Tag Archives: Nel

010.033

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She might be replaced.

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

What a disaster.

Nel shook her head and stared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” “Him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only for Ylva to say, “Stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here will suffice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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010.011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we be expecting more?”

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nel Stirling.”

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

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

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

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

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

Which hadn’t been fun either.

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

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

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

“You have no authority here, demon.”

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

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

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

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

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

Guess we’ll find out.


009.015

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Ylva and Nel popped into the room, hand in hand. Nel in her dark robes and Ylva in her white sheer dress.

Eva jumped. Still leaning back in her chair with her feet propped up, she just about lost her balance and fell backwards. She managed to save herself with a quick blink to her feet just in front of the table.

To the best of her memory, Ylva had never teleported on her own before. She didn’t know why she hadn’t expected her to be able to. Given Ylva’s power level, it would be more surprising if she couldn’t teleport. Even Catherine could teleport.

She had been expecting Ylva to walk over from her home. Something that would take a few minutes. Eva hadn’t even put away her cellphone yet.

The two nuns were faring less well. Eva had been planning on warning them of Ylva’s appearance. With how fast Ylva had shown up, she hadn’t had the chance.

Both had jumped back with their eyes burning. A battle-axe made of white light had formed in Anise’s hand while Chris had lightning crackling at her fingertips again.

Eva was just about to blink between them and Ylva to keep anything unfortunate from happening when Ylva’s lips twitched into a frown.

The light disappeared from the nuns’ eyes. The lightning and axe faded into nothingness. They both jolted backwards as if physically struck. Anise actually stumbled as she took a few steps backwards in an attempt to retain her balance.

Ylva drew in a deep breath.

Eva stepped between them before she could say anything. Knowing her, she was probably about to bellow out a command for them to kneel or some such.

“Wait wait wait,” Eva said, holding up one hand palm out towards Ylva and another towards Anise and Chris. “I didn’t get a chance to warn them that you were coming. And you just sort of popped into a tense situation. So don’t hold them being startled against them. They need help, not a fight.”

“Help?” Chris just about shrieked from behind Eva. Her teeth grit together as soon as she spoke. Both of her hands were pressed up against her eyes with her fingers rubbing her scalp. “That demon is the one who killed the inquisitors.”

“Yeah, she is,” Eva said. “Who better to protect Anise than someone who has already proven themselves capable?”

“Eva,” Ylva intoned with her deep voice. “Explain why you have brought these two before Us.”

Feeling her mouth dry out a little, Eva swallowed. Ylva did not sound happy. She hadn’t minded when Nel asked for asylum. Though had she made Nel kneel? Nel might have knelt on her own after prompting from Eva and Zoe. She couldn’t actually remember.

Maybe she should have just let Ylva kneel them.

“Alright,” Eva said slowly. Might as well start explaining from the start. “If you want to take a seat, it might be a few minutes.”

Eva had considered leaving. Juliana and Irene both were still out at the ritual field, after all. While they shouldn’t be expecting her right away because of her excuse to find more help, she still wanted to get out there and at least supervise if not help out as well.

She had been planning on leaving initially. Perhaps even before Ylva arrived. Her main goal in bringing Ylva to meet the two nuns had mostly been to dump the problem off on somebody else. But then Ylva had ordered her to tell the story of what was going on.

And now she had to admit that she also wanted to stick around just to find out what was going to happen.

Nel, a paranoid former nun and augur, had nodded her head every time Eva mentioned the possibility of the Elysium Order being mildly unpleasant towards its members. She would be doing absolutely nothing to convince either of the two nuns that they would be safe if they submitted to the inquest.

Especially because Chris seemed somewhat paranoid on her own.

Ylva, a demon and servant of Death, had something of a habit of collecting nuns. So long as Nel and Alicia were enough to form a habit.

At least Chris and Anise weren’t going to be tortured into serving her. Probably.

Eva would be lying if she said she was upset about Alicia’s death. Alicia had been… creepy. And not like normal creepy, which most people Eva associated with were. Eva had been almost certain that Alicia would snap some day and try to kill everyone. Especially Nel. Possibly including Ylva.

Throughout Eva’s explanation, helped along at certain points by Chris and Anise, Ylva had remained silent. Her cold eyes had followed Eva’s every move. She had only glanced away when Chris or Anise spoke up. They had never spoke for long. Never more than a word or two before Ylva’s glare had them falling silent and looking down at their laps.

Which Eva had found mildly annoying. This was their problem. Not hers.

But she made it through the explanation anyway.

“We see,” Ylva said slowly. She still wasn’t sounding happy. Then again, Ylva never sounded happy. At least she wasn’t sounding absolutely livid. “And these two children seek protection?”

Both shirked under her gaze.

Eva looked to both of them. She may have told their story, but they needed to be the ones who actually decided. They were perfectly capable of answering on their own. Not to mention, Eva didn’t want to assume. If they really wanted to, Eva wouldn’t stop them from going back to the Elysium Order. A poor idea in her opinion. Still, it was their choice.

It took a moment for them to realize that Eva wasn’t going to respond for them.

Anise looked up first. Blinking in confusion, she met Eva’s eyes with a slight tilt of her head.

Eva returned her gesture with a nod towards Ylva.

Meeting Ylva’s gaze lasted less than a second before Anise found her feet to be the most interesting things in the room once again. She stared for another few seconds before clenching her fists.

“I’m not going to sell my soul to a demon just to avoid the inquest.” Her eyes were still glued to the ground, but she spoke with a firm conviction.

Eva wasn’t sure if she was being literal or speaking metaphorically. “You shouldn’t worry about that,” Eva said, deciding to answer the literal worry. “Demons don’t care about your soul.”

“We could not claim a soul as recompense,” Ylva said. “Your soul is your own. Only Death may claim otherwise.”

“See,” Eva said with a smile. “No soul selling.”

“Payment to Us would be rendered through servitude.”

“I’m not going to be a slave,” Anise shouted. She actually stood up and turned a glare on Ylva, apparently more angry about that than about selling her soul. The glare only lasted an instant before she stumbled back. Chris pulled her back down to her seat.

Ylva didn’t react much beyond a simple frown.

Nel, on the other hand, went from slightly slouched to completely stiffening her back. Her eyebrows scrunched together as she narrowed her gaze. “I am not a slave,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. “I serve Lady Ylva of my own free will. Not because she forces me to, but because I am grateful to her. She saved me from a situation very much like your own.”

Her hand reached up to her throat. She brushed the tips of her fingers over the black band as her thumb ran over the small skull dangling from the front.

“If you want to go back and face the Elysium Order, that is your choice. Don’t disparage mine because of your ignorance.”

Eva found herself frowning as she stared at Nel. The augur was loyal to Ylva. Extremely so. Not a bad or fanatical kind of loyal either. For the most part, at least. But Eva hadn’t thought that she might get so upset about someone calling her a slave. Especially because, if memory served, Nel had thought the exact same thing upon accidentally indenturing herself to Ylva when they first met.

Obviously she had gotten over that little hang-up.

Ylva kept her face impassive and expressionless as she looked down at Nel. The two were seated side by side on the opposite end of the room from the nuns. Even seated, Ylva towered over everyone else.

For just a moment, nothing happened. Something passed between Nel and Ylva. Something that Eva was not privy to.

“They’re children,” Nel said after looking back to the two nuns. She shook her head. “They probably have family. Unless they’re willing to abandon everything, they won’t be able to work with us the way I do or Alicia did.”

After a curt nod of Ylva’s head, she stood. “Very well. We shall leave them be.”

“But,” Nel said with a slight sigh, “we should help them. If only because Eva thinks that the Elysium Order is biding its time until they can try to recover or kill me.”

Ylva went silent for a long minute. Nel shifted under her gaze, trying to look Ylva in the eye with confidence while fighting with her more subservient personality.

At least, that was what Eva got out of her expression.

The two nuns sat in their seats. Although they kept glancing to one another, neither made any attempt to speak. They looked more like two kids from Eva’s old school when they knew that they were in trouble and were sent to the principal’s office.

“What do you propose?”

Nel brightened, her fight ended as her lips curled into a small smile.

“We could go to the inquest in their place. Tell the Elysium Order, again, to leave us alone. Them as well,” she said with a slight nod towards the two girls. “Leave the inquisition with some ominous message like how we’re always watching them or something. That might discourage them from trying to come after me, at least.

“Of course, the Elysium Order probably won’t like it. They’ll probably be watching those two for a long time with a great deal of suspicion. But it is better than having their eyes torn out.”

“Acceptable,” Ylva said after another long silence. “Though We still require some payment. If they do not wish to serve Us, they will report to Us. Any rumors of the Elysium Order acting out against Ourself, you, or them.”

She clasped her hands together, not really in a clap, just cupping them as if she were hiding something. Both hands went palm down on the table. When she pulled back, two black rings with faint skulls engraved on the front had appeared on the table. A flick of her fingers sent them skidding across the table.

“Place them on your fingers,” she said as they came to a rest in front of the two nuns.

The two stared at the rings, then at each other, then back to the rings.

“Is it really that simple?” Anise said, holding her hand out in front of her as she examined the little black ring. “We put this on and all of our problems go away?”

Chris didn’t look half as convinced. She kept putting the ring on then taking it off, as if checking that such a thing was even possible. She almost tripped over a small depression in the dirt because her focus was on her ring.

Eva shook her head. “Nope. Not that easy. The ring won’t actually do much except ward off a few demons. Unless, of course, Ylva did something different this time. Maybe you can talk to her through them. You need a way to report in, after all.”

“I can’t believe we’re spying for a demon of all things.”

“Yeah,” Eva said with a slight shrug, “It isn’t that weird. The Elysium Order are undead specialists. I don’t see why you can’t work with a demon who also fights against the undead.”

What is Ylva?” Chris said, finally taking her attention off the ring. “What makes her trustworthy? Why does she fight undead? I saw it. It was just for an instant right when she appeared, but she was a skeleton. At first I thought it was just because of teleporting, but thinking back, Augur Stirling appeared like a normal person.”

Eva gave Chris a pointed look. Had she worn glasses, she probably would have been looking over the top rim. “Those are all questions you should have asked before accepting the rings. But,” Eva said, raising a hand before Chris could open her mouth, “Ylva is a hel. One ‘l’. A daughter of Hel, one of two demons who are Gods of Death.”

Both girls stilled. It was subtle as they both were still walking alongside Eva, but still noticeable. Especially to her sense of blood.

“Death?” Anise said in a barely audible whisper.

“Powers are a myth,” Chris said with a wave of her hand. “A tale to tell children to get them to behave. ‘Oooh, better be good or the leprechauns will drag you off to Knocknasheega.'” Rolling her eyes, she scoffed. “Please.”

Eva couldn’t help the grin that grew on her face.

“We live in a world full of demons and undead, dragons and magic, and you don’t think that there can be something else out there? Something larger than all of that? You don’t think Death takes offense to liches when they seal their soul within golden idols?”

“Of course there can be. But they aren’t watching us. A being equivalent to the mythical Powers wouldn’t care about Earth or people. Death wouldn’t care about a handful of random undead.”

Eva shook her head with a slight chuckle. “I wonder how long ago the Elysium Order was founded.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Oh just something I was told about their origins. More specifically, from where they first got all those eyes in your chests.”

“You aren’t going to say a Power did it, are you?”

“Yes, actually. How do you think Ylva, a servant of Death, shut down your magic so hard that you actually physically felt it?”

Chris scoffed again. “She’s a demon. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had some anti-magic field that she could activate at will.”

Anise, trailing slightly behind, took a few quick steps to catch up. She cleared her throat. “Why was she able to block our connections?”

“That would probably be because the power that powers your power is the Power known as Death.”

“Preposterous.”

“Well,” Eva said with a shrug, “believe what you want to believe. But since you’re so adamant about not believing in Powers, perhaps you might help me construct a large ritual circle designed to do absolutely nothing at all?”

Both of them stopped cold and exchanged a look with each other.

“What are you talking about?” Chris asked. While her tone had been conversational, she had taken on a somewhat hostile stance. Her eyes were narrowed to thin slits.

Did the talk of a ritual circle spook them? Or the Powers? Both put together?

Eva wasn’t sure.

But she pointed at Chris. “You said you would do whatever I asked if I helped you with your problem. I’m in the middle of constructing a large ritual circle and could really use some help with it. So you’re going to help me. Right?”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Anise said, backing up a few steps. “We never agreed to anything. Except the spying.”

“Nope. I distinctly heard Chris saying she would do whatever I wanted. What I want is for you to help me with this thing. One of you has to be at least mildly proficient with earth magic, right?”

The two looked at each other. Neither confirmed it, but neither denied it either. Unless they were both air mages, one of them should at least have the capability to manipulate earth, even if they couldn’t match Genoa or even Juliana.

Really, what she was doing was risky and dangerous. For all Eva knew, they would try to destroy the ritual circle upon seeing it. She was counting on them to be at least somewhat grateful that she had helped out, even if Ylva was the one who was going to be doing all the work.

Even then, by Ylva showing up in their place and threatening or potentially killing everybody, Eva was really doing nothing at all to dissuade them of their belief that Eva could mind control anyone that came near.

Which wasn’t that bad of an idea, now that she thought about it. If sending more people after her wound up with them ‘mind controlled’ then they would stop sending people at all sooner or later. Hopefully. She might be giving the Elysium Order too much credit.

As for Anise and Chris, Eva had definitely learned from Irene. No mentioning the apocalypse or Ragnarök or Armageddon or any other end of the world scenario. In fact, she might be a little stingy on exactly what the ritual circle was supposed to accomplish as well. She wasn’t quite sure what to tell them instead, but she was sure she could come up with something.

Maybe looking through a ritual book might give her some ideas. But were there even other kinds of ritual circles this large?

Eva leaned back, staring up to the sky. Despite the purple streaks still hanging overhead, not many from the other schools seemed to even notice. She certainly hadn’t heard murmurs about it from all the other students wandering the halls these days. Did they all believe the made-up story given by Martina?

Her smile widened as a thought occurred to her.

“Well, we’re already out here. Might as well show you the ritual circle.”

Anise blinked and glanced around. She almost looked like she hadn’t even realized that they had been walking through the Infinite Courtyard.

After leaving Ylva and Nel, Eva had started walking off mostly on her own. It wasn’t her fault the two decided to follow after her with all their questions and concerns.

“What are we doing out here?”

“Not much farther,” Eva said as she walked up a short incline. The top of the ridge led out to the area she had cleared away for the ritual. “Irene, Juliana! I brought help!” she called out.

Only to frown as she looked over the football field sized clearing.

Irene was out in the middle of the clearing with Saija walking alongside her. But no Juliana and no Arachne. No Srey either, but he hadn’t been around near as much since the hunters stopped spying on them.

She looked up at Eva’s call and started walking, only to get swept up by Saija. The small cry of alarm as they flew over was something Eva almost wished she had been able to record, if only to play it back for her own petty amusement.

“Juliana went off to fight Arachne again,” Irene said once she got her feet firmly on the ground. Her eyes flicked over to the two nuns as she leaned in to whisper. “What are they doing here?”

“They are going to help out,” Eva said, turning to the two girls and pointing at the sky. “I assume you’ve seen the purple streaks.”

Chris nodded. “Hard to miss. Some agriculture project, right?”

Eva didn’t answer. She simply smiled. “We’re trying to recreate part of how that came to be,” she eventually said with a wide grin.

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