over his shoulder. “You sure are helpful for an enemy. Something you’re not telling us, E?”

Eva blinked, surprised that she was the one being addressed. “Ah, I can see why she might be concerned.” Eva said after a moment of thought. “The other nuns being alerted to our presence was one of the conditions for her demise.”

“Ev–” Zoe cut herself off at almost using Eva’s full name. “Might I speak with you for a moment?”

“Don’t worry,” Serena said with a bright smile behind her mask, “I’ll keep the dear sister from committing any nefarious deeds while you’re away.”

Eva eyed the vampire, but just shook her head.

Arachne would be plenty of pairs of eyes on the nun.

She turned and followed Zoe a short distance down the hallway. They were not quite to the next door when Eva felt the air around them change. Zoe had erected another sound barrier between the two groups.

“Eva, I know this is a stressful situation. But… just…” Zoe pinched her eyes shut as she rubbed her temple. “How many ‘conditions for her demise’ were there?”

“A lot, I’d say. There were a few specific ones. After that, I just said that if she did pretty much anything then Arachne would kill her.”

“Eva…”

“I know what you want to say,” Eva said. Probably something about how killing was bad or death threats on helpless prisoners were bad. “But if these nuns catch wind of us, they’re not going to come and ask us to quietly surrender. You’ve done this before, you should know that.”

“First, I do know that. But there is no reason for us to descend to the level of psychopaths. Second, I have not done this before.”

“But Wayne said–”

“He and Serena did it. I was twelve. They didn’t bring me along with them. And,” she glanced over Eva’s shoulder to where Wayne had pulled out his tome at the door, “we weren’t stealing things.” She frowned. “It was more of a rescue than a theft. They were headed towards a dungeon, rather than a storage room.”

The zombie below them might have been in a dungeon. It wasn’t moving around much.

“But if that was the case, he probably hasn’t opened a door like that before. Can he do it?”

“I think,” Zoe started, putting on a smile, “that he is about to show us.”

Turning back to the door, Eva watched as Wayne stood up. He looked over the door once. With his tome held open in front of him, he began flipping through the pages. It took a minute, but he eventually stopped on one in particular. He took a deep breath. As he exhaled, the page started to glow with a white light. It was eerily reminiscent of the same glow that came from the nuns’ eyes as they channeled their peculiar brand of magic. With a flick of his wrist, the light siphoned off to the metal rods that protruded from the door. Both rods turned white for a brief instant before all the light discharged into the door itself.

There was a loud crack that echoed down the empty hallways.

Satisfied with whatever he had done, Wayne snapped his tome shut and moved up to the door. He pulled the rods from the door, taking great care as he replaced them within his satchel.

Even if her conversation with Zoe wasn’t finished, Eva headed back to the rest of the group. No time to delay if the door really was unlocked.

“Finished so soon?” Eva asked.

She only received a grunt in response.

“It took for-ev-er,” Serena said, pronouncing each syllable distinctly on their own. “Seriously, you used to be so much better. Getting old? You know that there is a cure for that, right?”

“I’m rusty,” Wayne said, voice firm, “not old.”

“Uh huh.”

“Anyway,” Eva said before their charades could continue any longer, “the door is unlocked now?” She took a step towards it only to be interrupted by a cough from Zoe. “Oh, whatever.”

Sister Abbey looked almost sickly green. Whether that was thanks to her impending doom or the proximity with which Serena had decided to keep an eye on her, Eva couldn’t say. But she could say something to remove one of those two options.

“In the event that alarms go off through our own actions, I suppose you don’t have to be killed. But siding with any nuns that show up will be inexcusable.”

Sister Abbey swallowed once. “How gracious of you.”

“Too gracious, if you ask me,” Serena said. Her voice lacked the frivolous tone that she had spoken every other word in.

It surprised Eva for just a moment, but deciding that the vampire probably had more reasons to hate the Elysium Order than most, she let it go with a light shrug of her shoulders. She turned back to the door, but caught sight of a thin-lipped Zoe in the corner of her eye. Zoe stared for a second or two before giving a reluctant nod.

“Well,” Eva said to Wayne, “that’s done. Going to open the door? Or shall I?”

“I was waiting for us to be ready. Everything on the door is disabled, but if there is anything beyond that I couldn’t reach then we may not have much time.”

“Alright. S and Z keep an eye on the hallway. Sister Abbey will accompany W and I to help spot and disarm any traps that may be lying about. Sound good? Anyone not ready?”

“Oh good,” Serena said, eying the doors, “I was going to stay here anyway.”

Shrugging at the quip, Eva glanced around the group. From the ill-looking Sister Abbey and Arachne hanging off of her back, Serena prodding at Arachne’s limbs, to the professors–one of whom looked far more confident than the other–no one objected.

“Let’s do this,” Eva said as she pulled open the door.

The heavy stone slabs making up the doors slammed into the walls with a resounding thunder. Parts of them chipped and fell away while cracks formed in the brick walls.

Eva kept very still as she watched for any sign that the doors would fall off. It was a good thing that no one had been standing near the walls. They would have been crushed.

She might have used just a little too much force. In her defense, they were stone slabs; she figured that they would need a little force to get moving. Clearly, something had been done to them.

Ignoring the snort of a giggle from Serena, Eva pulled out her map. “It’s not far.”

Inside was a much shorter hallway containing three far more mundane doors. From Nel’s brief description from scrying inside, she knew that they were essentially storage rooms. Shelves full of dangerous objects or equipment that the rank and file weren’t supposed to handle. The idol-like devices that the Elysium Order used were in the third room.

And in there should be the obelisk.

Eva took a single step forward, only to be bathed in blinding white light.

The walls, the floor, the ceiling, it all turned white. For a moment, she thought that she was being teleported by Wayne or Zoe. The cold chill settling in didn’t help dissuade her thoughts.

The doors still standing before her were her first clue that she was not being teleported. As was the fact that, while chilly, the cold was more like a winter’s day than the debilitating freeze of their teleport.

“You’re not undead?” Sister Abbey said, genuine surprise in her voice.

“Oh? You knew this would happen? Thought you’d lead us–”

“I didn’t know!” She jumped in place as Arachne’s legs pressed inwards. Her voice raised pitch a few notches as she spoke with haste. “It is a common trap used to immobilize undead. I didn’t know that it would be here.”

“An alarm too, I’d bet,” Wayne said as he brushed past the two. He reached the correct door only to find it locked. Rather than pull out his toolkit, he opened his tome.

One page burst into flames. The flames went out and nothing but ash remained. It dusted off into the air, dispersing and disappearing as it went.

Just as the page burst into flames, the wooden door was quick to follow suit.

He stepped over the threshold before the flames had even died down.

Eva charged in after him. Arachne could handle the augur on her own.

“Back left shelf?” he asked.

“That’s what Nel said,” rushing to the place herself.

There were so many things in the room. It was hard not to stop and stare. Most were in the form of stone or wood sculptures. Some, more organic.

One that Eva did stop to look at–for only a second–was a beating heart inside a glass case suspended by four silver prongs. An eyeball dangled off the bottom. Probably the same kind as the nuns’ implanted eyes. Despite its obvious beating, Eva couldn’t see the thing itself through her sense of blood.

That didn’t stop the eye from glowing bright white as she watched.

Eva jumped back and ran to the shelf that Wayne had stopped in front of.

“We should hurry,” she said. “I don’t like this place.”

“No arguments.”

He closed his hand around an arm-sized replica of the Washington Monument. This version was covered in all kinds of markings and scribbles. The top was not a square pyramid. Rather, it had a cone with engravings on it. The first engraving had a circle. That circle was repeated just to either side, except with a sliver taken off. The pattern went around, waxing and waning until it returned to the circle at the front.

Just as Nel had described it.

He hefted it up a few inches before setting it right back down. “Heavy,” he grunted.

“Zoe can levitate it, right?”

Frowning, he tucked his tome under his arm and tried again with two hands. “Maybe,” he said, holding it in the air for a few seconds before setting it down. “Won’t be easy.”

Rather than try again, Wayne pulled up his tome. He tapped the obelisk on the front.

There was a clipped rush of cold air. Nothing else changed save for Wayne’s frown deepening further. Whatever he had intended to do had failed.

“Between is warded off here,” he grumbled to himself. “It wasn’t on the main floor…”

Again, he tapped the obelisk. Aside from another burst of cold air, nothing happened.

Eva shook her head. They didn’t have time for this. If Wayne could lift it with two hands, surely she could as well. As long as she lifted with her legs and not her back, it probably wouldn’t be all that difficult.

Putting one hand around the base and the other halfway up, Eva hefted it up.

Heavy was an accurate word. Wayne had chosen well. However, it didn’t feel quite as heavy as carrying Irene’s limp body around after their little hot springs incident. She would be useless in combat, but she had plans to help with that. With the blood in her backpack already attuned to her dagger, she would be able to control it without much physical effort.

Taking a few steps away from the shelf, Eva found the load much easier to carry as she readjusted her center of balance. It left her leaning back, but… I can do this.

“Got it?”

“I do. Let’s go.” Before she moved more than two steps, Eva paused and took another look around the room. A golden necklace with an hourglass set in the middle particularly caught her eye. “Not going to take anything else?”

“I’d rather not give them more reason to hunt us down,” he said as he moved back through the room. He didn’t so much as glance at the objects on the shelves. “This obelisk is damning enough on its own.”

“Fair point,” Eva mumbled before following after him.

Sister Abbey stood at the room’s threshold, just behind the pile of ashes that once was a door. Her mouth was agape as she looked into the room.

“Lot of good your ‘door unlocker’ was, Spe–E.”

“She unlocked one door,” Eva said as she hefted the obelisk, shifting its position ever so slightly. “That was useful.”

“Could have done it myself. You’d have done better to let S knock on the door and give you a few seconds to escape.”

“Maybe if she did that sooner. As it was, had to act quickly. I didn’t want our dear augur friend to notice me while I was unprepared.”

“Too much talk. Not enough running.”

Eva just frowned as Wayne ran into the white room. “You started it,” she mumbled to herself.

With a nod of her head to Arachne and Sister Abbey, she walked back into the icy cold room, carrying the obelisk all the way.

They got through the pure white room just in time to see a lightning bolt travel down the hall from Zoe’s dagger.

“Company,” she said through grit teeth as blindingly white lightning crackled down the hall.

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006.027

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Three things made getting into the Elysium Cathedral much easier than it had any right to be.

The first was the map. Drawn by Nel both from memory and from scrying, it had possible routes to the relic chamber along with some annotations about which directions would have them encounter how much resistance. Most of it was guesswork and estimations. Nel had to remain behind to prepare the salt, so she couldn’t give real-time updates. The nuns could and would move around and invalidate most of her efforts.

But that was the second thing. For whatever reason, there were hardly any nuns about. A handful of guards was about all that they had to sneak by. They hadn’t passed the sleeping quarters, so it was entirely possible that the majority were asleep. Nel had mentioned that there should have been more guards, so Eva wasn’t about to question their luck.

Eva wanted to say that the third thing was her own blood sight. The ability to effectively see through walls, see which direction guards were facing, and to tell whether or not a guard was asleep at their post was an amazing asset on a job like this. Something that Eva wished she had figured out back when doing odd jobs with Devon.

However, while it helped, Eva had to begrudgingly give a nod to Serena and her unique abilities.

Two guards stood alert outside of the doorway leading to the basement of the cathedral.

There was another way inside, but they would have had to backtrack through a good portion of the building, negating much of their work so far. And, if this one was guarded, that door was likely guarded as well.

Turning to the others, Eva said, “Arachne can handle this.”

At hearing her name, the spider demon poked her head out from under Eva’s shirt.

They didn’t actually need to be silent. Something that Eva was beyond grateful for. Part of her reason for wanting to go in alone was that it was far easier to be stealthy with fewer people. Arachne had shrunk and latched onto Eva’s chest just to help reduce their total footprint. More people meant more noise, no exceptions.

Except when Zoe was part of the group. She just twisted her dagger and the air itself didn’t allow sound to pass beyond a small radius around their group. The vibrations froze in mid-air.

That hadn’t made Arachne unshrink. A group of people was already a larger visual target than a single person, and Arachne was larger than any one person in their group. Zoe’s air magic couldn’t hide them from sight.

“How?” Serena asked with a wide smile.

The tone of her voice wasn’t hostile and it was a fair question. It still sent Eva’s eye twitching. Not only was it a question that Eva had been about to answer on her own, but it was Serena asking.

She wasn’t certain that she liked the vampire. Every time she glanced in Serena’s direction, she found the vampire staring at her. Every single time.

To Eva, it didn’t feel much like a friendly stare or even one of the curious stares that her classmates often gave her hands and eyes. It was of the hungry variety of stares. Like the vampire was just waiting for her to let her guard down so she could have a quick snack.

“Arachne climbs on the ceiling–no one ever looks up,” Eva said, glancing up herself.

If asked, she would say that she had glanced up as emphasis on her words. It was definitely not because she too never bothered to look up. While her blood sight worked in a sphere around her, there could be nonliving concerns on the ceiling.

Looking up only to find a trapped ceiling slowly descending to crush them would be terrible. She did not want to become an Eva sandwich.

Bringing her eyes back down to Serena after finding nothing, Eva said, “Arachne then drops on their heads, bites them, injects venom, and then we walk past two recently deceased nuns.”

Zoe shifted, probably about to say something about killing people.

Serena beat her to the punch. “Buut, that will leave two dead nuns.”

“You care?”

She shrugged. “I’ve no love for the Elysium Order. However,” she held up a finger, “what if the changing of the guards happens or someone walks by? Even if we hide the bodies, the lack of guards will alert the others. If there is an augur here, and there probably is, the entirety of the cathedral will be on alert near instantly. That makes our job far more difficult.”

“Fair points,” Eva said with a frown. “But you can’t just complain without putting forward a suggestion of your own. What’s your plan?”

“Hmm,” she tilted her head back and forth a few times. “Something like this.”

Before Eva could so much as react, Serena had jumped around the corner, extending her arm out like she was holding a pistol.

Through her blood sight, Eva could see the guards’ eyes widen a fraction of an inch.

Neither of their hearts had the chance to spike in pace before Serena’s invisible pistol sent a recoil up her arm.

As her wrist flicked back, a dark beam erupted from her eyes.

Both guards slackened slightly, but not enough to topple over.

“Hurry,” Serena said, already taking off running towards the door. “Not much time.”

Wayne and Zoe were already in motion, apparently having experienced such antics from the vampire in the past. Eva scrambled after them a moment later.

Both guards had a dazed look on their faces. Neither was quite focusing on any one thing in particular.

“Locked,” Wayne grumbled from ahead of the pack.

Serena whipped her head to one of the guards, staring at the nun for a moment.

For a bare instant, the nun’s eyes refocused. Eva tensed, ready for a fight.

But the nun just turned without actually seeing any of them. She pulled a key from her pocket and unlocked the door, tapping the lock with a wand before returning to her position at the side of the door. As she retook her position, her eyes lost their focus once again.

Wayne and Zoe charged through the door. Serena gave a little pat on the shoulder of the nun. “Thanks,” she said before following the other two.

With one last look at the glossy-eyed nuns, Eva ran through the door.

“A little warning next time,” Zoe said as she shut the door and flicked the deadbolt back into place.

“Ohh, but there’d be no fun in that.”

Zoe ignored her, clicking the locks on the door shut. “The nun touched the door with her wand. There was probably a magical lock in place. I hope it wasn’t tied to any alarms.”

As they spoke, Eva watched the other side of the door through her blood sight. Both nuns shook their heads slightly as they lost the sag in their pose.

Eva waited at the door, preparing to charge through and stop the nuns from running to get help. Serena was right in that killing them would be troublesome. They could at least restrain them. That would give them plenty more time than having them run off right away.

Neither made a move for or away from the door. Each simply resumed her guard without so much as a word to the other.

“Eva,” Zoe called up from the bottom of the staircase, “we’re not there yet. Best to keep moving before they notice the spells on the door are gone.”

“What was that?” Eva asked anyone as she reached the others. She paused for just a moment, looking around. “People inside the large room on our right. Only three. A meeting of some sort?”

Eva wished that her blood sight could provide more details. Or maybe she needed to get good at reading lips through blood veins. As it was, all she could tell was that three people were seated around a table, discussing something. Two of them were augurs, judging by the copious amount of eye-shaped organs dotted around their bodies.

They were fairly far away. Just at the edge of her range.

The end of the stairs opened up into a long hallway that, after a curve, followed back along the hallway they had just been in one floor up. The main chapel room sat directly adjacent above, though if there were a replica down here, they hadn’t gone down enough steps for it to copy the vaulted ceiling.

Unless the room had been partitioned off, the nuns would be sitting in the far corner from where Eva was.

Perhaps much of it had been made into a storage area? There were doors on either side all along the hallway. Offices? What did the Elysium Order need with such a large space?

And they still had to go down one more floor before reaching the room that contained the obelisk.

“That,” Serena said from the head of the group, “was just a figment of their imaginations. Staring at a wall for hours on end has a habit of playing tricks on the mind. Whatever they thought they saw was probably nothing.”

“‘Probably nothing’ unlocked the doors?”

Serena shrugged. “Not my fault that she had a sudden pressing need to open the door and forget about it afterwards.”

Frowning, Eva glared at the vampire’s back. “If you can do that, why are we bothering with all this sneaking around? We could just walk up to a nun and have her go get the obelisk.”

“Ah, but it doesn’t last that long, does it now? And if their eyes are glowing, forget about it working entirely.” She glanced over her shoulder as she walked. Her stormy eyes made contact with Eva’s as she flashed a grin. “Learned that the hard way.”

Eva was about to ask a few other questions about her ability. It seemed a neat trick to have and definitely warranted learning, if she could.

The three nuns moving in the far end of the room gave her pause. She waited just long enough to be certain that they were headed towards the hallway before alerting the group.

“Heads up,” she said. “Three nuns incoming from the far door. Serena?”

The vampire shook her head. “If they come out one at a time, I might get the first one but the other two will notice. If I try to wait, I might not get any of the three.”

“Hide then,” Wayne said from behind. He and Zoe had fallen a fair distance behind Eva and Serena during the short walk through the hallway.

As one, they turned and moved towards one of the rooms that Eva had presumed to be offices. Eva expected it to be locked for a moment, but Wayne turned the knob and walked right in.

Eva and Serena started towards a closer room to where they were. Serena stopped partway and vanished from Eva’s sight. She was still there in her blood sight, unbeating heart and all.

At least she can’t sneak up on me, Eva thought, taking the disappearance in stride. It wasn’t until Serena backed away from the door to position herself at the wall directly opposite that Eva hesitated.

Through her blood sight, Eva glanced through the walls towards Zoe and Wayne’s hiding spot. They had positioned themselves behind where the door would open, ready to ambush anyone who entered. There must not be any good hiding spots in the room itself. For a moment, just a single moment, Eva thought to go and join them in their room.

Shaking the notion from her mind, Eva entered the door before her.

Running down to their room would be cutting it too close. The nuns were almost to the hallway.

“Arachne,” Eva said to her one companion as the door shut behind her with a soft click, “ceiling. Keep quiet and don’t attack unless the situation looks dire.”

If Zoe and Wayne were setting up an ambush, she would take their lead.

The spider-demon gave her a quick tap on her right shoulder before climbing out the top of her shirt. Leaping from her shoulder to the wall, Arachne skittered up to a corner of the ceiling where her dark carapace blended in with the shadows.

Arachne in place, Eva looked around the room in an attempt to find her own place to hide.

There weren’t many options. The room was not an office as she had initially suspected. There was a single altar in the center of the room along with a small closet to one side. The room looked an awful lot like the room Nel had set up for herself within Ylva’s domain, if a far less gaudy version of it.

The thick wooden citrus of frankincense hung in the air like smog, reinforcing Eva’s growing fears.

These rooms were not safe places to hide with two augurs walking down the hall.

With nowhere better to hide, Eva moved to the opposite side of the altar. It was thick, heavy, and solid stone of some sort. Marble, probably. Sitting was all that was required to hide behind it, and she was left with plenty of space to spare overhead and to the sides. With a large pillow between the altar and the door, it was fairly obvious that the augur would sit with her back to the door. She wouldn’t come around the side.

Eva withdrew a vial of Arachne’s blood as she watched the two augurs walk down the hallway alongside the regular nun. No sense in not preparing for the worst.

The group stopped outside of a room a few doors down, opposite of the direction that Zoe and Wayne were hidden. They spoke a few words to one another before one of the augurs split off and entered the room. The other two continued on down the hallway.

Continued towards her.

Closing her eyes, she hoped that they would just pass by. Surely only one augur needed to be on duty at such a late hour. The other should go to bed.

Serena did nothing but lean against the wall, head turning to follow and watch the two nuns.

Couldn’t she just use her magic trick right now?

No. They were both looking at each other. One would see her before the other saw leading to the second turning on their power.

Eva stifled a groan as they stopped outside of her door.

Of course, she thought as the door cracked open.

“–allowed to roam free, Sister Abbey,” the non-augur said. “We must–”

“If you wish to pursue demon hunting,” the augur spat, “I will look the other way. But I will not accompany you. A few rogue sisters will be overlooked in this time of crisis. A second rogue augur will be hunted down by the few remaining inquisitors without question.”

Chagrin filling her voice, the non-augur all but whined at the augur. “Sister Abbey–”

“And, Sister Cole, I trust I do not need to remind you of the last time your chapter encountered demons. What was the casualty rate for that mission, forty percent?”

The augur shook her head as she turned to the altar.

Eva stilled her breathing as much as possible. Please leave, please leave. She wished she had possessed the foresight to stab her own chest with her dagger. Oxygenating her blood through exposure to the air was far quieter than breathing.

The other nun stayed in the doorway. Her hands, balled into fists, trembled. “Thirty seven percent. And we are far more prepared. We’ve had time to analyze and employ better countermeasures. And this time, we won’t have Cross and–”

“The former prioress’ faults are well-known,” Sister Abbey said with a glance over her shoulder. “It is amusing to me that you wish to repeat her mistakes so soon after gaining her title, Prioress.

Sister Cole grit her teeth. Even had she not been able to see her muscles clenching, Eva would have heard the grinding.

“You are just an augur. You’ll be–”

“Looking the other way. If you continue pressing the matter, I may find myself in a more active role of alerting the inquisitors before they find cause to go after me.” Turning fully from Sister Cole, Sister Abbey knelt down at the altar. “This conversation has been most enlightening. If you would remove yourself from my presence, I have work that must be done.”

Clenching her fists again, Sister Cole turned from the door, slamming it shut in the process. She stormed towards the staircase.

At least they would know if the nun noticed those missing spells. If she came running back down the stairs, she would probably have spotted them and alerted the two guards. Hopefully her anger would cloud her perception.

Unfortunately, Eva had a more pressing problem.

The augur sighed. A long, drawn our, exasperation-filled sigh. She reached up and pulled her habit’s cap off, setting it on the altar with reverence. With a sudden clenching of her fists, she stood up, walked to the door, flicked the deadbolt into place, and sat down.

“And stay out,” she murmured.

Outside of the room, Serena walked up to the door and pressed her ear against it.

Unless the vampire had unlocking doors as an ability, Eva doubted that she would be getting any help from there.

Down the hall, Zoe and Wayne had emerged from their room. Zoe had likely enhanced her ears beyond the point of safety to determine if the hallway was empty. They ran up to Serena–who must be visible again–and started speaking to one another.

No sound penetrated the door. Whether due to the door’s construction or Zoe dampening sound, Eva couldn’t say. Them speaking without her being able to listen did reaffirm her decision to figure out how to read lips through blood. They were probably plotting ways to get her out. It would help a lot to know what they were talking about.

Inside of her room, the augur didn’t actually appear to be doing any auguring. A lot of sighing and breathing exercises, but no scrying. Something of a shame. Nel tended to block out most of the surroundings when she dipped into her abilities. Maybe not enough for Eva to sneak out, but it couldn’t hurt.

Eva expected the closet to be filled with all the objects the augur would use to scry with, so it was a good thing that the augur wasn’t doing her job. If she went up to the closet, Eva would come into view.

It would be so easy to signal Arachne from where she was. Arachne had moved to directly over the augur. An angle from where she would definitely be able to see Eva.

But Serena was right. If the augur died, everyone in the area would know and be after them immediately.

Best to find a non-lethal solution.

Eva mentally cursed at her stupidity in not packing her poison satchel. Even a mild paralytic would keep her down long enough for them to get in and out. Probably.

Zoe and company were probably looking for a solution, but they didn’t know what the inside of the room looked like or really anything that would give them a concrete plan.

With a mental sigh, Eva started forming precise directions for Arachne out of blood.

As she finished, Arachne dropped. She dangled from the ceiling on a single thread. Her eight legs touched the ground behind Sister Abbey without the slightest noise.

Arachne sprung from the ground. Six of her legs latched around the woman’s chest–arms included–breaking at least one of her bones based on the noise. Arachne’s front two legs snapped up and positioned themselves at either side of the woman’s neck. They pinched her skin inwards, but managed not to pierce her throat.

Yet.

“If your eyes glow, you die,” Eva said before anything else, even before the nun had a chance to cry out in pain from her broken bones.

While she wouldn’t put it past a member of the Elysium Order to go out in some suicidal attack, the augur had been worried about inquisitors; it was reasonable to assume that she feared for her life.

Eva managed to hold in a sigh of relief as the nun stilled. Her heart had jumped to a couple thousand beats per minute, but she clamped her mouth shut and did not ignite her eyes. Eva couldn’t actually see her eyes, but Arachne hadn’t killed her. Therefore, her eyes were normal.

“Congratulations,” Eva said without standing from her hiding position. “Through an inestimable amount of bad luck, mostly on my part, you get a choice tonight. One choice, obviously, is death. I do not think I need to explain that one.”

On the other side of the door, Serena was shushing the two conversing professors while trying to press her ear even further into the door.

Eva ignored them for the moment. It was a bit too late for anything they might do.

“The other choice: you can help save a little girl whose life is in danger.” Shalise probably wouldn’t appreciate being referred to as a little girl–Eva wouldn’t–but the facts were that she was not here and little girls were far more sympathetic than teenagers. “That could use some explanation, but I am pressed for time and really, what choice do you actually have?

“Rest assured, I am not here to hurt anyone. As I said, you’re only in this position because of bad luck. I’m just here to steal something. Hell, I don’t even need to keep it.” Unless an obelisk is somehow consumed during the ritual. “You can have it back in an hour.” Or however long the ritual lasted plus time to get back. “Maybe a day? Definitely less than a week. I’ll drop it off on the front lawn.”

Eva hummed for a moment, giving the augur time to process what she had said. “Saving the life of a little girl or having your own life extinguished. I intend to get what I came for either way, so I suppose those aren’t mutually exclusive. You only need to worry about your own life.”

The augur remained silent. Arachne pressed one leg ever so slightly deeper into her neck, causing her to jump.

“Go ahead, make your choice. I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day. If time runs out, the default choice is death, in case you were unsure.”

While the nun mulled it over, Eva took the orb of blood in her hands and formed it into a sort of mask and a pair of gloves to lessen the pointedness of her fingers. Serena had mentioned having masks on whatever previous experience she had with the Elysium Order, so it couldn’t be a terrible idea.

If she did end up agreeing, as Eva expected she would, Eva didn’t want to give any clue as to who she was. Given the distinction of her eyes and hands, it wouldn’t be difficult to find out who she was.

Probably wouldn’t be difficult anyway, Eva grumbled to herself as she finished shaping the blood. The moment anyone noticed anything demonic going on, they would immediately turn to Brakket.

Perhaps shoving Serena in front of a nun would distract them for a few months while they hunted down some nonexistent vampire coven.

Unless she had an actual coven that they could locate. That might be something of a jerk move in that case.

Encountering augurs made Eva feel woefully unprepared. She would have to make sure that no significant part of herself was left behind. Nel used vials of blood and strands of hair to locate her targets.

They should have all worn hair nets. And bindings on their bodies to keep arm hairs and such things from falling out.

How small could augurs go? Flakes of dead skin? Individual skin cells? If so, it was far too late from the moment they walked inside without a hard suit and recirculated air.

With a sudden sinking in her stomach, Eva resigned herself to being hunted by the Elysium Order for the foreseeable future. Even if Ylva’s presence kept them at bay, that would probably not last through the week if she was serious about removing herself from the mortal plane.

Still, no need to make it easy on them. Eva attached the mask to her face, allowing the semi-solid blood to flow over her exposed skin. It was difficult to tell without a mirror, but she was fairly certain that she looked a lot like Arachne minus a few pairs of eyes.

Plunging her dagger into her arm, she quickly made three other masks out of her own blood. They would be thin and wouldn’t cover all skin, but it would be better than nothing.

“Alright.” The nun slumped slightly and her voice came out strained. Arachne might be holding on a bit too tight.

But whatever. She’d live.

“I’m glad you can see reason. Surprising in a way, but I suppose that all the augurs I’ve met have been far less trigger happy than the rest of your lot.”

Standing from behind the altar, Eva ignored the gasp as she stared the augur in the eye.

“If at any point your eyes glow, you will die. If you shout or try to escape, you will die. If the other members of the Elysium Order are alerted to our presence before we leave, you will die.” Eva paused as she thought of other circumstances, but there were far too many to list. “If you think something you do might possibly in some minor probability wind up with you dead, it will.”

Eva smiled behind her mask. A pointless exercise as the nun couldn’t see. Unless… Eva quickly manipulated the surface of her mask into a wide smile. Far wider than her normal smile. Much closer to Arachne’s smile.

In fact, Eva thought as she etched in sharpened teeth. She wasn’t sure that it would be visible as the light in the augur’s room was fairly dim, but it was the thought that counted.

“Aside from that,” Eva said, “Sister Abbey, welcome aboard. Now stay right here and don’t move.”

Stepping around the suddenly statue-like nun, Eva walked up to the door and flicked the lock.

Zoe and Wayne ceased their conversation, both jumping to high alert. Serena just casually walked away from the door with a grin on her face. She had probably heard everything.

Neither of the professors let their guard down. Rather the opposite. A dagger was thrust in her face while Wayne readied his tome.

Rolling her eyes, Eva allowed part of her mask to roll off of her face for a few seconds. “It’s just me. Put these on,” she said, handing her masks off to the three.

Zoe accepted one first, frowning at it. “Are these–”

“Made out of your blood?” Serena snapped between Eva and Zoe, wrenching one of the masks out of Eva’s hands. She pressed it up to her face, drawing in a deep breath.

Eva took the moment it was pressed to her face to remodel it slightly to better fit her face. The large bushy eyebrows and tongue sticking out that appeared on the front were completely unintended consequences of reshaping it.

“This is the best present anyone has ever given me,” Serena said with a mild glare towards Wayne. “I’ll cherish it forever. Not to mention, much better than the ski masks we wore last time.”

Or until I make it explode when we’re done, Eva didn’t say. She hoped that she remembered to tell the vampire to take it off first.

Wayne was the only one hesitating, so Eva tossed the last mask at him. “Put it on unless you don’t care if an augur sees you.”

“What did you do?” he hissed. Wayne hesitated three times, bringing the mask near to his face and pulling it away again before he finally placed it against his face.

Eva fit the masks to both Wayne and Zoe without any unnecessary additions.

“Sister Abbey,” Eva said with a turn of her head, “come introduce yourself.”

The augur, who had been sitting as still as she could manage with her heart beating as it was, jumped slightly at being addressed. After a slight prod from Arachne, she finally made it to the doorway.

Upon seeing the augur, the other three all took a step away. At least until their eyes dipped down to where Arachne’s legs were wrapped around her like some kind of ominous rib cage.

“What did you do?” Wayne grunted through grit teeth.

“I got us a door unlocker!”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.026

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“Wayne isn’t coming with us?” Eva asked as she shook off the icy cold of Zoe’s method of teleportation. Digging her claws into the brick wall of the building they had appeared next to, she pulled herself into a proper standing position. “I thought you said he would be here.”

“He will be. He just had to make a brief stop somewhere else first.”

Rubbing her claws up and down her arms, Eva watched an equally shaky Arachne as she unfolded herself from her smaller spider form.

Without a gate nearby, they didn’t have much choice but to go with Zoe despite the downsides to her teleportation. Zoe didn’t have a problem with her teleportation. She stood on watch for the few minutes that it took Eva and Arachne to recover, completely unaffected by the shivers and shakes.

No one else had a problem with it either. Eva had personally watched both Shalise and Juliana teleport alongside Zoe, and both had always walked away without the slightest shakes immediately after arriving at their destination. Yet both Eva and Arachne suffered after every teleport.

Maybe her method just wasn’t meant for nonhumans. At least it didn’t flay them alive as Eva’s teleportation had done to Lynn Cross.

“Well, I hope he gets here soon.” Eva slung off her backpack of supplies. “I need those potions.”

With Devon having fled into the night, Eva wasn’t about to try summoning demons. She was fairly certain that the wax demon had just about killed the both of them last time he summoned it. They had only been saved by Devon dominating it at the last minute.

Eva possessed neither the desire nor the ability to dominate demons. Devon had never taught her how. The textbooks that Martina Turner had assembled for the diablery class didn’t so much as mention the discipline, let alone devote a chapter to how to perform it.

So, Eva had decided to forgo any demonic support.

Aside from Arachne.

That was a whole other can of worms. Arachne had agreed to come along without hesitation. There wasn’t a problem with that.

Eva watched the unnaturally still demon through her blood sight as she pulled a large jar of fresh blood from her pack. She couldn’t help but let her mind wander to the demon.

Despite regular visits over the past few months, Eva felt as if she hadn’t spoken with Arachne in forever. What was she thinking? What was she feeling? Arachne’s thoughts were impenetrable at the best of times.

Now, it was like looking at a blank wall.

Eva shook off the thoughts. They could have a sit-down discussion after the current crisis was over.

For now, she had work to do.

Pulling out her dagger, Eva dug the tip into the crook of her elbow. After drawing out a decent sized globule, she healed the cut and dug into her backpack.

It didn’t take much rummaging to find what she was looking for. It already had a large core of blood that was shining brightly in her vision.

As soon as she moved her hand nearby, Basila coiled around her fingers, squeezing tightly. Eva pulled her out and started looking over the stone basilisk.

Everything appeared in order. Her scales had the same dark sheen and luster that they had had immediately after Eva performed her little experiment. The teeth and silver eyes still maintained their changes as well. None of the blood in the center of the basilisk replica had degraded–odd, given Eva had altered Basila back in January, a good two and a half months ago. Almost three.

Eva shrugged off that oddity. Probably intentional. Given that the spell was supposed to have been performed on an actual living creature, it made sense that the blood that actually imbued the effects would have to be preserved and not overwritten by the creature’s natural blood production.

Even still, she streamed the fresh globule of her own blood down the basilisk’s throat.

Had it always had a throat? It was just a sculpture, wasn’t it? Surely the Rivases wouldn’t have carved out the insides as well.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking an extra security measure.”

Eva didn’t glance up to Zoe as she responded. She had to ensure that Basila both swallowed all the blood and that her addition didn’t disturb the changes to Basila. Given that Basila was just an enchanted sculpture, she doubted that she could kill it. Still, she would rather not mess everything up.

The book she had acquired the spell from didn’t have any sections on fixing an altered sculpture.

“Security for what, exact–”

Two new people popped into the alley.

Eva jumped to her feet, the jar of Arachne’s blood bubbling and boiling at the ready. At her side, Arachne sprouted her spare limbs and dropped into a combat stance.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Zoe going for her dagger only to stop halfway there.

It didn’t take much to figure out why. Wayne was one of the two people.

Still, Eva and Arachne kept up their guard as the girl at his side started towards them.

Or… not, Eva thought as she watched the girl fall forward. She didn’t even try to catch herself as her skull cracked against the asphalt. Another demon?

It sure looked to be suffering from the same problem that she did when teleported by Zoe and Wayne. Eva rubbed her own chin, feeling some semblance of empathy. While she had managed to catch herself on her knees this time, Eva distinctly recalled landing flat on her face the first time Wayne had teleported her.

Did Wayne know any other demons? Eva couldn’t think of any possibilities. The girl wasn’t Ylva, Catherine, or either of the Brakket security guards. While the girl could be Zagan, Eva couldn’t think of a reason why he would appear as a teenage girl.

Wayne stepped over the girl without so much as a downward glance. He quickly found himself at Zoe’s side where the two engaged in a hushed conversation.

Eva thought about listening in, but found herself more interested in the demon. As the minutes dragged on, the girl didn’t push herself up. She didn’t move at all. The thought of her being a demon vanished as Eva noted the oddity in the fallen girl through her blood sight.

Her blood did not move through her veins. Her heart wasn’t beating. Her chest didn’t expand and contract with each breath. There wasn’t the slightest sign of minute movements in the body’s blood that was so tell-tale of other living beings.

“She’s dead,” Eva said, feeling somewhat foolish at pointing out what was now plainly obvious. It was somewhat shocking. Had the girl died from the teleport? Wayne was one thing, but Eva couldn’t imagine Zoe just ignoring Wayne killing some teenager.

Wayne turned from his conversation. He regarded Eva for a good minute before shrugging his shoulders. “Yeah.”

With that, he went back to his conversation.

Or tried to.

“That’s it? ‘Yeah,’ and nothing else? You can’t just–” Eva paused.

With a shake of her head, she shunted the thought from her mind. Zoe wasn’t freaking out. Given how she had reacted to Devon and his potential new subject, a hushed conversation was out of character for her. Therefore, she expected this to happen.

She had known that Wayne would be dragging along a corpse.

So, Eva thought, what use is a corpse in sneaking through an Elysium Order owned church? Spare blood for me?

There wasn’t any sign of life in the blood and it felt old. Eva doubted it would be usable. If Wayne had intended that for her, it wasn’t a very good gift. He should have just raided a blood bank, not a morgue. Even then, Eva had a decent amount of Arachne’s blood to use. Stale blood just couldn’t hold up a candle to that.

“Whatever,” Eva said. She had already intended to steal the obelisk with only herself and Arachne. If Wayne could help, great. Otherwise… “Did you get my potions?”

“You’re lucky I keep examples on hand.” Wayne Lurcher reached into his suit and pulled out two vials. One was dark orange while the other could have been mistaken for blood. Regular blood.

“Thanks,” Eva said as she reached for them.

Wayne snapped his wrist back, pulling the vials just out of reach. “Not for use on huma–” He cut himself off with narrowed eyes. Those eyes flicked over towards Arachne before he continued. “Not for use on living flesh. You’re not going to be able to shrink yourself to get in.”

Eva shot out her hand and snatched the vials. “I know that,” she said. “Just because I don’t go to your class doesn’t mean that I haven’t read the books.” Technically, Arachne had read her the books. Wayne didn’t need to know that.

Rolling the vials around with her fingers, Eva double checked that the color and consistency was what the book described. She didn’t believe that Wayne would make a mistake–no matter how annoying he was, Eva believed that he knew his alchemy–but it couldn’t hurt to double-check.

“Actually,” Eva said as she finished. Satisfied with the results of her inspection, she set the vials within a potion satchel inside her backpack. “I don’t wear those gloves anymore. That was your main complaint with me, right?”

“You want to come to my class again?” He shook his head. “Wrong question. Are you going to be disrespectful and disruptive again?”

Balling her hands into fists, Eva glared at him. “You were rude to me–”

Wayne held up a hand. “Doesn’t matter. We’ll talk about this later.” Under his breath, he grumbled, “I might not have a job if the school shuts down.”

Eva’s mild anger dissipated into a slight sensation of melancholy. “That’s a possibility, is it?”

“Can’t tell what the dean will do. I’ve long since stopped trying to figure out how Turner thinks. But she won’t matter much if the sky spooks off all you kids. Can’t have a school without students.”

Although there were plenty of problems surrounding Brakket Academy, including the one going on at the moment, Eva had taken a liking to school. Without it, she would probably still be doing the odd job with Devon. Few and as far between as those jobs were, she would be going to mundane school. Her most recent experience with a mundane school had left her bored out of her mind.

Eva turned away from Wayne, not bothering to question him further. As he had said, it was something to think about later. For now, she was wasting time. With the potions delivered, she was fairly certain that they were ready.

Arachne didn’t have many preparations to make as she was made up of everything that she used to fight with. She was no longer shaking from the effects of the teleport either. When Eva gave her a glance, she nodded.

“Let’s get this show on the road.”

“Wait. We’re not going to let you do this on your own.”

Eva turned back to Zoe with a frown on her face. She tried to keep her voice polite as she said, “Wait? For how long? You do realize that Shalise could be in danger?” Eva bit down on a harsher response.

While she respected Zoe and understood that she wanted to help, Eva was somewhat anxious about finding the obelisk and getting back to Shalise. When Sister Cross had said there might be problems acquiring the obelisk, Eva had not expected that an assault on an Elysium Order controlled church to be in the cards.

“But don’t worry, this is just like a job with Devon. I’ve done tons of them. In fact, this is better than a job with Devon. This time, thanks to Nel, we actually have a map with the destination marked and a good idea of how many nuns are around. That’s ten times the preparation that ever went into any of Devon’s jobs.”

Zoe had her lips pressed into a thin line. Probably at the thought of Devon dragging her off on jobs.

“Eva, you–”

“Smell good…”

Eva jumped, whirling around to face the corpse on the ground. The sound had come from below and behind her. Right where that corpse had been lying.

The body was still dead. Still unmoving face down on the asphalt. No blood flowed through its veins. It was even in the same position that Eva had last seen it in.

No, Eva thought as a glob of Arachne’s blood started hovering around her, not quite the same position.

The jaw had slackened from the hardened rictus that it had arrived with.

Eva jumped back as the body lifted a hand. She did a quick double-check of herself, the professors, and Arachne just to ensure that her blood sight was working properly.

Everyone’s blood was flowing just fine.

Everyone except for the currently animated corpse.

Her first thoughts were of necromancy. None of the skeletons or zombies that she had encountered had ever spoken, but the ghost that had assisted in her initial capture had responded to queries. Could ghosts possess corpses?

Then there was the blended girl and her friend. Both were strange to her blood sight and both had a connection to Sawyer. Their status of being alive was in question solely because of that. But even the friend had a pulse. A slow, lethargic pulse, but a pulse nonetheless.

It did, however, answer the question of why Wayne had brought along a corpse. If the Elysium Order thought that there might be undead in the general area of their church, they would probably send at least a portion of their forces to investigate.

Unfortunately, it would probably set the rest on high alert.

Maybe the undead should be contained and set to be released if they needed a distraction. A much better plan than alerting everyone right away.

Eva kept a careful watch on the girl as she pushed herself up to her knees and then to her feet. All the while, Eva had a portion of Arachne’s blood ready to strike or shield at a moment’s notice.

Arachne had moved back in the shadows and climbed partway up the building, looking about ready to pounce on the animated corpse.

“I told you to warn me before teleporting,” the girl whined as she tried to brush dirt and grime from her clothes.

Given that she was wearing a white dress, she failed miserably. If anything, she only worsened the problem by smearing the dirt around herself.

The girl seemed to realize the problem only after it was too late.

As she looked up to glare at Wayne, Eva caught a dead-on view of her eyes.

Or rather, the endless abyss behind them. They were like little snow globes with storms in place of the snow that would be right at home inside of Ylva’s domain.

“You would have ended up on your face no matter what,” Wayne said.

His voice broke Eva out of her trance. She shook her head and averted her eyes, determined not to get stuck in that trap again.

“I also told you to catch me. You’re so meaan to me,” she said, drawing out the word. “And after all the favors I’ve done for you over the years.”

Eva heard the distinct sound of Wayne scoffing behind her back.

“Now I’m all embarrassed and dirty in front of,” she took a deep breath through her nose, “someone who smells soo fantastic.”

The girl appeared in front of Eva. It wasn’t teleportation; Eva managed to track her movements just enough to tell that much. She was, however, fast enough to startle Eva.

Barely thinking, Eva activated her shield as she stumbled back from the other teenager.

She passed through the side of the shield and left the animated corpse behind, trapped within the bubble.

“What strange eyes,” the corpse muttered to herself.

“Look who’s talking.”

The corpse took another deep breath. “Ah, blood magic,” she said. A wide smile formed on her face as she poked the orb of blood powering the shield. “But you should have taken this with you.”

It doesn’t work like that, Eva almost said. The orb had to stay in the direct center of the shield or it collapsed. She had tried otherwise in the past, but nothing had never worked.

But Eva kept her mouth shut as her mind raced to toss out all of her previous assumptions about the girl. The twin fangs hanging out of her smile introduced a new theory.

The girl was a vampire.

Eva had never before encountered a vampire. In fact, she had assumed that the entire species was a myth up until Genoa had told the story of why she disliked the Elysium Order.

As if to prove Eva’s new theory, the vampire leaned down and slurped up the core of the shield. The actual shell collapsed immediately, freeing the trapped vampire.

For just a moment, Eva considered clapping her hands together and exploding the blood inside the vampire’s stomach. The only thing staying her hands was the fact that the vampire had arrived with Wayne and Zoe had clearly been expecting her arrival. She was probably not an enemy.

A blur of movement in the upper corners of Eva’s eyes had her shouting as fast as possible. “Arachne!”

The spider-demon twisted in midair, moving just enough to land behind the vampire rather than on top of her. All of her spare legs were spread out, hovering dangerously close to the vampire’s throat.

The vampire turned around to face Arachne, calm and languid as she could be.

Or the vampire’s calm exterior could be a facade. Perhaps she was nervous out of her mind.

Eva was finding it incredibly difficult to tell one way or the other. It made her realize just how much she had come to rely on her blood sight to tell when people were nervous. Anyone with even a modicum of self-control could keep their face straight in stressful situations, but keeping their hearts steady was another matter entirely.

“That was your blood?” The vampire wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure it agreed with me. Too tangy. Too sweet.”

Arachne stood motionless over the far smaller vampire, radiating a menacing aura.

“Do you talk? You clearly listen,” she said with a glance at Eva. “Yet I cannot say I’ve ever encountered a creature like you.”

“Serena,” Zoe said, “we have time constraints. You can socialize later.”

The vampire spun on her heel and skipped straight to Zoe. Wrapping her into a hug around the waist, Serena said, “Zoe! I haven’t seen you in forever. You’re so big now. Have you thought more on joining?”

“Not in the slightest,” Zoe said. Her voice was flat, but she returned the hug.

Eva just blinked. Zoe knew the vampire too? And was hugging her?

“Wayne told you what we’re going to do?”

Serena shook her head. Her voice dropped into a mocking growl as she spoke. “‘Remember Boston? We need to do that again,’ was all he said. But since we’re in an alley and not a sushi bar, there are no circuses around, and Wayne doesn’t have makeup on, I’m not sure how we’re going to–”

“Not that part of Boston,” Zoe said as fast as she could.

Unlike the vampire, Eva could actually see Zoe’s heart pick up the pace a few notches.

“Oh,” her eyes narrowed. “I thought we agreed not to bother the Elysium Order again. I’ve enjoyed relative peace for the last few years and would really rather not antagonize them any further. Can’t you just ask them for whatever you need?”

“While I respect the Elysium Order for most of their work,” Wayne said as he took a half step forward, “I’d rather not walk up to them openly and announce myself. I doubt they will be so forgiving if they tie us to Boston.”

Zoe nodded along with that. “And they probably wouldn’t be willing to give a relic of theirs away. This is an emergency. Necessary, even. If you want to back out, I’ll understand.”

“Do we even have masks this time?”

Zoe gave a short shake of her head.

Releasing Zoe from the hug, Serena huffed as she turned around. Her eyes found Eva and for a moment, she just stared. “What’s your role in all this?”

“My friend is the one in danger. And we,” Eva gestured towards Arachne, “will be proceeding with or without anyone’s help.”

“You think you can fight the Elysium Order on your own? I don’t know what the two of you are, but you can’t seriously believe that running head on into one of their strongholds will turn out well.”

“Run in? Fight?” Eva shook her head. “Not in the slightest. I doubt I could fight a single nun. So long as they’re healthy, at least. No, my plan involves a great deal more subtlety and stealth. We have a map. We know roughly how many nuns are around. It is late at night; many nuns will be asleep.” Eva glanced at Arachne. “Shapeshifting into smaller forms won’t hurt our chances.”

“Sneaking in?” The vampire hummed. After a moment of thought, she turned a glare on Wayne. “That’s a far better plan than what we did last time. And, it is something that my talents will be useful for.”

“Great. Splendid. Can we please get a move on?”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.024

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva tore open the doors to Ylva’s domain and sprinted inside.

Ylva was on her throne, her skeletal form looking impassive as always under the light shining from the storm clouds overhead. Her pose was as relaxed as it always was. With her fist curled beneath her chin, she slouched back in her throne.

Four others sat around a small table set down at the base of her throne. Alicia and Nel sat at opposite ends of the table from one another with Wayne Lurcher in between the two. Wayne had a scowl on his face as he eyed his neighbors.

Surprisingly enough, Devon had been allowed back inside Ylva’s domain.

Desperate times, I suppose, Eva thought as she ran up to the table.

“It isn’t the entity known as Void,” Devon said. “I’m willing to put a lot of money on the sky being the doing of the Power that is attacking the Void.”

“The point still stands,” grumbled Wayne. “Whatever it is, it probably doesn’t have our best interests at heart.”

Ignoring the others and not caring at all that she was interrupting what was probably an important conversation, Eva placed both palms on the table and gazed straight into Nel’s eyes. “You found Sawyer?”

Zoe had already said as much. Eva trusted her not to lie, but she had to be sure. She had to hear the words from Nel’s own mouth.

Wilting under Eva’s gaze, Nel nodded her head. “He passed out somewhere in Nevada just as… well, you’ve been outside. Just as all that started.”

Eva grit her teeth and balled her fist. A thin layer of marble dust coated her fingers from where they scraped against the table surface. Of course, it would be now. He couldn’t just show up while nothing was happening like a good little necromancer. He had to show up while a potential apocalypse was going on.

If that was what was actually going on. Devon and Wayne’s conversation might have implied otherwise. Eva was too focused on Nel to pay all that much attention to their words.

With a heartfelt sigh, Eva slumped into one of the extra chairs set up around the table.

Even if nothing was going on except for Shalise and the doll, Eva couldn’t put Sawyer in front of her friend.

Well, she could. Lynn would probably kill her if she did. Though Eva couldn’t discount the possibility that Lynn wasn’t going to try to kill her the moment they made it out of Hell anyway.

Eva rested her forehead against the cool surface of the table, idly scratching a claw mark to the side of her head just a little deeper.

“Spencer,” Wayne grumbled with a slight tension in his voice, “what did you do with Zoe?”

She didn’t even have the motivation to protest his usage of her last name.

“Don’t worry so much. She’s just doing a little shopping for me.” Eva pulled out one of the copies of the list and slid it over to Nel. “Can you do anything about the bottom two?”

Nel didn’t even glance at the list. “What about Sawyer?”

“What about him?” When Nel didn’t move, Eva let out another sigh. “I’d love to go gallivanting across the country, but for some reason, I don’t think this is the time. It might have to do with the sky, and Shalise, and,” Eva glanced up at Wayne, “something about my dorm room?”

He opened his mouth to respond, but Nel slammed her fist down on the table.

“So he just gets to walk away. Is that it?”

Eva lifted her head. “Of course not. There’s just…” Narrowing her eyes at the augur, Eva said, “have you even looked outside?”

Nel glanced down. Not at the paper, more at her feet through the table. After a moment of silence, she mumbled something.

“What was that?”

“I said that something bad happens every time I leave. I get inquisitions sent after me. I get kidnapped. Or the sky turns purple! Next time I leave, it just might be the end of the world.”

“So you did go outside.”

Nel shifted. “Not really. I opened the door, saw the sky, and slammed it shut.”

Eva smiled. She wanted to laugh, but the thought of missing out on hunting down Sawyer did put a damper on her mood.

“As much as he is a personal priority of ours,” Eva said, emphasizing the word, “I think you’ll agree that other matters require our attention first. Like that list in front of you.” Eva tapped a sharp finger down on the piece of paper, all but forcing Nel’s eyes to it.

Those eyes widened a moment later.

“The salt is easy,” she said after a moment of rereading the list. “The obelisk, not so much.”

“Let’s start with the salt–”

Wayne, leaning over to read the list, cleared his throat. “What is this for?”

“A cleansing ritual,” Nel answered before Eva could. “The deep, soul level type of cleansing.”

“For Shalise,” Eva added. “Former Sister Cross thinks that she can get Prax out of Shalise and, therefore, Shalise out of Hell. Considering that things down there are possibly scarier than things up here, she’s willing to accept a small amount of danger on Shalise’s part to perform the ritual.”

“Scarier?” Devon said, genuine curiosity in his voice. “What is happening in Hell?”

“Same things, for the most part. The sky had purple streaks through it, much like here. They’ve since faded, I think. The difference between here and there is that Hell has Void actively fighting back. At least, as far as I can tell from a cursory glance.” Eva glanced up at Ylva, but the hel failed to move. Without skin on her face, she couldn’t even see any facial expressions.

“Sounds like her situation wouldn’t improve much,” Wayne said with a slight grunt as he centered himself back in his seat.

“Oh yeah, Shalise might also have some prison warden hunting her down.”

That actually did get a response out of Ylva. Just a slight stirring in her posture that, had she been anyone else, might have been mistaken as movement to get more comfortable. Eva would have missed it entirely had she not already been watching the demon.

Eva raised an eyebrow in her direction, wondering if she had anything to add.

Ylva just gave a slight, almost imperceptible shake of her head.

“Anyway,” Eva said, letting it drop for the moment. She turned back to face Nel. “Where do we get the salt?”

“Anywhere, I think. It needs to be natural sea salt–no iodine. Larger grain size. About fifteen pounds should work for this ritual.” Nel shook her head. “Wait, better make it thirty. I’m… well, out of practice. I’d rather have some to spare if I mess something up.”

“That’s it?” she asked just to be sure. Thirty pounds of salt sounded like a lot, but it wasn’t anything outrageous. It certainly didn’t sound like something that would cause much trouble. Quite the opposite, really.

“Well, I’ll have to prepare it. Shouldn’t take more than two or three hours.”

Still not too bad. Maybe Lynn Cross was simply worried about the time it would take to acquire and prepare it. “So the other thing? Where can I find an obelisk? I assume it is a specific kind of obelisk.”

“Of the pure moon,” Nel said, shaking her head. “It isn’t something you can go to a shopping center and purchase.”

“Then where do I find one,” Eva asked, speaking slightly slower as if she were speaking to a child.

“It’s an idol. Similar to the idol used to crack the sky.” She sent a mild glare at Devon. “The priceless artifact that he destroyed.” There wasn’t much accusation in her voice. Probably because she knew that she would have been far less angry about its destruction had one of those beams of light hit her.

Eva could guess that she would have preferred capturing it over destroying it, but that was in the past.

Devon, for his part, did not appear to be paying attention. He had his thumb on his goatee and his brow furrowed in thought.

“That’s all well and good,” Eva said, slowing down her speech further. “Where, Nel, do I get one?”

Nel bit her lip. She glanced over to Alicia–whose face had remained entirely impassive throughout the entire discussion–before turning to face Eva. “You’ll have to steal one. There are only six that I know about.” Again, she glanced over at Alicia. “The closest would probably be in the Salem Cathedral and Training Center.”

Eva snorted. “A bunch of vampire hunters made a home base out of the home of the witch hunts? Wonder if they worked together with the puritans back in the day. It would make sense, both have far too much zealotry for their own good.”

For the first time since Eva had shown up, Alicia laughed.

Actually, for the first time ever, as far as Eva knew.

It wasn’t a happy laugh. Rather, it set Eva’s nerves on end. Both Wayne and Devon–who had come out of his thoughts at the noise–looked a bit unsettled as well.

Nel shot a glare in the ex-nun’s direction, but turned a pained look on Eva.

“Um… Salem Oregon,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. “Not Massachusetts.”

Her voice wasn’t quiet enough to avoid Devon’s ears, evidenced by him turning a smirk in Eva’s direction.

“Point still stands,” Eva said, ignoring everyone at the table. She cleared her throat when Devon opened his mouth. Whatever snide comment he had could be kept to himself. “Anyway, can you spy on where you expect it to be? I’d rather not waste my time running all the way to Oregon if it isn’t there.”

“I can try,” Nel said with a nod. “But how are you getting there?”

“Well,” Eva shifted her glance towards Wayne, “there are two people I know of that can teleport without needing something at the destination. Although, Zagan could probably do it.”

Nel flinched while Devon glowered.

Eva shook her head before either could say a word. “I’m not going to ask him though. Even if he agreed, it would probably be at some exorbitant price that I am not interested in paying.”

Besides, Eva thought, if I help Shalise myself, I don’t have to answer his riddle about what would be worth having Shalise back home.

With an extra heap of gravel in his voice, Wayne said, “you feel you must drag myself and Zoe into this?”

“It is for Shalise. When I told Zoe before heading here, she essentially gave a blanket offer of assistance.”

He mumbled something under his breath that sounded roughly like a curse, but Eva let it pass.

“If you are scared,” she said, “you could just wait outside. Stealing it won’t be that hard, right? Just have to get around a couple of nuns.” Eva glanced at Devon.

While she was fairly certain that he hadn’t had to use her before, if he could summon up that waxy, headache inducing demon again, they could probably just walk right in. The demon would incapacitate everyone while they browsed the Elysium Order’s wares.

Eva tried not to consider raiding the place straight away, but she couldn’t help but think that perhaps there would be more of value than just the obelisk. The Elysium Order had to collect a number of artifacts and tomes that they could not or simply did not destroy.

Under her stare, Devon’s eyes grew wide. “Oh no. Nope. Don’t look at me. We’ve tangled with the nuns enough for one decade. Call me again in ten years when they’ve had a chance to cool off.”

“But just a few demons with the right abilities will make it our easiest job in years. Probably.”

Probably.” He let out a slight snort. “I wouldn’t count on them just laying down and allowing you to walk away with priceless artifacts because Arachne showed up.”

Eva gave a slight start. She glanced around the table to confirm her fears.

No Arachne.

“Has anyone talked to Arachne since all the sky and things have happened?” Eva was staring mostly at Devon, but was open to a response from anyone.

No one said a word.

With a sigh, Eva said, “I’ll have to go see if she has even noticed the sky after this.”

“If you’re done with that drivel,” Devon said, “I would like to hear more about the happenings of Hell.”

Eva shrugged. “I don’t know what more there is to say. There was an earthquake. Sky turned colors. That’s pretty much it.” Eva glanced up towards Ylva before asking, “were there tremors here?”

“Enough for only Ourself to notice, not enough to shake the walls of Our domain.”

“And your sky?” Eva asked, glancing upwards. She still wasn’t certain that sky was the proper term, but said it anyway for lack of a better word. The storm clouds overhead obscured any view of the dark void, but Ylva probably had enough awareness of her own domain to know what was happening regardless of whether or not she could see it.

Unless something had changed in the last several hours, there weren’t any storm clouds over the beach portion of her domain. She would be able to observe from there in any case.

Ylva’s head gave a slight incline. “It has since returned to normal.”

“That fits with what I saw.” Eva gave a sorry shrug towards Devon. “Can you make anything out with that little information?”

He hummed for a moment, again stroking his beard. “I imagine that the Void fought back. And succeeded, for now at least. Here, however, we have no Power to fight for us.”

Wayne leaned forward on the table. “So we fight back ourselves. Is that what you’re saying?”

Devon snorted, slowly shaking his head from side to side. “If you think you can match power with a Power, be my guest. If you can, you’re a far scarier person than I gave you credit for.”

Dismissing Wayne with a wave of his hand, Devon put a finger down on the table. “Here is my theory. The events of tonight are not caused by any mortal or demon. Rather, a Power is the cause. I do concede that a mortal, demon, or other non-Power entity may be assisting the Power, but they are not the primary cause.

“The effect observable in the sky does not extend far beyond Brakket City, ending within a few miles in any direction around the town with the exception of the direction of this prison in which it extends and encompasses this area as well.” He drew his finger around in a large circle around the initial point he had touched.

“The reason for this is the concentration of demons around Brakket City. I mean, there’s what, ten to fifteen demons in and around the city at any given time? One of which is a pillar.” He glanced down towards Eva as if asking for confirmation.

Eva just shrugged. “Sounds about right. That we know of, at least. Who knows what Martina has in reserve.”

“As someone who has dealt with demons in one manner or another throughout my entire life, I have never once heard of such a thing. Diabolists are rare. Typically, they won’t have more than one or two demons out at once and then, not often for any length of time.”

He leaned back in his chair, folding his arms before him. “I posit that this concentration of demons has given the attacking Power a medium through which to target Void.”

“So we send them all back to Hell,” Wayne said, rising to his feet.

Eva watched him, trying to keep the amusement off of her face, as he slowly realized just where he was. She could spot the very moment when he knew that he had done something wrong.

His shoulders jumped slightly. Slowly, he turned to face Ylva. He cleared his throat before speaking. “Ah, no offense,” he mumbled.

Ylva raised one skeletal hand and brushed his worries off to the side. “Nothing occurs to Us that might contradict the presented theory, given our collective knowledge is so limited.”

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Devon said as he scratched at his chin with his tentacle. “Probably too late. Even if you sent back every demon currently roaming the Earth, I doubt the sky would turn back to normal. The connection has already been made.”

“But the sky in my domain is back to normal,” Eva said. She gave a short nod in Ylva’s direction. “Presumably everywhere in Hell.”

“That just means that the Power must try again on the Void side of things. In fact, I recommend the opposite. Limit the connections going between the Earth and Hell. No more teleporting. No more summoning. No more banishing. It might just slow things down while we learn more.”

He turned his eyes to bore straight into Ylva. “And I will put money on the notion that your domain will become more dangerous. The enigmas that have been attacking are just the vanguard. Placed there to weaken Void. More dangerous things will be appearing in preparation for another attempt.”

Devon narrowed his eyes in Eva’s direction. “Keep out of it. I have no intention of stopping my work just because of a little apocalypse. And that will be hard to do if you’re dead or trapped in Hell.”

Eva harrumphed, but didn’t disagree. All the more reason to get Shalise out sooner rather than later.

“Of course,” Devon said louder, angling his head back just so Ylva was in the corner of his eye, “that means severing this domain’s connection to the mortal realm. I’d say I’m sorry to see you go, but that would be the biggest lie I’ve ever told, and I have told a few.”

He turned away, mumbling under his breath just loud enough for Eva to pick up. “Stupid girl shouldn’t have allowed it in the first place.”

Eva glowered at the man. Instead of giving him a response, she watched Ylva. She half expected Ylva to come down from her throne and toss Devon around for a minute for the insult, but her actual actions surprised her.

After taking a moment to consider, Ylva’s skinless skull dipped into a grave nod. “We concur.”

Devon blinked, apparently surprised as well. The confusion on his face shifted into horror as he jumped to his feet, heart suddenly beating faster and faster.

“You’re not doing it now, are you?” He glanced towards the door and looked ready to start running.

Eva’s own heart jumped in pace. She did have an active beacon, having handed hers off to Zoe, so returning wouldn’t be that big of an issue. But it would still be an inconvenience as she still needed to go collect an obelisk.

Ylva shook her head as she stood from her throne. Her dress draped around the floor as she walked down the steps. “We have Our own business to attend before severing Our domain. We shall start with haste. Finish your business here and vacate at once.”

As she stepped down from her throne, she left the column of light. Her flesh returned just in time for her cold eyes to shift to Alicia. “Come,” she spoke.

Alicia snapped to her side fast enough that Eva wondered if she hadn’t teleported there.

Ylva’s eyes turned to Nel. The augur’s eyes ceased their glare at Alicia to meet with Ylva.

“Assist Eva in her task. Find Ourself upon finishing.”

“Yes, Lady Ylva,” Nel said, head ducking in a sitting bow.

As Ylva and Alicia headed off towards one of the back archways–not one Eva could remember entering before–Devon all but ran from the throne room. He paused for just a moment at the edge of the throne platform, hesitating. After tapping his foot against the thin air to reassure himself that he wouldn’t fall through, Devon walked across and out of the domain.

It seemed silly to Eva. She had walked across without even thinking about it, as she had on occasion in the past. Then again, she had also helped throw an enigma or two down the pit, and was fairly certain that she had dangled her legs over the edge one time. A brief bout of curiosity tickled the back of her mind as she considered just how it worked.

She dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. It probably wasn’t the most pressing of matters at the moment.

Turning back to those remaining at the table, Eva stopped her gaze on Nel. “Let’s check that the obelisk is where you think it is, then we’ll get you some salt. After that…” Eva gave an involuntary shudder as she realized that she would have to be teleported through that cold ‘between’.

But that was a momentary discomfort. Shalise being stuck in Hell would be worse.

Shaking her head to clear her mind, Eva looked at Wayne. “After, if you’d teleport us to wherever this chapel is, Dev–”

Eva whipped her head towards the door leading out of Ylva’s domain.

That coward just ran away.

“Actually,” Eva said after a short sigh, “I might need a few minutes to consult with Arachne.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.021

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Catherine’s heels clicked in a steady rhythm as she walked down the empty hallway of Brakket Academy.

She considered running. The quicker she made it home, the sooner she could join in on her clan’s planned raid against those pathetic humans and elves. Well, they were all humans–probably–including her own team. But her team had chosen the demonic race, so their hearts were in the right place.

As it was, she was already a full half hour late because of ‘secretarial duties’ that she had been purposefully neglecting.

Thanks, Martina, she thought. Because of course Martina would choose today of all days to check up on my work.

Filing paperwork in its proper place had cost her dearly.

She wanted to teleport. It would have been so much simpler. Not to mention faster.

Again, Martina was standing in her way. The paranoid woman had banned everything that could potentially hint towards demonic activity around Brakket Academy. That, naturally, included the method of teleportation that both Martina and Catherine employed.

The one consolation Catherine had was that Martina had condemned herself to walking about like a common plebeian.

What she was afraid of, Catherine couldn’t even begin to fathom. Demon hunters were ruthless, no arguing that. However, Martina had Zagan on call. If he wasn’t around to swat annoying flies away with the back of his hand, what good was he?

Surely he wasn’t being kept around for his teaching skills.

Catherine shook her head. The idea was laughable.

Mid-head shake, Catherine stopped. Just in time to avoid three people coming around the corner.

“Ca–Professor Catherine,” Irene’s twin said as she jumped back. “What are you doing here?”

Ignoring the improper title–Catherine was not a professor, the diablery class did not count–Catherine eyed her student. Irene’s sister looked… worried. Perhaps just shocked at meeting someone in the hallway, but probably not. Moving on to the spawn of Governor Anderson, Catherine’s frown deepened. He was calm, but still had jitters.

Something must have happened that rattled them.

And then they ran off to get a professor. Wayne Lurcher didn’t look worried so much as he looked annoyed. So either he hadn’t seen whatever had startled the children, or he didn’t care.

Possibly both, it was hard to tell with him.

“I,” Catherine said, turning her gaze back to the sister, “happen to work here. I am allowed to be within the school after hours. You two lack that excuse.”

“We–”

“Something is wrong with their dorm,” Wayne said, interrupting the girl. He continued with a sneer. “In fact, probably something more suited to a secretary than a professor. You would know how to contact the proper custodial or maintenance personnel.”

Catherine’s heel clicked as she stepped forwards. “You’re not foisting more garbage off on me. I’ve got to get home and–and do important things.”

That got a scoff from the professor.

“As I was saying,” the Anderson spawn cut in, “I don’t think it is that kind of issue.” He glanced up to Catherine. “We’re heading to Eva’s room. Irene is keeping an eye on it.”

“An enigma?” Catherine frowned as no recognition lit up in the kids’ eyes.

Though that made sense after a moment of thinking about it. Irene wouldn’t be able to say anything about them without violating her contract.

“Where is Eva?”

“She doesn’t stay in her dorm much these days. Less than once a week, I’d say.”

Wayne pulled out his phone and started tapping away. A moment later, he dropped it back into his pocket. “Zoe will check her other residence,” he grunted. “In the meantime, let’s take a look at whatever mess the menace has caused this time.”

Catherine stood still as they all started to move. For a moment, she considered just ignoring the problem. Most problems had a tendency to resolve themselves or just go away if they were ignored long enough.

Unfortunately, she doubted that she would hear the end of it if Martina found out. And besides, it was a good opportunity to see her student and how she handled herself. Considering Irene’s performance against the other enigma, it would be something of a wonder if the girl hadn’t killed herself.

It didn’t take long to get to the dorms. They were, after all, just a stone’s throw from the school building itself.

All the while, the kids and the professor were talking quite animatedly amongst themselves. Arguing over some mortal problems, Catherine assumed. She really didn’t care enough to listen in.

The moment they reached the third floor of the Rickenbacker dormitory, a wave of nausea hit Catherine. She doubled over, one hand braced against the wall to keep her up. She couldn’t recall ever even imagining the sensation that caused mortals to vomit, but this had to have come close.

Brushing off a suddenly concerned group of mortals, Catherine pulled out her cellphone.

Rickenbacker. Third floor. You’ll know it when you feel it.

She sent the message off to Zagan as she shoved the Anderson boy off of her.

“I’m fine,” Catherine snarled.

The feeling had been growing since entering the stairwell, but she was caught entirely unawares by just how pungent the very air felt on the top floor. It was similar to the feeling she had felt upon first seeing the enigma that Irene had summoned, so she hadn’t paid it much mind while it was a minor effect. She had already assumed that there would be an enigma around anyway.

Catherine’s heels clicked against the floor, unsteady as she half-stumbled her way to the source of the feeling.

One of the dormitory rooms had its door wide open. At least, she thought it was one of the rooms. The number outside listed the door as three-thirteen, though part of the lettering had worn off.

Moving to check the adjacent doorways, Catherine found that they were regular dorm rooms. Logic held that three-thirteen was supposed to be a room as well.

Or at least a broom closet of some sort.

She stepped into the room, heels mushing against the sand covered flooring. The sharp spikes making up the heels of her stilettoed boots barely encountered any resistance for the first few inches from the surface. Even with sand over the floor, they shouldn’t have sunk in so far. The solid floor beneath should have held firm.

But, other than a light stumble, Catherine barely noted her feet. Her attentions were drawn straight up. There was no roof. No ceiling. No lights, wiring, or structural support for the building.

There was nothing. A pitch black lot of familiar nothingness.

Forcing her gaze off of the emptiness, Catherine glanced around. There were no waters. In fact, there was nothing but a slice of the beach. It cut off sharply where the walls of the room were–for they were in their normal spot.

Irene stood a few steps forward, enraptured by the void overhead.

“You shouldn’t stare.” Catherine placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Or even be inside. There are enigmas somewhere in here.”

Blinking three times, Irene shook her head. The glazed look over her eyes subsided. “Wha–what happened?”

“I guess that you came inside, a stupid move, and proceeded to look up for far too long. Another stupid move. Get out of the room and draw the highest tier shackles you can remember how to draw correctly just in front of the doorway.”

“What about you?”

What about her? There were enigmas somewhere around. Perhaps on the other side of the walls, or underground. Sticking around didn’t seem like the best of ideas.

Catherine shrugged. She had already sent a text to Zagan, this seemed more like his job anyway.

“Probably go home. I have other things to do.”

— — —

“For the last time, she didn’t attack me, dad.”

Juliana wanted to slam her head against the window of their tiny car. Every clank of her father’s cellphone as it knocked back and forth in the cup holder only increased her irritation. A cloudless starry sky hung cheerily overhead in stark contrast to her current mood.

Brakket City was slowly shrinking into the background. Along with it went her school and her friends.

She didn’t even get a chance to visit Shalise before her father ushered her off into the car.

“And she didn’t attack you either,” Juliana said, sticking a finger in Erich’s arm.

Calling him up had been a mistake. She had thought that he would be worried about their mother. Turns out that was wrong.

Basically, it was the opposite. Erich had barely said two words to their mother. Even taking into account her few periods of wakefulness during the first few months, that was far too few in Juliana’s opinion.

Instead, he had spent all of his time babysitting her, complaining about her parents when they weren’t in the room, and making things awkward when they were in the room. Juliana knew that he had poor relations with their mother, but there was a point where it got ridiculous.

He could at least pretend for her sake.

“It doesn’t matter what Eva did or did not do, Juli. I finalized my initial report and sent it off to her. I sent a copy to Zoe and the Dean as well. My job was done, it was time to leave.”

“You mailed them. You could have at least given them in person.”

Juliana crossed her arms in a huff. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to get back to her mother. She did. Even though her mother had doctors to keep her healthy, they didn’t exactly keep her company.

But she also wanted to say goodbye at the very least.

“You know,” Erich said as he moved to rest a hand on her shoulder, “when I went to school here… it was a calming center of learning and research. No zombies or monsters attacked the school.”

“Sounds boring.”

The point,” he said, “is that you should be learning in a safe environment.

“You’re a powerful mage and Genoa has taught you well. But you are still a child. You’re inexperienced and still learning. There will be plenty of time for danger and adventure later. When you are better equipped to handle it.”

Juliana shrugged off his hand and went back to leaning her forehead against the cool window. Yeah, right, she thought. Not if the world ends soon.

That was the one thing that she hadn’t told anyone. Her mother might know, depending on how conscious she had been while Zagan was talking to Eva in Willie’s domain. If she did know, she hadn’t said a word.

Juliana was leaning towards her not knowing. She hadn’t started up an extensive training regimen. Neither had she insisted on bulking up their already massive food storage. Bedridden or not, Juliana knew her mother and her mother would not just lie down and not prepare.

Getting her own training in had become a daily routine for Juliana. She tried to think up what her mother would have her do and then double it. It probably wasn’t close to what her mother actually would do, but it kept her from becoming rusty. Unfortunately, Juliana doubted that thaumaturgy would be enough.

Her excursions with Ylva served a dual purpose. It was true that she was searching for references to Willie and talkina in general, but if Hell merged, it probably wouldn’t matter much. A good portion of her time went into seeking out weapons. Anything that could be used effectively against demons.

Her findings weren’t the most heartening of things. Shackles were easily the most prevalent defenses against demons. But there must be more. Demon hunters had to have proper tools for actually hunting them.

Juliana thought that they would be more publicized.

And then there was the ‘domination’ that Devon apparently used. Juliana had never seen it in person, but Eva had mentioned it on occasion. How to do so was not listed in a single book.

“The classes and professors that have come on since I graduated are less than reassuring as well,” Erich said, bringing Juliana’s attentions off of the fast-moving scenery. She turned just in time to watch his face darken considerably. “That’s to say nothing of your… friend.”

“Don’t you dare. I would be dead several times over if not for her.”

“And that,” Carlos said from the front seat, “is exactly why we’re looking into alternate schools. I’m thankful to Eva, I really am, but you should never have almost been dead even once. If Scotland is too far, why not Charmbridge? The dean there is a strict woman and would never allow all of this,” he paused to wave one hand in the vague direction of Brakket Academy.

Rolling her eyes, Juliana kept silent. Protesting would lead to another argument. Agreeing was exactly the opposite of what she wanted to do.

Though, Erich and dad are in agreement. The world really is ending.

As she was staring out the window, Juliana gave a start. The normal sky wasn’t quite so normal any longer.

Streaks of purple cut through the sky like jagged clouds. The purple pulsed lightly to some unheard beat. Every pulse spread the streaks out like lightning made of molasses.

“Um, dad?”

“I see it.”

Though her eyes were glued on the heavens, Juliana’s peripheral vision caught the ground moving much faster beneath their car.

“We’re not stopping?”

“The sky is clear up ahead.”

“But what about–”

“Juliana,” her father said, voice firmer than she had ever heard it. “This city has come so close to taking away everything I hold dear. I’m not giving it another chance.”

“But my friends… Zoe…” Juliana bit her lip. The way Zagan and Eva had talked about Hell being brought to the mortal realm sounded much farther off than now. It hadn’t even been half a year. But if that was what was happening, driving away likely wouldn’t save them.

Her lip-biting turned to grinding her teeth as anger welled up within her. She was running away.

“Mom would go back.”

“Genoa isn’t here,” Carlos said softly, his speed only increasing.

Gripping the door handle with white knuckles, Juliana watched the speedometer pass one hundred. It won’t matter what’s going on behind us if we crash into a mountain.

Shaking her head, Juliana reached forward and pulled her father’s cellphone from the holder.

At the very least, she could warn Zoe and Wayne, both of whom were in his contacts list. To her surprise, the dean and Catherine were entered in as well. One of them had probably seen the sky and already alerted the others, but Juliana sent off a group text anyway. If they were asleep, maybe, just maybe her text could save someone’s life.

Turning in her seat, Juliana watched helplessly as the purple lightning-streaked sky shrank behind her in the rear window.

“This city is cursed,” Erich mumbled under his breath.

— — —

Staring at the inky blackness of nothing became tedious after a while.

Actually, it got tedious after a matter of seconds. There was no one to speak with, nothing to look at, nothing to do save for wander her own mind. Unfortunately, Nel felt that she was reaching the limits of even her own thoughts.

There were only so many things she could think about. After weeks and months of nothing but blackness for most of every day, Nel was starting to worry for her own sanity. She had already thought about everything she could think of.

Other augurs didn’t have to deal with an empty target under normal circumstances. There weren’t many things that could block out the scrying of an augur. In fact, apart from Ylva’s domain and a few higher-ups in the Elysium Order like Sister Cross, whatever Sawyer had done with her eyes was the only thing that she had ever encountered that could block her sight.

There were probably more things. Nel had only been an augur for a year prior to entering into Ylva’s service. The more experienced sisters had probably encountered at least a handful of things that could block out their sight.

For a moment, Nel wondered what the nuns did to occupy their time.

Shaking her head, she realized that she knew the probable answer.

Any long-term observation would have multiple augurs assigned to the task. They didn’t have to deal with such things.

Unfortunately for Nel, she lacked any companions to foist the responsibility off to. Any breaks she took to sleep, eat, or just stretch her legs would gnaw at the back of her mind until she returned to the altar.

What Sawyer did might have been permanent. In which case, she was entirely wasting her time. But there was a chance that he had to consume the remaining eyes that he had stolen to power whatever he had done. Or that it couldn’t be moved easily.

All she needed was a sliver. A slight glimmer of where he was. Even if he occluded himself immediately after, it would give Nel a starting point. A point where she could look around, find street signs or other landmarks. Maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to follow the disturbance around. If she got a good enough sense for what the disturbance was, Nel was hoping that she might be able to lock onto that. Even if she couldn’t see what he was doing, seeing where he was could have infinite value.

Of course, none of those thoughts were things that Nel hadn’t already thought before, furthering her own opinion that she was slowly going crazy. Her thoughts were just cycling around themselves, never going far in one direction or the other.

“Eva really needs to finish her project with his blood,” Nel mumbled to herself for what had to be the hundredth time.

Originally, Nel had wanted to be the one to locate Sawyer. Partially out of pure revenge, but also because she had a feeling that it would be her only real contribution to bringing him down.

She wasn’t much of a fighter and she knew it.

Nel nearly fell from her seat as a sudden image filled her vision. A quick burst of fear-filled adrenaline was all that gave her the reflexes to catch herself on the altar.

She did not want to miss out on what could possibly be the sliver she had been waiting for by falling and losing concentration.

Her vision came into focus. Blurry at first, but it slowly sharpened as time dragged on.

As it cleared up, Nel tried to glean as many details as was possible. There was a lot of red. Blood, Nel decided. It would fit with the more fleshy tones surrounding the red. Violet was another predominant color, though Nel couldn’t tell what that was. Perhaps a cloth draped over a table–she was fairly certain there were tables.

While everything cleared up, Nel moved her vision outside of the building. It was a large warehouse built out of rusted metal. Or rather, it had probably been built out of regular metal that had rusted through time and disuse. Either way, there were no large signs indicating what the structure had been originally intended for.

Everything outside was clear instantly, so she wasted no time in maneuvering her view to the nearest crossroads. Nel scrambled for a pad of paper and proceeded to write down the road names.

She would be able to come back to those later to find the state or country, if he had left the states. The signs looked like they were from the United States, but Nel hadn’t been to every country.

For the moment, Nel moved back inside. On her way back to the original point, she scoped out some of the rest of the warehouse. A good number of those creatures he was so fond of creating stood locked up in a makeshift cage. Skeletons patrolled the catwalks overhead, most armed with bows and arrows. One appeared to have a revolver bolted onto its hand.

Nel shook her head. Wouldn’t the kick of firing just send the whole arm flying off the body?

Then again, those skeletons could draw the string of a bow, and that wasn’t supposed to be easy.

A sick feeling welled up in Nel’s stomach as she spotted piles of bones. The piles formed four distinct pillars, each capped with a human skull, all positioned around a circular table. A sacrificial dagger lay between two basins. An assortment of rings rested on one side of the table.

It was something that all augurs had been trained to recognize. Bones dug from a graveyard built up to form the soul binding altar. One of the easiest signs to recognize budding necromancers with. They would use the altar to call and bind ghosts to anchors.

And, since moving in with Ylva, Nel had discovered that soul binding was the greatest affront to Death. Even moreso than sealing ones own soul away into an immortal object made of gold. The souls to create ghosts were stolen directly from his plane of existence.

Yet it was one of the easiest branches of necromancy to start off with. All it really required was digging up a graveyard. Even the more squeamish of necromancers could do it. No killing required.

Back at the origin point of the scrying, Nel couldn’t help but frown at what she saw.

Sawyer was lying flat on his back between two operating tables. His wide smile was missing from his face.

While covered in blood, he didn’t actually appear injured. Nel couldn’t spot a single injury. There was, however, a pulsing lump of violet fused with his hand.

That probably had something to do with his condition.

Nel almost wanted to cry out in frustration. He couldn’t just die. Not without being killed first. And made to suffer.

A slight movement of the collar on his button-up shirt quashed Nel’s rage. Moving her view closer, she could see that he was breathing.

Satisfied for the moment, Nel looked around the rest of the operating theater. One of those enigma creatures was dismembered on top of one table, mostly unmoving.

The other table held a far more gruesome sight.

The little girl who Sawyer referred to as ‘honey’ or ‘Des’ had her chest carved open. Eyes wide with panic, she was in the middle of swinging her ribcage shut. The bones appeared to be attached to the rest of her with hinges of some sort. As soon as she snapped it into place, the girl pulled a needle and thread off the side of the table and started stitching herself together with skilled fingers.

She had obviously done it more than once.

Before she managed to seal up her skin, Nel spotted something. She did not, in any manner of the word, profess to being an expert in anatomy. However, she was relatively certain that eyes did not belong on the inside of the chest. Whatever rapidly pulsating organ that they were connected to was probably not supposed to be there either.

It looked like a miniature brain.

Even for an augur, that would be strange.

Nel grit her teeth. Those are my eyes.

She must be the one preventing augurs from finding them. Her panic must have caused a lapse of concentration. Or perhaps Sawyer severed something he shouldn’t have when he fell–there was a bloodied scalpel on the floor near his hand.

Once Des finished sewing herself up, she jumped off the operating table and started fretting over Sawyer. An action that boggled Nel’s mind. Des had been as much a victim of Sawyer as she had been during her brief stay in his care.

After watching a bit longer–Des had apparently decided that amputating Sawyer’s hand was the best course of action–Nel pulled herself out of her scrying and got up from her seat.

It didn’t look like whatever was preventing her augur abilities would get itself fixed soon. If Sawyer regained consciousness, he would also have to realize that Des’ brain-eye thing was broken. That should buy time on its own. Even if he did notice, Nel had a good idea of the location. A sign welcoming visitors to Nevada had been a short way along one of the roads.

For now, Nel needed to find Eva.

Swapping fetters to the long strand of black hair, Nel frowned. More of the inky nothingness. A different inky nothingness, though no less familiar than that of Sawyer’s scrying protection.

Eva was somewhere in Hell.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


005.005

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Wayne kept his fireball steadily humming in front of the two of them. A warning that he could and would protect himself at any sign of hostility. She, in turn, had one arm linked around his like they were a couple. Her other arm kept Zoe pressed against her chest.

Despite his growing tension, Serena was the picture of relaxation. She leaned her head against his arm, knowing yet uncaring of the flames just inches away. A show of power? Or stupidity.

Either way, she hadn’t attacked him yet. Wayne was willing to entertain her at least until his arm was no longer in immediate danger of being torn off.

“How old?” Wayne asked.

“Fifty-six. I was sixteen when I joined the ranks of the undead.”

Half a century? Wayne thought with a frown.

So long as she wasn’t lying again, that might kill his theory on vampire hair. While it was entirely possible to go fifty years without suffering hair damage–mortals did it all the time minus the regular hair-cuts–vampires tended to lead lives filled with significantly more danger than their human counterparts. She must have regrown some at some point.

Unless she wore some illusion covering up any permanent injuries.

Wayne tried to remember whether or not he had touched her hair and came up blank. It looked real. As she rubbed her cheek against his sleeve, the shoulder-length strands of black hair moved naturally against the fabric.

“You look good for being twice my age,” Wayne prodded.

Serena looked up with a wide grin, visible even behind her mask. “Thank you,” she said. If there was any doubt about her smiling, it vanished when she spoke. Her smile came through audible in her voice. “I do try. I’m glad you appreciate my efforts.”

That answer could go either way. Finding he really didn’t care no matter what she said, Wayne moved his fireball closer as he moved on to a more important question. “This disaster in the city, is it you or yours who caused it?”

“Please,” Serena said, dismissing the notion with a wave of her arm. “There is a phrase. ‘Don’t shit where you eat.’ I believe at least half of it is very literal in these circumstances.”

In moving her arm, she jolted Wayne’s slowly mending bones. Noticing his grimace, Serena stilled as much as possible.

How kind of her, Wayne thought with a bit of mental derision.

“Starting just after Thanksgiving,” she said, tone more somber, “there was a meeting. All the vampires in the city had been called to it, even independents. Not something I usually participate in. The clans leave me alone and I leave them alone.

“I was the only independent who attended. The others, along with about half the Feral vampires and three of the ten August, were dead. Ashes had been found. Ferals thought it was the August and vice versa. Naturally, the meeting devolved into a war with a mere three August coming out alive.”

“Let me guess,” Wayne said, interrupting. “It wasn’t the Feral clan.”

Serena nodded. “I personally found the ash of three August at the meeting place just before Christmas. Humans had started disappearing.”

“You wondered if they were involved.”

“Oddly enough, the area didn’t look like it had been through another fight. More like the sun had risen inside the windowless cellar. At that point, I started making plans to leave the city. I was the last vampire in Lansing and had no intention of suffering the same fate as the clans.”

Wayne nodded. “Traveling isn’t easy for a vampire.”

“Nights only, no steady food supply, no real destination, no safe lairs along the way, no knowing the local politics of anywhere you pass through. I’ve been in Lansing for fifty years and it hasn’t been by choice.

“But as I was preparing to leave, new vampires started popping up. Feral and August for the most part. I did notice one Mekhet.” Serena clapped her hands together, only moving the one that had held Zoe to avoid jostling Wayne’s arm. “Guess what strain the other independents belonged to!”

Wayne didn’t bother to dignify that with a response.

“Anyway,” Serena continued undeterred, “I managed to keep most of them from acting out. None of them had proper sires to show them our ways. The story I gave you originally belonged to the two I had been traveling with. Most shared similar stories. At least until New Year’s Eve, I kept them in line. Forcefully, if I had to.

“On New Year’s Eve, people started waking up as vampires. Too many people. The city quickly devolved into chaos, as you have seen.”

Disturbing, if true. Sarah should have noticed people going missing. Surely it had been in the news. Unlike Serena, she wouldn’t have had the vampiric issues with traveling back before Christmas.

Wayne let a small curse escape his lips. Sarah could have called and mentioned that something was going on, even if the disappearances turned out to be an entirely mundane act of psychopathy. Part of it was his fault, he knew. After their parents’ death, Wayne had been adamant about not continuing the dragon ranch.

Serena rubbed the top of Zoe’s head. “I could have slipped past the military with ease, but I knew for a fact that the nuns were out hunting those who escaped the barricade. I’ve never seen one in person, and still hope I never do. The Lansing clans were terrified of drawing their attention. We all knew how to keep our heads down.”

“Not far enough down. Whoever killed your friends found out about you. And I don’t think it was the Elysium Order.”

“At this point, I don’t care. As you told the other scum, this city is done for. I watched you enter the city and assumed you had a plan to leave. We should execute that plan sooner rather than later.”

Ignoring the fact that he most certainly had no definite plan to leave, Wayne asked, “but you decided to attack me before asking to come with me?”

“If you couldn’t handle a few week-old vampires,” she said without the slightest hint of shame, “how could I trust you with my safety?”

“You’re awfully trusting right now,” Wayne said, flashing the fireball white-hot for a brief instant. “I could end you now and not lose a moment of sleep. I should end you before you attempt any mind tricks on me.”

“You haven’t yet,” she said. “And I won’t.” Behind her mask, Serena’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. “Did you see that repulsive thrall, lapping at the ground? I am a higher class of vampire.”

Wayne gave a short grunt of acknowledgment. Extinguishing the ball of fire in front of him, he replaced his tome under the crook of his arm. The movement was somewhat awkward with only one hand, but he managed.

Extinguishing the fire set off some sort of catalyst in Serena. She lifted up his injured arm, carefully, and slung it over her own shoulders.

He tried to pull away, but she wouldn’t let go. At the first touch of pain, Wayne ceased moving and resigned himself to having a vampire under his arm.

For now.

“I am not your servant. Nor am I your lover or,” Wayne sneered behind his mask, “husband.”

“That’s okay,” she said, snuggling closer, “I have what I want.”

“The moment we are out of this city, you’re free to do as you will. Sarah and I won’t be a part of it.” He glanced down at Zoe and, after a moment of thought, added, “Zoe will be coming with us as well.” He could find her a set of proper parents at the very least. Being raised by vampires, even if Serena didn’t turn her into one, couldn’t be good for her mental health.

Upon hearing her name, Zoe glanced up.

Wayne was surprised to see somewhat angry eyes glaring at him from behind her mask’s visor. That surprise only increased when Zoe wrapped one arm around Serena.

Great. Just great.

That gave the vampire a short laugh as she started patting the kid’s head. “Are you sure about that?”

“Being raised by–”

“Not Zoe, cute though she is,” Serena said, giving the kid a final affectionate pat. “Sarah. If it is dangerous for me to move, someone completely ignorant will find it most perilous indeed. What will she do if she runs across a clan of hostile vampires when she is barely a few days old.”

Wayne grimaced. He had read books on vampires, as had most everyone–they were a very popular creature for some odd reason. None of the books he had read were guides on how to survive as a vampire, just information. He doubted any guide-type books would exist in a world where the Elysium Order was so well-regarded.

“Incidentally,” Serena said in a slightly angry tone, nodding towards a masked Sarah slowly making her way back to them, “your girlfriend–”

“Sister.”

“That’s wonderful news!” The anger vanished from her voice as if it had never been. “Your sister is an August. One of the ones who just woke up as a vampire, based on me never having seen her before. I don’t know if or how she is different from regular vampires, but it is something to keep an eye on.”

“Noted,” Wayne said as he watched his sister.

Sarah no longer clutched at her stomach. Her arm wasn’t quite back to normal, but it was visibly on its way. Vampires’ regeneration was something special. Despite her elbow being far more damaged than Wayne’s arm, he was willing to bet that hers would be back to normal first.

“You alright?” Wayne asked.

“Fine. I just…” Sarah shook her head. “Let’s just leave. What’s the plan.”

Wayne shifted his weight to one side.

“Wayne. What is the plan?”

He shifted again.

“Please tell me you didn’t charge into the city with no idea on how to get out.”

“I figured we could wing it. That normally works out for me.”

Sarah tried to rub her forehead only to hit the visor of her mask. “How have you not been caught already?”

“I’ll have you know that I’m very skilled at what I do. My forging skills got me in with no problem.”

“Wayne,” Serena said, aghast, “you’re a criminal?”

Keeping his attention on his sister, Wayne ignored the finger running down his chest. “Three ways,” Wayne said, “find some helicopter. Surely even a town this tiny has a hospital or news station with some flight capabilities.

“Second, we could try going out the way I came in. That relies on the checkpoint not having found out that my papers were forged. Additionally, finding a way to contact them and let them know that it is me without getting my head shot off might be a good idea.

“Lastly,” Wayne frowned at Sarah, “you tunnel us out.”

“Those are all terrible,” Sarah said with a huff. “Especially the last one.”

“Yeah, yeah. I had a fourth plan. Basically amounted to hailing the nuns and hitching a ride with them. A good number of them are trained to teleport.” He glanced between Sarah and Serena. “Probably not useful so much anymore.”

“Quite,” Serena said in a clipped tone, lacking all her previous banter.

“Do you even know how to pilot a helicopter?”

Wayne shrugged. “Can’t be that hard. There’s a stick right? Push it forward and the thing goes forward, back and it goes back.”

He’d seen a few movies involving helicopters. They didn’t look too impressive. Though they did have an unnerving tendency to explode. That shouldn’t be a problem here; during his scoping out of the military, he didn’t notice anything that looked capable of taking out air targets. With enough altitude, all the ground forces should be easily avoided.

“Right,” Sarah said. Her opinion of that plan was plain in every word. “That plan is off the table.”

“Oh? Through the military blockade it is. I hope they’re friendly.”

“Don’t worry Wayne,” Serena said once again in her husky voice, “I can handle anything mere humans can come up with.” After a playful wink, her tone turned serious. “But we should wait until nightfall. Unless the smoke extends well beyond city limits, your sister and I will have trouble in the sun.”

Wayne nodded. “I could use a nap.”

“Me too,” Sarah said with a long yawn.

Did vampires even need to yawn? A leftover trait of humanity or some idiosyncrasy with how she just woke up as one?

A moot point at the moment.

Zoe tugged on Serena’s shirt. Without even a word of communication between the two, Serena hefted Zoe up on her back. Once settled, Zoe rested her head on Serena’s shoulder.

Possibly mental tricks of the Blacksky vampire reading the younger kid’s mind. He suspected manipulation for a moment before remembering the vehemence with which she spoke of the ‘mindless’ thralls.

In retrospect, Wayne had probably left Zoe and Serena to their own devices far too much if he wanted to prevent any sort of attachment forming from the former to the latter. A kid wouldn’t understand the dangers of a vampire. Her mother might have been a mage, but that didn’t mean that she had any lectures on the creatures.

As Serena relinked her and Wayne’s arms, he realized that he might be suffering from a similar problem. He had killed that other vampire without hesitation or remorse, yet Serena hung off of his arm without retaliation. All because he had bought into her earlier sob-story about becoming a vampire. A story she had freely admitted was untrue.

If he didn’t need her for Sarah’s sake, would she still be here?

“I’ll keep on watch for any nuns, I suppose,” Serena said.

“I don’t know how you can stand to be awake,” Sarah said with droopy eyes. Whatever adrenaline had been keeping her alert was rapidly vanishing. “No torpor for you?”

“Being the pinnacle of vampires that I am, I can easily ignore the effects for a day or two. Maybe when you’re older.”

“Alright,” Wayne said. “Let’s find a place to hold up for a few hours.”

Wayne clicked the CB radio off.

“Worthless,” he mumbled as he hopped out of the truck he had been sitting inside of for the last hour.

“No luck?” Sarah asked, yawning despite sunset being within the hour.

Shaking his head, Wayne said, “I didn’t expect much. It’s an unmodified civilian-band radio. Mostly certain that it is illegal to modify it to drop to military frequencies.”

“And you don’t know how to modify it yourself?”

“Can’t say that I’ve ever studied radios. Wouldn’t know where to start.”

A sharp clap in the back of the truck had Wayne turning around.

“We’re going for the break out forcefully plan then, right?”

“Unless Sarah wants to tunnel,” Wayne said, turning to his sister with an eyebrow raised.

“Not unless you want to be buried. While alive. Permanently.”

“No. Not so much.”

Earth magic had never come easy for Sarah, despite it being her primary element. After graduating, she hadn’t even passed her third class exam. Wayne was still sure that she could tunnel them out. He could even help with his own meager skills.

Pushing her to do it wouldn’t help. Wayne knew his sister. She would get either angry or nervous. Both could easily lead to a cave-in.

“We need to find a weak point in their barricade. The roads all have heavy-duty checkpoints. Snipers, several soldiers, flamethrowers.”

“The river? We shouldn’t have a problem finding a boat at one of the houses along the Grand.”

“Not sure. I didn’t thoroughly scope out where their fence met the river. I assume they’re watching it.”

“Better plan than charging through with a car,” Sarah said with a self-affirming nod. “We can ditch the boat shortly after and find a car. Probably switch cars a number of times to hide from any followers.”

Experience had taught him that getaways were rarely so clean. He’d never tried fleeing from the actual mundane military before, but it probably wouldn’t be so simple. It was a better plan than nothing, though, and he had been winging things for long enough that he was sure it wouldn’t be that hard.

Using a bit of heat manipulation, he could probably hide them completely from any night vision equipment they may have. Then it was just a matter of losing them long enough to hunker down at a hotel. Preferably in Detroit. Being a big city–bigger, anyway–it would be easy to get lost inside.

“Alright,” Wayne said. “Jump in the truck.” The river wasn’t far, but they needed to be indoors by sunrise. Even though the sun hadn’t even set yet, every second counted.

Serena jumped to her feet. “Oh, I call–”

“The back of the truck,” Sarah said.

Serena’s glare was muted by her mask, but there was definite hostility behind it.

Wayne stepped between the two before a fight could break out. Looking up at Serena, he tried to deflect her attention. “Is Zoe still asleep?”

“Out like a light,” Serena said, her eyes wrinkling in a genuine smile.

Great, Wayne thought even as he returned her smile from behind his own mask. I’ve got a bipolar vampire on my hands who thinks she’s my girlfriend. Or thinks I’m her servant.

“If you could keep her from sliding around,” Wayne said, “I would appreciate it.”

“Alright,” came the instant response. “I can do that.”

Shaking his head, Wayne turned to Sarah. He gave a sharp nod towards the truck’s cab before climbing back into the driver’s seat.

Sarah circled around to the passenger side and got in without a word. She remained silent until they had been driving for a few blocks.

“So,” she said, tentative hesitation plain in her voice, “the girl…”

“The kid or the granny?”

A heavy thump cracked the rear window. Looking through the mirror, Wayne saw a pair of eyes glaring at him.

“Guess she can hear,” he mumbled to himself.

“Zoe,” Sarah said. “Serena told me how you saved her, and that’s great, but what do you plan to do with her?”

“Find some orphanage and drop her off.”

“That’s it? Simple as that?”

“Simple as that. Why?” He took his eyes off the road for a moment to glance in her direction. “You want to adopt her or something?”

“I’m a vampire.”

“So?” He paused, considering his words. Serena, he didn’t like the idea of her raising Zoe. But his sister… “You’re not going to eat her, are you?”

“I’m a monster.”

“No. You’re my sister and you’re being overdramatic.” Wayne gave a long and drawn out sigh through his mask. “Sarah. It’s cliché but worrying about being a monster is a great sign that you’re not. Your message to me was about caring for the stupid dragons of all things. Not exactly the kind of things a monster would worry about.”

Smiling, Wayne said, “then again, those dragons are evil.”

“Wayne,” she snapped, slapping him lightly on the shoulder.

That was the response he had been hoping for. Why she cared about the overgrown lizards was beyond him, but she did.

“Maybe having a kid to care for will help keep you on the straight and narrow.”

Wayne caught a glare out of the corner of his eyes.

“Rich,” she said, crossing her arms, “coming from you.”

“I wish I was rich. Wouldn’t have to,” he coughed, “borrow so much.”

“So you’re just going to foist her off on me?”

Wayne cricked his neck back and forth. “Why not? She’s middle school, maybe elementary school aged. Only a few years before you can ‘foist her off’ to an academy. Her mother was a mage.”

“So I heard.”

“Either that or an orphanage,” Wayne said with a shrug. He turned down another road, bringing the river into full view. “In the mean time, let’s find a boat.”

“There’s a neighborhood,” she said, pointing vaguely, “they literally dug channels from the river into their backyards.”

“Rich people neighborhood?”

“Oh yeah. Unless they all took the boats, we should have plenty of choices.”

A genuine grin spread across Wayne’s face. “Perfect.”

“Two towers,” Wayne said as he passed his binoculars to his cohort. “A sniper and a spotter on top of each along with mounted flame throwers. Several soldiers patrolling along the shoreline fences.”

“And a big net dangling off the bridge to catch anything that tries to swim past,” Serena said, finishing his explanation. “Which shouldn’t be a problem for your flames. And I’m sure you’re proficient enough to take control of their flames.”

“Their bullets worry me the most. Both Sarah and I should be able to erect thaumaturgical shields without much difficulty, but they won’t stand up to the amount of lead that they can pour in our direction.

“The river is flat and free from obstructions. Not even much smoke down here. They’ll see us coming the moment we move the boat around the bend.”

Serena hummed a sing-song tune. “I’ll handle them.”

“I have no doubt that you can kill them or just slip past them, but the rest of us can’t. They’ll call for reinforcements. Those reinforcements will call for reinforcements. Someone will report our boat. Soon enough we’ll have an army trailing after our boat and they won’t stop if we ditch it.”

“You worry far too much, Wayne. Forgetting my strain? Never fear, the boat will be the last thing on their minds.” Serena tapped him on the nose with her finger. “But you’ll need to be fast. Return to the boat and rev it up. Charge full speed through. Both you and your sister should have your shields at maximum strength just in case.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Now now,” she said, chiding. “Can’t reveal all my secrets, even to you. Go, we’re already wasting moonlight.”

Wayne thought to protest, but shrugged. He scooted back carefully and slowly–he had no intention of being spotted by the spotters just yet–leaving Serena behind some bushes on the riverbank.

The boat they had found wasn’t the best in the neighborhood. It did, however, have its keys in an easily accessible lockbox next to the boathouse. Zoe was huddled up under a few blankets and a few life vests just behind the driver’s seat.

Sarah, who had been sitting on the edge, stood up as Wayne approached.

“Where’s the vampire?”

“Distracting the army.”

“Distracting or killing?”

“Didn’t ask,” Wayne said, hopping into the boat. “Come on, we don’t have much time.”

The engine of the boat roared to life. They had to siphon some gas out of the truck they had stolen, but it otherwise appeared fine. Probably hadn’t been used much for a few months.

Wayne was just glad that the river hadn’t frozen over.

“Well?” Wayne said. Sarah hadn’t moved to join him in the boat. “The army would have heard that. We don’t have time to debate. Get in and put up the strongest shield you can.”

“I thought you said that she would distract them.”

“Just in case,” he said, repeating Serena’s words.

After shaking her head, Sarah hopped into the passenger seat.

Before she even had a chance to settle in, Wayne gunned the engines.

At the same time, he heard the crystal clear crack of a rifle’s report. Machine gun fire followed soon after.

“What’s going on?” Sarah asked even as the telltale haze of a powerful shield popped up in front of their boat.

Wayne gripped his tome, adding to the magical effect. “A distraction,” he said with a light grunt.

Accelerator at full speed, Wayne swung the boat around to face the blockade.

Distraction might be an understatement.

Every gun the military had in this section of town was firing. None of them were firing towards the river. Trees and the buildings of a marina were the targets of choice.

Serena stood silhouetted against the white floodlights of the military. One hand held Wayne’s binoculars up to her eyes while she held the other out extended. One finger pointed out with the thumb up in a facsimile of a gun. As she mimed her finger-gun firing with recoil, a black beam shot out of the binoculars, aimed at one of the sniper towers.

Flame started spouting from the mounted turret, all aimed away from the river.

She repeated the action for the other tower, which also started spewing impotent fire, before turning to face the oncoming boat.

After giving a half-salute half-wave, Serena jumped.

“Shield down,” Wayne shouted.

Just in time for her to land on the bow of their boat.

Wayne immediately reapplied his own shield over their boat.

“Thirty-seconds,” Serena shouted over the engine.

Sarah shouted back. “For what?”

“Until they stop thinking that every vampire in the city is charging their outpost.”

“We’ll be clear by then,” Wayne said. Probably too quiet to be heard over the engine and the gunfire, but he didn’t care.

He was too busy dragging the flamethrower’s flame across the net. It was much easier than conjuring flame from scratch, but still required concentration. Doubly so as he was both driving and maintaining a shield at the same time.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t burning fast enough.

“Hold on!”

The front of their boat hit the net, most of it catching on their shield.

Weakened from the flames, it tore.

Wayne let out a sigh of relief as their boat sped through underneath the bridge. The rope hanging off of their shield quickly burned away with a smidgen of extra effort on Wayne’s part.

He had to slow down for another turn of the river, but that turn carried them well out of sight from the sniper towers.

“We have with us today a very special guest.”

Wayne blinked his eyes open, yawning as the last vestiges of sleep left him.

“He wishes to remain entirely anonymous, but felt it was his duty to report what actually happened during the tragedy at Lansing.”

Wayne rolled his eyes as he glanced over at the hotel television set.

This story again.

Lansing was all anyone had talked about for a solid week. No one knew what happened. It was all baseless speculation. Everything had been blamed as the culprit. From Russian satellite weapons test to aliens of all things.

This time, however, was slightly different. Rather than talking over pictures of the crater, the journalist sat in a chair on one side of the screen. The other side had been covered with opaque glass. Only the barest hints of a shadow could be seen on the side of it.

“So,” the anchor said, “what can you tell about Lansing?”

“Thank you for having me.” His voice had been garbled to the point where it was barely intelligible. Luckily for anyone viewing, whatever news station this was had hired a quick transcriber to add subtitles to the screen. “Everywhere else turned me away as crazy.”

“Of course, Mr. Blank.” She actually said the word ‘blank.’ “We’ll let the you speak and the viewers will decide.”

“My detachment had been rounded up for emergency containment of a biological threat. Initially, that’s what it appeared to be. A strange one, to be sure, but nothing unimaginable.”

“Can you tell us the nature of the biological threat? Effects and transmission vectors?”

“Transmission, we didn’t know. None of us had been issued NBC suits–that’s nuclear, biological, chemical suits–and none of the soldiers ever came down with the ‘illness.'” The shadow moved as the man put quotes around his word. “As for the effects,” he coughed, “some seemed to turn into zombies while others turned super-human.”

“Zombies, Mr. Blank?” Despite the way she phrased her inquiry, there was no mocking in her voice.

“Sounds crazy, but when you hear what I have to say later, it’ll be the sanest thing you heard. There are certain chemical cocktails that can turn a person towards a more brain-dead state while still leaving motor functions, so it isn’t too absurd to believe that someone would have weaponized such a thing.

“For three days and three nights, we fought off the zombies and the people who took a few extra bullets to put down–”

“Did these super-humans ever attempt to communicate?”

“Never allowed them to get that close. Our orders were clear. We couldn’t allow the threat to spread.”

“I see.”

He shook his head, ignoring her slightly accusatory tone. “On the third night, things started to change. If some people who took a few extra bullets to put down counted as super-human, these things counted as absolute monsters. They would charge the fences, dodging bullets. They could take entire magazines and still run forward with speed.”

“You called them monsters, but were they human? Or actual monsters.”

“About half and half. Some had limbs like bears while others looked human. Save for a few bodies for the egg-heads, we burned all the corpses. The ones we didn’t burn still had to be restrained with steel because they didn’t always stay dead.”

“Adding to the zombie motif of this attack.”

Again, the man shook his head. “Nope. Crazier than that. That same night, a man showed up at our post. Started spouting off this nonsense about vampires.”

Rather than speak, the anchor just raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, I had that expression as well. Then he started a fire in his hand. A gigantic ball of flame the size of my head. He just held it there, casually. I could feel the heat coming off of it. He extinguished the fireball and a forcefield popped up around him.”

“Experimental technology?”

“Not like anything I’ve heard of. No, he wore a sharp, well-fitting suit. The only thing he carried was a thick book. It was honest-to-God magic.”

“Magic?” Unlike her comment about zombies, the disbelief was clear in her tone now.

“Some others saw it as well, but I don’t expect them to come forward. Scary stuff. He claimed he was special forces needing to extract a VIP stuck within the city, though no one I talked to could verify his identity.”

“You don’t believe he was a special forces?”

“Could be. Could be that no one I talked to had the clearance to know. Or the clearance to tell me. Either way, his papers checked out initially. So we let him in. Our orders were to keep things from escaping, mind you, not entering.”

“Did you allow him out of the city once he secured this VIP?”

“Never saw him again. Don’t know if he made it. Though there was a disturbance the next night in which no less than fifteen trained soldiers insisted that they were under attack by about three hundred of the vampires, only for the vampires to vanish into thin air. No body parts, no blood or gore.”

“That would have been the fourth night,” the anchor said. “That just leaves the fifth night?”

“I don’t have much to say about that. It was just a blindingly white light. Flooded over the outpost to the point where no one could see anything. When it faded, the city was gone. I learned more from the recordings that have been playing on various news stations. Our own cameras were too close and only display a white screen.”

As he said that, one of the clearer clips played. It showed the smoke rising from the city from afar. Clouds overhead literally parted to allow a bright white beam of light engulf the city. The time stamp on the video then skipped to the end, roughly thirty minutes later.

The only thing left was a crater.

Wayne shuddered. Roughly twenty-four hours. That was all the spare time he had had, just missing utter annihilation.

The Elysium Order was scary. Scary enough that he was almost considering dropping his current project.

Almost.

As the television snapped back to the interview, Wayne shut it off. The anchor was just thanking Hicks–for who else could it be–for his time.

Looking around the hotel room, Wayne frowned. Zoe slept on in the adjacent bed, but there was no sign of either of the vampires. The bathroom door was open and the light was off, so they weren’t in there.

Wayne noticed the notepad propped up against the side of the room’s telephone as he got out of bed.

Went out for a bite.

Be back soon.

Took sis with me.

The three lines were punctuated with an imprint of lips. Serena had put on lipstick just to kiss the paper. She had to have. At no other point had Wayne noticed lipstick on her.

Wayne shook the thought out of his mind. It didn’t matter either way. She could have her games. He was beyond content in ignoring them.

What did matter was that they had gone out. The Elysium Order would surely be scouring neighboring cities for any vampires that managed to escape their wrath.

At that moment, Wayne made a decision. They couldn’t stay in Detroit any longer. The moment the girls returned, he would head out, find a large van that could have its windows blacked out, and they would drive. They would drive as long as they needed.

Clear to the other side of the country if they had to.

>>Author’s Note 005<<

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