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.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.014

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Oh no,” Eva groaned.

At first she had thought it was mere coincidence. People around school, especially those in her age group, often went to the same locations. As such, it shouldn’t be too odd if some people followed her around all day. They visited the same classrooms or simply had class nearby.

However, most people wouldn’t walk around the school after class had ended for the day. Neither would they make three complete circuits without finding their destination. Even if they were from a foreign school.

Eva sighed, coming to a stop in the middle of the hallway. It had been a good two weeks since she had gotten the Elysium trainees to stop following her around. A time that, unfortunately, had been too good to last.

She considered just confronting them in the hallway and finding out what they wanted as soon as possible. The thought never made it past the consideration stage. Other people wandered the hallways even though school was out for the day, visiting clubs or professors. Depending on what they wanted to harass her about, Eva didn’t want the whole school knowing about it.

So, with a sigh, she continued down the hallway until she found an empty classroom. She lingered outside just long enough to make sure the two girls saw her enter.

Arachne wasn’t around this time to give her support. She, Irene, and Juliana were already out at the ritual field. Apparently Juliana wanted to get out there early for a quick sparring session with Arachne. Irene didn’t have much else to do and still didn’t know the way properly even after three days of heading out there, so she had followed the two of them.

Eva had decided to stay behind and see if she couldn’t recruit anyone else to help out. Irene hadn’t been quite the force multiplier that Eva had hoped she would be. Overall, work was proceeding faster. However, she wasn’t quite up to Juliana’s level.

Not to mention Saija’s almost constant distractions.

Though, Juliana offered a number of tips to try to help Irene carve out segments faster. Which made Eva quite happy as she hadn’t even been lying when she said it could count as training for the next event.

Who she might recruit to help out, Eva couldn’t decide. Irene hadn’t reacted all that well to being told the world might be ending. Someone else might react worse. That pretty much limited Eva to people who knew her decently well. Shalise, Jordan, and Shelby… and that was about it. Only one of whom were earth mages. Jordan. And Eva wasn’t so sure about bringing him in on the project given his ties to Dean Anderson.

Anderson might not be too happy with her creating a large ritual circle on school grounds. Especially not during this whole tournament. People might get nervous about Brakket if word got out about it all. So he was out.

Maybe Genoa. She already knew that Void was under attack and such. Of course, she could probably wave a hand and turn the entire field into the proper ritual circle all at once. Her drastic help would be appreciated.

Unless she tried to stop the ritual circle. In that case, she could wave her hand and destroy all the hard work they had put into it thus far. Eva hadn’t brought it up with Juliana yet and she couldn’t guess at how Genoa might react on her own.

But, finding help would have to wait until later.

Eva took a seat on top of a table, crossed her legs and her arms, and waited.

The door burst open an instant later, slamming into the wall, bouncing off the doorstopper, and almost smacking the first angry nun right in her face.

Shoving the door back with slightly less force, she continued into the room as if nothing had happened. Her eyes flared white as she marched up to Eva with her hands clenched into fists at her sides.

Anise followed the first nun inside. Unlike her companion, Anise was almost tiptoeing. After her initial glance at Eva, her eyes drifted down and to one side, avoiding eye contact.

Chris—if Eva remembered the name Anise had given for her companion the other night—was obviously the more agitated of the two and the more dangerous, so she chose to focus on her. The lightning crackling over the nun’s clenched fist had Eva sitting slightly straighter. She was almost wishing that she could freely use blood magic. A shield would be most welcome at the moment.

Blinking out of the way the second the nun moved her hands would have to suffice.

“Alright,” Eva said. “What is it this time?”

“What did you do to her?” Chris asked, voice low and menacing. As menacing as a girl a year older than Eva could get, anyway.

Eva blinked and glanced to Anise…

Who just sighed and shook her head without meeting Eva’s eyes.

“I don’t know what–”

“She,” Chris shouted, thrusting a lightning tipped finger at Anise, “comes in after the event all like, ‘Oh, maybe demons aren’t so bad,’ and ‘Maybe it was all a misunderstanding,’ and ‘I really hate tentacles.'”

“Well, none of that sounds wrong to me. Except, I’ve heard that massages–”

“Of course it is wrong. You’ve poisoned her mind.”

Eva held up a hand, finger in the air. “One point before you continue: I have absolutely no magical abilities that let me alter people’s minds in any way shape or form.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that?” Chris said, thrusting her hands to her hips.

“Well, yeah. Otherwise you wouldn’t be bothering me. I’d make you think I wasn’t here or something. I do have things to do that don’t involve entertaining your outlandish conspiracy theories, after all.”

Chris clenched her teeth. Her arms shook at her side as she struggled with herself.

After a moment of remaining silent, her hands unclenched and she let out a soft sigh. The lightning trails disappeared from her fingertips as the flames in her eyes died down.

“Please,” she said, voice much more subdued. “Please undo whatever you did to her. I’ll do whatever you want, take me instead.”

Eva blinked in confusion. She glanced over to Anise—who was now rolling her eyes—before blinking a second time.

“What?”

“I told you,” Anise said, stepping forwards and placing a hand on Chris’s shoulder. “She didn’t do anything to me. And I don’t think that demons aren’t so bad.”

Chris ran the sleeve of her shirt across her face.

Is she crying? Eva thought, trying to keep her face as blank as possible. She wasn’t sure what to think about that. Maybe if she had actually done something, she would feel slightly guilty. But she hadn’t.

“Right,” Eva said. She blinked straight past the two nuns, reappearing next to the door. “You two clearly have things you need to work out between yourselves, so I’ll just be seeing myself out.”

“She’s facing an inquest!” Chris shouted before Eva could wrap her hand around the handle.

For a moment, Eva considered ignoring her and continuing on her way. She had already been involved with the Elysium Order enough for a lifetime or two. An inquest sounded particularly troublesome. Though, to Eva’s knowledge, the Elysium Order still had yet to remake an inquisitorial chapter. Whoever was doing the inquisitoring was probably a single individual or small group that hadn’t been part of Ylva’s massacre.

She had a feeling that they were still mad about that. That and the theft of their obelisk. If they were just biding their time until they found a good time to strike, it would probably be best to know about it sooner rather than later.

So Eva turned with a mild sigh. Anise still refused to meet her eyes while Chris was glaring with just as much intensity as she had before. Except her eyes had a slight sheen of liquid over them instead of the previous flames.

“And?” Eva said, crossing her arms over her chest. “What does her inquest have to do with me?”

“They–They want to recall her. Both of us, though I’m not under any suspicion. The entire Elysium Order watched the event the other night. They saw her listen to and take orders from you without significant questioning. She never fought back or tried to make an advantage for herself.”

Eva glanced to Anise with a frown. “As much as I appreciated not being stabbed in the back, that’s her fault, not mine.”

“I know.” Chris looked over her shoulder. “Anise is… a nice girl.”

“That doesn’t sound like a compliment coming from you,” Anise mumbled under her breath.

Chris acted as if she hadn’t heard, not even glancing towards her partner. “But the higher-ups saw what they saw.”

“I still don’t see what this has to do with me. Can’t she just go tell them she isn’t being mind-controlled and be done with it all?”

“You don’t understand. We–People–Students are not normally implanted with the Eye of God. You know about them, right?” she said, tapping at her chest just above where her eye was fused into her skin.

Eva shrugged and nodded her head. “Yeah, they’re how I noticed you two were part of the Elysium Order.”

Chris narrowed her eyes but, after a moment of consideration, did not press the matter. “They’re valuable. Extremely valuable. Almost impossible to grow healthy ones and time-consuming to boot. They can make a mundane human capable of casting magic. Several of them can allow someone to see anywhere on the planet with only a few things being able to stop their sight.

“We were given them while still students specifically to watch you,” Chris said, pointing a finger right at Eva. “To observe you and gather data for the Elysium Order as a whole. All so that we could use them to form better tactics and plans.”

Outwardly, Eva kept her feelings hidden. Her face became a plastic mask with no twitching of her lips or even a slight narrowing of her eyes. She kept her arms crossed. Even her lightly tapping finger continued tapping at the same pace.

But she had half a mind to reach forward and tear the eyes from their chests where they stood.

“If we fail,” she said, voice solemn and slow, apparently failing to notice Eva’s inner feelings. “If they decide to revoke the Eye of God, we won’t just lose access to the Elysium Order magic.”

Eva didn’t ask whether that meant their lives or something else. She didn’t quite trust herself to speak without lashing out at their mission just yet.

“However,” she said, “the higher-ups have grown nervous after watching the event. Sisters who have come into contact with you have had a habit of… going rogue,” she said, almost whispering. “Sister Cross, Sister Heiden, Sister Cole, and, of course, Augur Stirling.”

Eva almost opened her mouth to say that she had no idea who two of those were. But one was probably Alicia. The other… maybe one of the nuns who had been stationed at Brakket Academy during her first year.

“The three would be bad enough on their own. Especially given Sister Cole’s theft of several Elysium Order secrets. Sister Stirling is the one who really set them off on the warpath. Once it came to light that she had lost a small portion of her eyes to a necromancer of all things, they only grew more concerned. Yet they cannot move against her so long as she is with that demon.”

Before the trainee nun could go off on too much of a tangent about Nel, Eva interrupted her with a wave of her hand towards Anise.

“Now they’re worried that she’s falling for my irresistible charms?” Technically, Ylva had been the one collecting all the nuns.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Anise grumbled with a mild glare. She only kept her gaze up for a few moments before sighing and dropping her eyes back to the floor.

Maybe she hadn’t been intentionally avoiding Eva’s gaze. She could just as easily be depressed to the point of despair.

“Still don’t know why she can’t say that she’s not being mind-controlled. Because she isn’t. None of them are. Sister Cross has a kid she’s worried about. And Nel? She’s just paranoid that the Elysium Order is trying to kill her. Which seems fairly reasonable, actually, given what I know about your Order. Alicia… well, she did get her head screwed with. But that wasn’t me. I was mostly dead at the time.”

The two glanced at each other, Chris looking mildly smug at the admission.

“I should be able to do just that,” Anise said. “The question is whether or not they’ll believe me.”

“So what, you need proof or something? Should we go pretend to fight where some cameras can see us?”

“It isn’t that simple,” Chris said. She tapped at her chest again. “It isn’t sapient, but it will definitely be able to tell the difference between serious fighting and a mock spar.”

“Surely your superiors don’t want a school associated with the Elysium Order to be caught actually trying to murder another student, even if it is an enemy. Otherwise you would have killed the vampire by now.”

Eva walked back around the pair as Chris shifted uncomfortably where she stood. So long as she was actually going to stick around for a short time, she might as well relax in a proper chair. It didn’t seem like either of the nuns were going to attack her.

Still, what an annoying situation.

The Elysium Order really needed to learn when to quit. She had thought they learned after Ylva destroyed their inquisitors. Obviously not. They had just been biding their time. Though Eva did admit that she might have kicked their hive when she stole the obelisk.

“So,” Eva said as she sat down and kicked her feet up on the table. “What do you want from me? I’m not mind-controlling her, so don’t ask me to make that better.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Anise said with a shake of her head. “I told Chris. She’s just being unreasonable.” Pinching her fingers around the sleeve of Chris’ shirt, Anise turned towards the door. “This is my problem.”

Chris slapped Anise’s hand away as she faced her. “They’re going to excommunicate you.”

“You don’t know that.”

“They don’t want another traitor to go turncoat in the middle of a mission. They won’t take the chance.”

“You don’t know–”

Anise stumbled backwards, hand pressed to her cheek.

Chris nursed the palm of her hand as she glared up at Anise.

You need to take this more seriously.”

“You think I’m not?” Anise shouted, voice hard. “You think I want to go before the inquisitors? You think I want to get this eye torn out of my chest? They aren’t going to be nice about it. They weren’t nice putting it in. Hell, I’ll be lucky if they don’t kill me.”

Eva, who had been sitting still and silent while they had their little fight, blinked. “Seriously? Kill you? For not attacking me during a friendly event between schools? I wasn’t even the one to suggest the truce among our group. That was Emily.”

Chris looked back with a start, almost like she had forgotten Eva was in the room. After a short stare, she shook her head. “The Elysium Order is very black and white. An ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mindset.”

Eva opened her mouth to argue, but a little consideration had her stopping and snapping her mouth shut. Nel had been convinced that the Elysium Order was out to kill her. Or at least Lynn Cross. Then the inquisitors had attacked the prison and made an attempt to get to her while in the hands of Sawyer. Nothing had happened since, but Ylva had effectively taunted the entire Order.

Of course, Nel was an augur. She was somewhat special.

But then, Lynn Cross had probably not been hiding halfway around the world in the middle of nowhere because she had been worried that Eva would be coming after her. And, by her own admission, the Elysium Order had locked her up before she managed to escape.

So really, Eva had no argument against them trying to kill Anise, though she felt locking her up would be more likely though still extreme.

“You know what?” Eva said after a moment. “I’ve got someone you might like to speak with.”

— — —

Nel walked alongside Ylva, each step slow and somber. She tried to keep her eyes straight ahead. It wasn’t easy. Everywhere she looked, something strange waited in the shadows. Things that she couldn’t quite name, but were there, watching her. It had been that way ever since Ylva tapped her on her forehead.

Ever since Alicia’s death.

To her left, an elderly man sat patiently on a bench. A faint ghost of a smile lingered on his face as he watched the people around him.

The people around him were far less serene. Paramedics ran around his body, sprawled out before the park bench. One placed a clear mask over his mouth and began squeezing down on a flimsy plastic tube attached to the mask. Two more helped him up on a stretcher while a third attached medical electrodes to his chest.

Yet the elderly man continued to watch with his peaceful smile.

To his side, a short girl only ten or eleven years old with brilliant gold hair watched with him, absolutely undisturbed by the body lying at their feet. She turned to him and opened her mouth. Soundless words passed over her lips.

“The reaper is offering a choice,” Ylva said, coming to a stop a short distance away. “His time is not yet up. He may choose to return to his body or he may pass on his remaining time to a close relative. His wife or children. Even grandchildren.”

Despite Ylva wearing her sheer dress and Nel having strange robes on, nobody glanced in their direction. People who happened to look in their direction failed to notice. Their eyes merely slid off the two to look at whatever they wanted to see. Which was probably a good thing if they wanted to avoid people panicking. It was broad daylight out. As such, Ylva wasn’t just a giant woman. She was a skeleton.

Only the young girl managed to see the two of them. She gave a light nod of her head towards Ylva as she spoke to the elderly man.

“A choice very few receive.”

“Theoretically,” Nel said, “couldn’t someone achieve very long lives if others, maybe relatives or friends, figured out what happens with near death experiences and the offer made? They could decide to pass before their times and offer the rest of their lives all to one person. I mean, they would be sacrificing their lives, but I imagine some people out there would be willing to do so for others.”

“A choice very few receive,” Ylva said again, though she had a slight smile on her face as she glanced towards Nel. “There are systems in place to prevent abuse. And, should he return to his body, he will remember nothing of his choice or near death aside from a few faint delusions.”

“I see,” Nel said, voice soft.

They continued watching for another few minutes. As his body got placed on a stretcher and loaded up in the ambulance, the little girl—the reaper—moved over to sit on the bench to his side. His faint smile slowly faded as she spoke a few more words.

“What is he unhappy about?”

“His body causes him near-constant pain. At the moment, he is feeling none of it. However, he makes a great deal of money for his family, giving his children and his wife comfortable lives. At the same time, he won’t always be making money. At some point in the future, his life may become a burden on his descendants.”

Ylva turned her body fully to face Nel.

“Being asked to make such a choice is not easy for most mortals. Even now, essentially dead, he does not truly comprehend what lies beyond life. Compounding the problem, he does not have long to make the choice. The reaper has given him an ultimatum. He must choose before his body reaches the hospital.”

Nel let out a small breath.

When she had asked about reapers and valkyrie, she had thought that she would be training. Learning to magically fight at a higher level or otherwise increasing her magical abilities.

Ylva had nothing of the sort in mind.

Instead, they had gone on field trips. Every few days, Ylva would announce that they were off someplace. She never gave any warning. The time of day varied. They had gone in the middle of the night and they had gone at noon. Ylva never cared if Nel was sleeping or eating or bathing.

And Nel hadn’t complained once.

A beep from her pocket broke Nel out of her reverie. Her brand new cellphone—one Zoe had gifted her—had a new message.

“It’s Eva,” Nel said after reading through the contents. “Not an emergency, but she has people who want to talk to me.”

The phone beeped again.

“Us,” she corrected.

“Very well,” Ylva said. “We have seen enough. Tell her that We will meet with her.”

Nel nodded and sent back a message. Less than ten seconds later, her phone beeped again.

“She’s currently at the school but can meet us anywhere.”

“The school will suffice.”

After sending the message, Nel looked up. The old man had yet to make his decision. Or perhaps he had made it and was just enjoying a pain-free existence for the moment, unfettered by his body or what lay beyond. She thought to ask Ylva if they might stay long enough to hear his response.

But reconsidered.

His choice was obviously not the reason they had come out here.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.025

<– Back | Index | Next –>

With a long guttural noise from the back of her throat, Arachne tried to sit up.

Eva slammed her foot down on Arachne’s shoulder despite the sword at her neck. The sudden move shouldn’t alarm the doll too much. In fact, pretty much nothing alarmed the doll. Throughout that entire fight with the hunter, Eva hadn’t noticed a single recognizable emotion cross her face.

And even with a sword at her neck, Eva couldn’t allow Arachne to move. The sword had come perilously close to cutting straight through her heart tube. Of course, she probably shouldn’t have kicked her down so hard, but the sword didn’t cut anything vital.

So long as Arachne didn’t move more, everything would be fine.

To that end, Eva kept her foot firmly planted on Arachne’s chest.

“Look,” Eva said, turning her head slightly to address the doll, “I’m not going anywhere. No need to be so touchy.”

The doll said nothing. Only half looking at her, Eva couldn’t get a very good picture of what the doll was doing. Even if she could, she doubted she would gain any insight from looking at her face. The term ‘doll’ was quite apt in her case.

As the silence continued, Eva slowly raised a hand. She used just the very tip of one finger to slide the blade off her shoulder. When she failed to encounter any resistance, Eva grew a little confidence. As soon as the blade wasn’t touching her, she twisted around and stepped onto the other side of Arachne to face the doll.

Of course, she didn’t take her foot off Arachne as she moved.

“While running around, I had some time to think. I think I’ve come up with something that might convince you to not send me to Hell or the Keeper.”

The doll remained where she was. Now that Eva was actually facing her, Eva found herself somewhat disturbed.

Blood hadn’t bothered Eva in years. The sight of it didn’t elicit any real feelings. Nor did the smell. Not fresh blood at least. The memories of Sawyer’s autopsies while she had been in his head were about where she drew the line in terms of body decomposition.

So it wasn’t the blood alone that made Eva take in a sharp breath.

It was the doll and how she just stood there, covered in blood, as if she didn’t even realize it. Her whole face was stained red, losing the alabaster look. Her hair as well. And her eyes… she obviously had them open when Eva had clapped her hands together. Larger bits of flesh hung off her body as well. A chunk of skin clung to a matted strand of hair.

Perhaps she did realize it. Without it factoring into her current mission, she just didn’t care.

Eva grimaced, remembering that she had her back turned while the hunter was busy exploding. She had definitely felt some blood hit her—and now that she was looking at herself with her blood sight, her worries were confirmed.

She definitely needed a shower.

Shaking her head and clearing her throat in an attempt to take her mind off the matter, Eva moved on with her explanation.

“Ylva killed me.”

The doll just continued staring.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best explanation. Eva had more to elaborate upon it, but at the moment, Arachne was letting out an even deeper growl as she struggled to get up.

Which was exactly why she had never told Arachne about that little incident. She knew that the demon would become agitated. Eva did not want Arachne trying to fight Ylva.

Eva lifted her foot and slammed it down. A few cracks spread through her carapace.

“After this incident you’re concerned about,” Eva said as Arachne settled down, “the one where I took a beacon from Hell, Ylva killed me. It was an experiment. One I was somewhat displeased to be the subject of. However, no portal to Hell opened to draw me back in. If I’m not demonic enough for Void to draw me in, I must not be demonic enough to have the Keeper’s laws applied to me.

“That combined with my earlier argument about realizing my mistake and destroying the beacon should be enough to absolve me.”

Or so Eva was hoping.

“She’s out in the city,” Eva added after a moment. “You can even ask her if you don’t believe me.”

Throughout the entire time Eva spoke, the doll had just stood there. Her sword was not up and at the ready, but hovering off to the side. Her facial expression never changed from her impassive stare.

So Eva held her breath, waiting and hoping that the doll judged her innocent.

Though she did have something of a backup plan. Unlike Eva, the black pool of blood they were all standing in did not avoid the doll’s feet. It was all still under her control. While it might not have seeped up into her boots, a great deal had splashed around the doll just from walking. Much of it had joined up with and been contaminated by the hunter’s blood, but plenty more was still pure enough to work with.

Eva could distinctly tell the difference between the hunter’s blood and the demon blood. A clap of her hands and the doll should be crippled if not killed outright.

Hopefully, anyway. Before any of that, Eva would be blinking away to give herself some time to clap.

Just as Eva was thinking about good locations to blink to, the doll’s sword-arm shot straight up into the air. She didn’t have time to react before it came back down.

Eva winced, expecting to find herself split in two.

But the doll’s sword came down to the side, splattering a great deal of red blood into the pool of black.

In one swift motion, she slid it across the opening of her scabbard, stopping at the tip, and plunged it in.

With the doll’s sword put away, Eva breathed out her held breath.

Eva turned her attention to Arachne now that the doll had sheathed her sword. Ever since she had stomped on Arachne’s shoulder, she hadn’t tried to get up. That wasn’t to say that she was sitting still and content. Her fingers were scraping through the pool of blood as she clenched and unclenched her fists.

More, she had an almost constant low rumble coming from the back of her throat.

“Just sit still,” Eva said. “I’m obviously alive and fine. Ylva put me back together after killing me. And, thanks to her, I am no longer in danger of…”

Eva trailed off as she glanced back up at the doll.

Or where the doll had been standing. She wasn’t there now. It took Eva a moment to realize that the doll was walking away. And then, she only noticed that the doll was still in the area thanks to the ripples in the blood.

She watched for a moment as the doll approached the webbed fence, hopped straight over, and came down on the other side.

“Well, I think she has decided to let me go. Which is great news,” Eva said, looking back to Arachne.

“Ylva killed you,” Arachne snarled.

“And I’m still here. If you go off and attack Ylva, she’ll kill you. And maybe she’ll be mad enough to kill me. And if either of us die, I will be very upset,” Eva said, leaning over Arachne to better glower at the demon.

Arachne’s teeth clicked together. She somewhat shrunk in on herself. As much as she could with a sword through her chest, anyway.

Which just brought Eva’s attention back to how close it was to cutting into her heart tube.

“Now, let’s get that sword out of you.”

“My legs are still bleeding. I can feel it. They should have stopped by now.”

Eva blinked. Apart from her initial shock at seeing how dismembered Arachne was, she hadn’t paid all that much attention to Arachne’s legs. She lost them often enough that Eva never considered them all that big a deal. Just a measure of how dangerous whoever she was fighting might be.

But now that she was looking, she could see that Arachne was right. The stumps on her back were still bleeding, as was her chest where the sword had partially come out.

Most of it was beneath the surface of the black pool.

Which helped Eva immensely. She solidified some of the blood around each of Arachne’s major wounds and even a few of the minor cuts and cracks in her chitin that looked like they were leaking.

Now for the sword, Eva thought, reaching out for the hilt.

She stopped her hands just before touching the hilt. As with the idol, this sword could be trapped somehow. Or worse, made of the same metal that hurt demons when touched.

Eva pulled back, choosing instead to call up the surrounding blood. The blood swarmed around the sword, swallowing it up in an inky blackness. Eva solidified a large portion around the hilt. As added security, she solidified more blood in a handle that extended well beyond the original hilt.

Even with all the crystallized blood, Eva still only grazed her fingers along the surface.

Really, she was probably being paranoid. Arachne had part of the sword buried in her and had gripped the hilt to get it away from the hunter. Though injured, most of that looked to be because she had been stabbed. Unless there was some enchantment that caused the blade to turn on its wielder, Eva should be fine.

As nothing had killed her yet, Eva gripped the handle with both hands and hefted the sword up.

And just about stumbled forwards, coming far too close to dropping it back into Arachne for her tastes. Even using her legs to do most of the work for her didn’t help much. The sword had to weigh twice as much as Eva did.

She did get it up enough to clear Arachne. Despite the demon’s injured state, Arachne managed to slide out from under the hovering tip.

As soon as she was out of the way, Eva threw it back down, fully encasing the rest of the blade in crystalline blood drawn from the pool it had landed in.

“How,” Eva groaned between sucking in gasps of air, “did that hunter manage to lift that thing.”

Even when it fell, some of the hardened blood cracked. Eva had to spend a moment shoring it up and ensuring that it wasn’t going anywhere.

With a sigh, she finally turned to face Arachne. There were still a few spots where the sword had been that were bleeding, so Eva fixed them up.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like I have a hole in my chest,” she groaned, sitting up properly. She paused, glancing downwards. “Oh. Look at that.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “You’re hilarious.” She took a deep breath and just sighed. Arachne was alright. “About Ylva… just let it go. Pretend nothing happened. She killed me only because I asked. It was all an experiment.”

Sure, she hadn’t explicitly asked to be killed, but if Arachne believed so, then all the better.

“Though,” Eva said before Arachne could do more than growl again, “Nel mentioned that they were fighting another group of hunters just a few minutes ago. I wonder how they’re doing.”

— — —

Nel shrieked as something flew right towards her. She ducked back behind her altar, letting it sail overhead. It bounced off a wall and…

Is that a grenade?

She scrambled around to the other side of the heavy marble, just barely making it with enough time to clamp her arms over her head.

An explosion sent her eardrums ringing. All the sounds of gunfire died off, replaced by a high-pitched whine. Shards of marble from the altar went flying through the air while the main bulk of it collapsed into where Nel had just been hiding.

The lack of gunfire was actually quite refreshing. Guns were noisy. Painfully so. Every time one of the hunters fired off a shotgun, she feared that she would never hear again. And not just because she was dead. The way it echoed in the small home burst her eardrums again and again.

Though, just because she couldn’t hear didn’t mean that the battle had stopped.

And, though her altar had saved her from the grenade, it was no longer protecting her from the flying bullets.

Marble dust exploded around Nel’s head as a bullet whizzed past her ear. She pinched her eyes shut, throwing herself back down as flat on the ground as she could possibly make herself.

Scrambling along the ground, Nel made it back to the safer side of her altar. Shrapnel and debris littered the small corner of the room. The wood floor had a hole in it at the main point of the explosion. One full of splinters that were just waiting to become slivers.

Nel pressed her back against the largest still intact chunk of marble and let out a breath. The ringing in her ears was slowly dying down, only to once again be replaced with the cracks of gun reports.

There had been five hunters to begin with. Two were little more than husks.

Nel took a quick glimpse of the area, making sure that none of the remaining hunters were circling around to get her.

A white lightning bolt crackled through the air. Alicia flung two more, but they both missed. The first hit the hunter that Ylva was stalking square in the back, sending him crashing to the floor.

He managed to roll on his back, bringing a shotgun around and leveling it at the skeletal form of Ylva.

The roof had partially collapsed thanks to one of the hunters and his fireballs. He had been the first to go. But the damage had been done and Ylva was out in the unobstructed sunlight. Her white dress was riddled with holes from the hunters’ bullets. However, with no skin or organs, it was nearly impossible to tell how injured she was. One of her ribs had broken off, but that was about it.

The hunter on his back unloaded three shotgun blasts straight into Ylva’s chest.

Not one of the shots gave her even the slightest pause. She reached down, brushing her skeletal fingertips across the hunter’s cheeks.

Screaming, the hunter writhed on the ground as black veins spread out from the touch. Within a few seconds, his screams died out and the hunter went still. As with the other dead hunters, it was as if all the water in his body had dried up, turning him into a sort of mummified husk.

“Hey Dean?”

Nel turned her attention to one of the remaining hunters. A younger man with somewhat long brown hair.

“Little busy at the moment Sammy,” the other one—shorter and with a crew cut—said. He leaned around the corner, brandishing a heavy pistol.

Nel clamped her hands over her ears. Despite that, she still heard the crack as if it were right next to her head.

Ylva’s head snapped to the side. The bullet had been traveling too fast to see, but a bullet-sized hole appeared in the side of Ylva’s skull. Only one side. It didn’t make it out the other.

Snapping her head back upright, she lifted a hand to just under her jaw. A single silver bullet fell down into her waiting palm. She looked it over for a moment before dropping it to the floor. Her skull swiveled over to face the hunter with the pistol.

“I don’t think this is a succubus,” the taller hunter said.

The hunter with a pistol ducked back behind a broken wall just in time to avoid a lightning bolt from Alicia. “You think? What gave you that idea? Was it the turning into a skeleton? Or maybe the fact that it didn’t die with a bullet to the skull. Find a way to kill it.”

“Just keep it off me,” the first said, opening a small leather-bound book. “I’m going to try to banish it.”

Alicia snarled upon hearing that. Emerging from her cover, she threw lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the wall the taller hunter was using for cover. With every step closer, the lightning grew more intense than the last bolt until it was almost blinding to look at even through Nel’s glimpsing.

The hunter with the pistol didn’t seem too concerned. He leaned around the corner, aimed, and fired all before Nel could even think to do anything.

Alicia crumpled to the ground, blood leaking from a hole in her own skull.

Her shield should have protected her. Nel saw it. It flashed for the barest moment in Nel’s glimpse. Nel had never heard of an enchanted bullet that could penetrate an Elysium Order shield with only a single shot. But then, perhaps Alicia hadn’t been maintaining her shield properly. Her fellow former nun did not display the best mental discipline. Something that had only been getting worse as time went on.

With her real eyes, Nel started to see ice crystals forming from her breath. She started shivering as the cold set in, penetrating straight to her core.

“I think you just pissed it off!”

Ylva marched towards the pistol wielding hunter, ignoring shot after shot even as parts of her body were pulverized by the bullets. Even while fighting with the other hunters, Ylva had a grace about her. A certain regal bearing that she managed to maintain no matter the situation.

That regality was gone. Her footfalls were heavy and angry. Her hands clenched into fists. The teeth in her fleshless jaw ground together.

Just outside her reach, the hunter decided he had stuck around long enough. He turned to run.

And found himself facing the bright pinpricks in the back of Ylva’s skull.

She reached forward, gripping his neck. As with all the other hunters, black veins started spreading from her touch. Unlike the others, the veins spread slowly. They crept from her fingers, lingering in spots before moving on.

Nel stopped watching. She stared at her feet with her hands clamped over her ears, trying to shut out the noises the hunter was making. She had thought that she had seen Ylva angry before. How wrong that was. Nel now believed that she had never seen Ylva more than mildly irritated. With a shudder, Nel considered just how grateful she was to be Ylva’s servant and not her enemy.

When she finally worked up the courage to look again, she found nothing but dust around Ylva’s feet.

And an unmoving Ylva.

The taller hunter had his hand thrust outwards towards Ylva with a look of abject anger tormenting his otherwise pretty face. His lips moved, murmuring something.

He was trying to banish her.

Judging by her immobility, he was succeeding.

Nel jumped up. She couldn’t fight, but she could throw a lightning bolt or two. Enough to distract him and let Ylva free to take him out.

But before she could properly connect to the Source, the hunter’s head fell from his neck.

His body stayed upright for just a moment before tottering to the ground.

A woman covered from head to toe in blood stood just behind him, not even tracking his falling corpse with her eyes. She flicked her sword to one side before sheathing it.

“I have an inquiry,” she said, stepping over the body towards Ylva.

Though she was obviously not frozen anymore, Ylva stood still, watching the sword-wielder approach.

“The individual known as ‘Eva’ claims to have been killed by you.”

“Her claim is accurate.”

“No portal to the Void opened beneath her corpse?”

“Your statement is accurate.”

“I see.”

The two stood, staring at each other for another minute. Neither said another word. Even still, as if by some agreement, both started moving at once. The sword-wielder turned on her heel, stepped over the body, and walked out through a hole in the house.

Ylva turned to face the crumpled form of Alicia.

Her strides still heavy though lacking their anger, she approached the body. Half-way there, she stepped out of the direct sunlight and into a portion of the house that still had a roof overhead. Her flesh returned, appearing on her body as if nothing had happened. Though her bones had been damaged and even broken in places, not a single blemish marred her skin.

The only evidence of a battle was her long dress and the tatters the bullets had made of it.

She stopped a foot away, standing and staring.

With the danger passed, Nel stepped out from behind the slab of marble. She wasn’t quite sure what to do. Comfort Ylva?

She wouldn’t know where to begin in doing such a thing.

For the time being, she merely stepped up beside Ylva.

Nel couldn’t say that she ever really liked the other nun. Quite the opposite, in fact. Nel frequently felt an uncomfortable sensation on the back of her neck only to turn and notice Alicia staring at her. It gave her the creeps. And after Eva had mentioned how Ylva recruited the nun, that creepy feeling only grew. She knew Eva felt the same. They had both worried that she might betray Ylva.

Yet here she lay, having given her life in an attempt to stop Ylva from being banished. All while Nel cowered behind cover.

Ylva’s face was set in stone. Yet there was a certain sorrow behind her eyes. Something Nel hadn’t ever seen before despite all the time she spent around the demon.

She couldn’t keep silent any longer.

“Can you not bring her back?”

“No.” Ylva’s voice came out heavy and full of conviction. Not the voice she occasionally used when she wanted to make an impression. That voice tended to echo everywhere and force people to their knees. Just one with a hint more emotion than she normally expressed.

Nel shook her head, not quite understanding. Was she not a servant of Death? Did she not have certain powers over death?

“But you killed Eva. She’s still around.”

“None came to collect Eva. She is unwanted by all. Perhaps in time, Void will stake a claim on her being. Even had a reaper come, We may have been able to stake Our own claim. Yet We did not kill Ali. She is not Ours to restore.”

Ylva reached over, tapping Nel in the center of her forehead.

Nel blinked as a rush of cold passed through her body. Not the uncomfortable sort of cold she had felt when Alicia had been shot. Just a chill. It lasted a mere instant.

When she opened her eyes from her blink, she could see.

The world had become muted. Blood from the hunters had turned grey. The pictures on the walls, grey. Everything she could see had been drained of color.

Yet Nel didn’t waste her time looking around.

An ethereal Alicia stood just in front of her. Her face was devoid of all expression. No staring at her own corpse, no longing for Ylva. Just a vacuous gaze that stared off to one side.

Another being stood nearby. A kindly old man stood just over the beheaded hunter’s corpse. Despite his somewhat disturbing location, Nel didn’t get any worrisome feelings about him. If anything, she found him pleasing to look at.

With his lightly wrinkled face, she thought that he might be the kind of person that might be found in a park, reading a book under the warm sun. While Alicia looked like a ghost, the man was far more solid. Nel could almost see through him, but at the same time, she felt as if she might bump into him were they to touch.

He drifted forward. Though his feet moved in proper steps, his body moved so smoothly that it was almost as if he were gliding. As soon as he reached Alicia, he reached out, tapping her on the shoulder.

Alicia’s face came alive. First, her initial snarl. The exact same expression she had on while marching after the hunter. That disappeared in an instant, replaced with open-mouthed confusion. She stared at Ylva first, then Nel.

Then down to her own body.

Nel clamped her jaw shut, not trusting herself to not make a noise. The anguish on Alicia’s face, the despair. It was enough to make Nel want to cry. As it was, her stomach was churning.

“Thank you, Ali, for your service.”

The former nun’s head snapped up to Ylva. Her eyes looked wet, full of tears. But not a single drop made it out. She gave a shallow nod of her head.

The old man spoke. At least, Nel assumed he was speaking. His mouth was moving and Alicia had turned as if listening. However, Nel couldn’t hear a thing. She watched as Alicia opened her mouth as if speaking in response before the old man started talking again.

After they had spoken, the old man turned to Ylva. He gave her an almost imperceptible nod of his head. One which Ylva returned.

He took Alicia by the hand. Both vanished in a flash of white light.

Nel blinked, looking around. They were well and truly gone.

“Humans have hourglasses,” Ylva said. “We know rumors of such have been distributed throughout the mortal realm. Not literally true, but a decent metaphor. Getting the hourglasses to turn around is difficult. Though not truly a crime. Attempting to freeze the sand in place through idols of gold is what Death finds most offensive. However, sometimes sand can be added. Sometimes, taken away. Alicia… was taken before her sand had run its course. Her hourglass had cracked, to continue the metaphor.”

Turning away from Alicia’s corpse, Ylva glanced down. She pulled at her dress, looking it over with a deep frown on her face. After a moment, she released the fabric.

“Alicia may prove worthy. A reaper. Maybe a valkyrie. Should she prove worthy, I may put in a request to have her assigned to me.”

Nel didn’t say anything. She was relatively certain that she should never have seen what Ylva just showed her. The churn in her stomach was still there. Worse now, with what Ylva had said.

She opened her mouth.

How long is left in my hourglass?

She almost asked. Came so close to spilling the words.

But she was afraid. Ylva would answer. She would speak honestly and probably bluntly at that.

Nel shook her head, narrowing her eyes. She latched onto Ylva’s other words.

“H-How do I become worthy?”

— — —

“Eh, I’m sure she’s fine,” Eva said with a shrug.

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Author’s Note: Specter chapter 2 up over on the other site.


008.002

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After hearing Anderson’s true plan—getting children to summon demons and either bind them within their bodies similar to what Shalise had done with Prax or contract with them—Eva was significantly less worried. If Anderson was trying to turn more humans into demons or even just amputating limbs to graft demon limbs on, she imagined that there would be no small amount of outrage from just about everyone. Parents, teachers, and plenty more would be rioting.

Not that summoning demons was much better. The two hunters who had attacked were not going to be the last ones. As soon as word spread just a bit more, Brakket would be under attack from all sides.

Anderson’s response to that had been to simply summon more demons. There were an infinite amount of demons and a limited amount of demon hunters. With a decent portion of the school summoning demons, they should be able to deter just about any attacks.

Eva had considered arguing against summoning so many demons. It hadn’t exactly worked out for Martina and that wasn’t even counting the Hell situation. They needed to summon Void without rending reality and bringing all of Hell with him.

However, Devon had been unable to summon demons since Arachne arrived. He had the carnivean and hadn’t sent the wax demon back—she was locked up in solitary confinement with several sets of shackles to keep her in place—but a few other attempts had produced nothing but enigmas.

So unless Anderson knew something Devon didn’t, she wasn’t too worried. He would fail a few times and give up as Devon had.

Genoa cleared her throat, breaking Eva out of her thoughts.

“Juliana?” she said as they traveled down the streets of Brakket City—Wally Redford had stayed behind to hash out details with the new dean.

“Yes mother?”

“You’re not allowed to participate. No more demons.” Genoa paused for just a moment before turning her head towards Eva and Arachne. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Eva said as Arachne gave a half-hearted shrug.

Juliana frowned, turning her head off to one side. For just a moment, Eva thought that she might argue. In the end, she nodded. “Alright.”

“Good. I’ll be checking in on you every now and again.”

“Moom,” Juliana said, exaggerating the word as she pushed her mother’s wheelchair. “I can take care of myself.”

“Honey?” Genoa reached a hand over her shoulder, putting it on Juliana’s hand near the wheelchair’s handles. “I love you, but I think we’ll have to wait and see whether or not you can. Your past choices haven’t exactly inspired confidence.”

Silence descended. An uncomfortable silence broken only by the sound of footsteps and wheels against the sidewalks.

“I know,” Juliana eventually said. “I will do better.”

“That’s all I can ask.” Genoa waved a hand through the air. “But enough of the heavy topics. What happened to your other friend? Is Shalise coming back to school?”

Juliana looked over towards Eva raising an eyebrow as well.

“I mentioned that she was in Switzerland the last time Nel checked in on her. Or was it Sweden?” Eva shook her head with a shrug. “I suppose Zoe could try contacting her, but given that it was her mother who kidnapped her, I doubt she’ll be back anytime soon. Lynn Cross doesn’t particularly like me, demons, or Brakket Academy. Or much of anything, really. She is kind of a grumpy woman.”

“Her sentiment is understandable. I have qualms about having Juliana here. While I’m far more willing to allow Juliana to make up her own mind than my husband and son, I can’t say that I did much to dissuade them from their mania. If it weren’t for Zagan, Juliana would be far from this school.”

Another silence fell over the group at the mention of Zagan. Juliana and Eva shared a look. Neither wanted to talk about him.

Or rather, Juliana didn’t want anyone to talk about him. Eva wasn’t quite so averse, but she was willing to respect her friend’s wishes.

No one had summoned Zagan back yet. Martina was as good as dead and either nobody else cared or nobody else was willing. Devon certainly wasn’t willing. Anderson might be, but if he hadn’t already tried, he probably wouldn’t ever. Assuming Zagan could be summoned without enigmas pouring through the portal instead.

Neither had Zagan come back himself—something Eva was certain he would do. Maybe he couldn’t, but he had somehow got back after Juliana had summoned him to Hell. Unless Martina had resummoned him, there had to be a way. Perhaps something that only the seventy-two knew about.

Juliana was getting nervous. Unless she had changed her mind from their last conversation, she was still worried about the lack of Zagan. The longer Zagan was gone, the greater the chance that her family would find out. If her family found out, they would probably force her away.

And if Zagan came back after that, something bad might happen. What, exactly, she was afraid of, Juliana had been vague about. Some agreement about staying at Brakket Academy. Whatever it was, it had her scared.

Clearing her throat, Eva decided to change the topic away from Zagan. “Maybe we should stop by with Nel. She can peek in on Shalise unless she threw away her hair. Maybe Shalise will be in great danger and we can go on a quick adventure to save her.”

“You shouldn’t hope that your friend is in danger,” Genoa said with a hint of admonishment in her tone.

Eva shrugged. “I don’t! However, trouble seems to follow us around. A lot. Unless it’s all Brakket Academy’s doing. My life never used to be this hectic.”

“Nor mine,” Juliana said.

“I doubt Shalise’s life was so crazy either. It’s settled then. We have to check in on her. For her sake.”

Turning around, Eva walked slowly until Juliana had turned her mother’s wheelchair around and caught up.

They had been walking aimlessly after meeting with Anderson. Just a nice walk around town to enjoy the fresh air and the warm summer day. Not so long ago, they had passed by the new home that housed Ylva and Zoe.

And Nel as well.

As such, it didn’t take long to return. A walk up a short path had them right at the door. The front porch wasn’t wheelchair accessible, but Arachne helped lift the chair up the two steps. As she did, Eva scanned the neighbors with her sense of blood. No one suspicious came up. No hunters living in the adjacent houses.

At least, none that she could see.

There hadn’t been any sign of the demon hunters returning so far. Nel hadn’t been able to get anything from the pieces of armor that the one hunter had left behind. Perhaps because they were broken or maybe because Juliana had used her ferrokinesis on them beforehand. Whatever the case, they weren’t tied closely enough to the hunters to get a lock on them.

With the aid of her sense of blood, Eva had been able to find blood from both hunters around the scenes of battle. Unfortunately, it had all been contaminated beyond use. Too much dirt and debris and not enough blood.

Zagan’s horn had worked out, or the blood on it. However, she kept saying that her vision just ‘slid off’ the demon hunters. Something happened that made her mind go fuzzy when she tried to look at them.

Nel had gone back to standard augur procedure when no fetters existed and checked around the city at random, but she hadn’t found anything. Of course, the last time that Eva had checked in had been nearly a week ago. Maybe something new had happened.

Probably not. Nel didn’t have a cellphone, but Zoe did. Living in the same house, she should have gotten a message out somehow.

Before knocking, Eva performed a quick check of the interior. She didn’t want to disturb people if they were busy, after all. The only person inside Ylva’s room was Alicia—who looked to be reading a book. Nel, Ylva, Zoe, and Wayne were all inside the living room, not far from the door.

At Eva’s knock, whatever conversation they were having ceased. Everyone’s muscles tensed; Zoe’s hands curled around what could only be her dagger while Wayne held up a book. At least, that was what Eva guessed by the movement of their circulatory systems. She couldn’t actually see the dagger or tome.

The only person who remained calm was Ylva. She said a few words, ‘Eva’ being one of them—Eva had been trying to learn to lip read through her blood, her own name had been fairly easy to figure out. As soon as Ylva finished speaking, the tension in the room died off.

Zoe stood, dagger still in hand, and approached the door. As she peeped through the peephole, Eva gave her a little wave.

Though she couldn’t see it with her own eyes, Eva didn’t miss the eye roll as Zoe unlatched and opened the door.

“Eva,” Zoe said by way of greeting. She blinked as she turned towards the rest of her guests. “Genoa, Juliana,” she said with a nod to each. There was a slight pause before she continued. “And Arachne. To what do I owe your visit?”

“Well,” Eva said, “we were actually hoping to talk with Nel. But with everyone all gathered together, what’s up? Nothing bad, I hope?”

Zoe shook her head, stepping out of the doorway to let everyone file into the room. “Not really. Or, at least nothing deadly. At the moment. Bad could be left up to interpretation. For example, you would probably think it is a good thing.”

Eva moved into the room. There wasn’t much room on the couch. Ylva had taken up a portion of it on her own. With Nel at her side and a vacant seat that Zoe had been in, there wasn’t any room unless Eva wanted to steal her spot. Wayne was leaning against one wall, glowering in Eva and Arachne’s direction as they shimmied around the room.

These apartments were really not made for six people, one of whom was in a wheelchair, and a demonic giant.

“We were discussing this upcoming school year. Dean Anderson’s idiotic plan, mostly.”

“Ah. That.”

Genoa folded her arms across her chest as Juliana found a spot for her at one end of the coffee table. “We just got out of our own meeting with Anderson. Wally was there, you remember him?”

“Director Redford? Haven’t seen him in years. It does make sense. If Anderson is going to enter Brakket into the guild’s contest, he’ll need approval from the director for these demons.”

“For the record,” Eva said, “I don’t necessarily think this is a good thing. Devon is going to throw a fit when he hears that the school is going to be summoning demons in droves. He was already quite displeased about the smaller summoning program of Martina’s.”

“He isn’t the only one,” Wayne grumbled from his corner of the room.

“We,” Zoe waved her hand towards the rest of the room as she retook her seat, “are actually more worried about the state of Hell. The whole reason Ylva closed down her domain was to help cut off ties between Earth and Hell.”

Eva shared a quick glance with Arachne. Neither had breathed a word of Arachne’s mission to anyone. Not Devon, not Zoe, not even Juliana. Even Eva, someone who was undoubtedly on Arachne’s side, wasn’t entirely enthused with the idea. While theoretically less destructive, Zoe and Wayne would vehemently—possibly violently—disagree with their summoning.

As it was, Eva was desperately hoping that Arachne was right and rumors of an apocalypse were grossly exaggerated.

Best just to change the subject.

“Not worried about a school full of children making contracts with demons?”

Zoe pressed her lips into thin lines, looking like she had licked a lemon. “That is an issue as well.” She glanced back towards Ylva and gave a shallow nod of her head. “I acknowledge that demons aren’t omnicidal.” Gripping her arm, she shivered. “But they aren’t angels. If a student wound up summoning something like those demons that assaulted me, everyone is going to have a problem.”

“Angels are not the benevolent creatures that humanity romanticizes them to be. We do not believe you would enjoy an encounter with one.”

Blinking her eyes, Zoe glanced towards Ylva. “Well… that’s… just great,” she said, kneading her forehead with both hands. “I just don’t know what we’re supposed to do about anything.”

“Unless you’re planning on a coup against Anderson…” Eva trailed off, leaving her suggestion hanging until Zoe shook her head. “Then there isn’t much you can do.”

Wayne shook his head, pushing off from the wall. “That’s not true,” he said, staring Zoe in the eyes. “Teach them yourself. Speak about your experiences, express caution. Talk to parents too.” He turned to face Genoa. “You as well. Some will still go through with it, but you might limit the damage.” He drew himself up, glancing around the room. With a short grunt, he said, “the rest of us will handle students or demons that step out of line.”

His eyes stopped at Eva. He stared for a moment before shaking his head. “It’s going to be like having a school full of Evas.”

“Hey!” Eva gave him a mock glare with her hands on her hips. After a minute, she chuckled.

Wayne didn’t seem to find the amusement, choosing instead to intensify his glower.

“But I hope it isn’t going to be like that. I’m well aware of just how much trouble finds me. Though I would like to point out that I only rarely go looking for trouble. I’m pretty sure that it is this school that causes all the problems. I just happen to go here.”

“It was peaceful before you showed up.”

Eva just shrugged. “Anyway,” she said, “Nel? Can you check up on Shalise for us?”

The augur jumped at being addressed. She blinked as she glanced up to Ylva. Giving her no response, verbal or otherwise, Nel nodded her head. “I suppose so,” she said with a half-hearted sigh. “Right now?”

“As much as I’d like to continue arguing just how much my presence has or hasn’t ruined Brakket Academy, I don’t really see the conversation going anywhere.”

Aside from that, Eva didn’t really want to argue over Anderson’s plot for the school.

Nel stood from the couch, smoothing out the front of her black robes before walking over to Eva. “Well, let’s get this over with.”

“You don’t sound so excited,” Eva said, following her out of the room. Arachne was right on her heels. Juliana was on her way as well, having left Genoa behind to continue speaking with the adults.

“I think I’m just a little bit depressed as of late. Sawyer… well, that wasn’t quite as satisfying as I was hoping it would be.” She lifted up one arm, still wrapped in a glove. “And we didn’t recover any of my eyes either. I can barely use it for anything. I’ve no grip strength. And there’s a constant dull pain. Nothing that has me screaming out at all hours of the day, but it’s there.”

Pushing open the door to Ylva’s room caused Alicia to perk up. She looked over the top of her book with a smile growing across her face. The moment she saw who was actually entering the room, the smile disappeared and she buried her nose back into her book.

Eva did her best to ignore the other nun. Though she had apparently accomplished her task of not letting anything bad happen to Juliana, Eva still didn’t like her.

“I don’t know how to help you with that,” Eva said as they slipped into the bedroom. “Although, Anderson is going to be summoning a lot of demons. I got my eyes from a demon, maybe you could shop around?”

Nel shook her head. “Eyes used by the Elysium Order aren’t just your everyday eyes. They’re rare foci, magical implements, and capable of generating their own magic. Grown, not found. Implanting one into a mundane human will allow them to use magic.”

Turning to a cabinet, Nel pulled out a small burner. Zoe had teleported the two of them back to Idaho shortly after the demon hunters had fled. They managed to recover all their belongings from the motel.

Well, most of their belongings. Devon’s truck was still out there.

Eva had no intention to return for it. Whatever vampires had survived could take it as a gift for all she cared.

“Augurs aren’t hunted down just because we can spy on just about anything—though that is part of it—the eyes implanted within my body are worth more than any other single artifact owned by the Order.”

“Your problem isn’t the eyes though. That’s the Elysium Order’s problem.”

Pausing with a small glass jar in her hand, Nel raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”

“You just want a working arm, right?” Eva held up her own hand, looking it over as she showed it off to Nel. “Arachne’s limbs have been quite handy. They don’t look human, but other demons do. Catherine’s arms look normal most of the time.”

So Eva said, but she doubted that Catherine would be willing to part with an arm. Even if she could regenerate it without much trouble.

Nel balked. Her face took on a sickly pallor. “You want me to cut off my arm?”

“You were just talking about putting eyes into your arm,” Eva said, voice flat. “Now you get all shocked?”

“Putting things in my arm is a far cry from chopping it off.”

Eva shook her head. Her own limb issue had been forced for her hands, but she had willingly taken on Arachne’s legs. Maybe her perspective was skewed.

“Your choice,” Eva eventually said with a shrug.

With a shake of her head, Nel knelt down next to an altar at the side of the room. She pulled a slightly curled brown hair from the jar and threw it up in front of her, letting it float in the air. With her gemstone focus, she sparked the frankincense.

It didn’t take long for the air to fill with piny-citrus scent that was so common around the augur.

As she settled down to perform her auguring, Eva double-checked her surroundings. She wasn’t paranoid, but if anyone had worse luck than Eva, it was Nel. Eva couldn’t dispute her claim that terrible things happened every time she left Ylva’s domain. Now that Ylva’s domain was gone, it was something of a shock that Nel hadn’t been found dead.

Everyone was still where they were supposed to be. Alicia in her half of the room and the rest in the living room. The neighbors were going about their regular business. A woman and a child playing with toys on one side. A man fixing a car out in the garage of another house. None seemed to be spying on Zoe’s house.

“Not sure what I’m seeing,” Nel said, eyes closed as she leaned over the frankincense burner. She took a few slow and careful breaths before leaning back. “Maybe nothing at all?”

“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing?”

Nel opened her eyes, glancing over to Eva. “Probably not something to worry about. Sister Cross would often disappear for hours on end.”

“The same thing that Sawyer did?”

“No. Sawyer was like he didn’t exist. The only evidence of him was a shroud of darkness. Sister Cross exists—or rather, Shalise does—but I can’t see exactly where she is.”

“So what does that mean?” Juliana asked. “You used to be able to find her, right?”

Nel held out her hands, palms up.

“No. Try again. Shrugging this off isn’t going to help it.”

“I don’t–” Nel cut herself off with a sigh. Leaning over her altar, she breathed in a deep breath. “There’s just nothing. I see where they might have been several minutes ago. A sort of campsite out in a forest. Two tents, a fire pit, a wooden bench. Nobody around though.”

Lips curling into a frown, Nel tapped a finger against her altar. “There is one thing odd. What looks like canned food is sitting out. Not near the fire, but it had to have been at one point. I can see steam coming out of the can.”

“Like it had been abandoned recently?”

“Maybe.”

“Alright. Figure out where it is. I’m going to grab Zoe. If it is a false alarm, we can leave peacefully—maybe rekidnap Shalise if she wants—otherwise, better to be safe than sorry.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


007.020

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Eva saw them arrive on her floor just as another of Lucy’s tendrils snapped off.

Zoe had her dagger out in her hand already while Juliana was in nearly full combat armor. Her face was clear, but she otherwise had a metal helmet covering her head. It looked as if she would be able to fill in the hole at the first sign of trouble.

They weren’t running with half as much speed as Eva thought they should be. Of course, one doesn’t simply rush Ylva. The rest of them had no excuse.

“I need you to destroy as much of the inside of the room as possible,” Eva said, shifting her gaze between Zoe, Nel, and Juliana. “And fast.”

In the short time that she had been left waiting for the others to arrive, Eva had shed more blood in an attempt to damage the shackles and other circles around Lucy. Whatever had been done to the door had also been done to the floor, rendering her efforts worthless for the most part. The ceiling hadn’t been protected. She had managed to destroy a few markings up there. Whatever was pulling Lucy apart had slowed, but not stopped.

Most of the circles and shackles were on the floor.

Nel would be the best person to help out. If her magic-eating lightning could remove whatever protections were on the floor, everything would be easier for everyone else. She didn’t even need to damage the floor herself, just enable Eva’s fireballs and Zoe’s lightning.

She was hoping that Juliana and Zoe would be able to overpower whatever damage resistance enchantments there were.

Unfortunately for Eva, and more so for Lucy, both women balked as soon as they caught sight of the room.

Zoe reared back as she covered her mouth with the back of one hand, gazing into the room with wide eyes. She recovered quickly enough and started lashing out with both lightning and razor wind. She gave no complaint nor asked what had happened as she set into her work.

Juliana did not fare half as well. She stumbled backwards, one hand clasped around her mouth and the other across her stomach. After a few dry heaves, she managed to hold down her lunch–or whatever was the last meal that she ate. Still, she didn’t immediately move to help. She stood to the side and breathed in a few gasps of air.

Opening her mouth, Eva just about berated Juliana for her weak stomach while Lucy needed help. The thought only lasted an instant before Eva turned away. Not in disgust. This would be one of those things that Juliana would berate herself over later. One of the things that had caused her to dabble her fingers in diablery in the first place.

Besides, Nel was far more deserving of Eva’s disappointment. The moment the augur looked into the room, her eyes rolled back into her head as she collapsed against Ylva. Really, with how she had acted during Sawyer’s torture, Eva didn’t know why she had expected anything else.

Berating an unconscious woman wouldn’t do any good.

Instead, Eva focused her irritation on her fireballs. Already feeling lethargic and annoyed from a thumping in her head, she had abandoned using more of her own blood. Passing out wouldn’t help Lucy at all.

Exploding fireballs worked well enough in place of her blood. In fact, they probably worked better. Maybe if she had Zagan’s blood with her, but that was back at the women’s ward. A casual visit to Ylva and Zoe shouldn’t have needed the blood. It was stupid and foolish, something that Eva wanted to blame on her anemia-induced headache.

The explosions were somewhat problematic. Though she had managed to destroy the floor containing the shackle right at the doorway, it had taken a lot of power behind the fireball. Enough that trying the same thing near Lucy would probably do a whole lot more harm to the already severely injured demon.

Eva was toying with the power near Lucy. So far, she hadn’t managed to scratch the floor. Before long, it might be better just to explode Lucy and hope that she could survive.

“Eva,” Zoe said. Her own lightning was having less effect than Eva’s fireballs. “The spot you just hit, on the count of three, hit it again with everything you’ve got.”

“I can do fairly large explosions,” Eva said.

“Probably not larger than Wayne’s.”

Eva shrugged and started building up a fireball.

“One.”

The same spot that she had hit previously was a larger scorch mark just at the edge of the main shackles holding Lucy in place. Whatever was peeling her apart could stick around as long as it wanted if she could get Lucy out of there. Unfortunately, scorch marks weren’t enough to break the shackles. They had been carved into the linoleum, not just drawn on with some chalk.

“Two.”

Eva started compressing the gathered flames. This would definitely be a larger one. It was just what Zoe had asked for.

Hopefully she knew what she was doing.

There were shimmers in the air around Lucy. Enough of them to make it almost hard to see through. Zoe’s dagger was out and pointed straight at the disturbance in the air.

And she was taking a long time in getting to three.

All the while, Eva continued streaming fire into the small marble. She didn’t want to lose control of it while it was in her hand, but Zoe had asked for her best.

“Three!”

As soon as Zoe spoke, the semi-translucent bubble of air around Lucy went completely opaque.

Eva didn’t question the effect. She tossed the unstable marble of fire.

It landed just to the left of the already existing scorch mark. The moment it hit, the fragile shell of stable flames broke, unleashing everything inside.

Though she normally enjoyed a bit of heat, this was a bit much. Eva took a step back, shielding her face with an open palm as the wave of heat and noise rushed over her. Even half covering her eyes didn’t help block out the light.

For a moment, she stood in the doorway, not quite able to tell what was going on. She could still see through her blood sight. Juliana was behind her and Zoe had stepped around the edge of the doorway to avoid most of the heat. Whatever Zoe had done had worked. At least, in as far as Lucy was not a pile of ash after that.

But she couldn’t see the important thing. Was the floor broken?

Blinking away the spots in her eyes, Eva shook her head in an attempt to clear the fading ringing from her mind. As soon as her senses were back to a more normal sate, she took a look in the room.

Or what was left of it.

The floor around whatever shield or bubble or whatever Zoe had done was practically nonexistent. Only half of the couch was left behind, the rest was on fire. And that wasn’t all that was on fire. The curtains over the windows were smoking and the walls had embers glowing along parts. Over the kitchen counter in the back of the room, the windows had been blown out.

Given that the windows faced the street, hopefully no one had been walking around out there.

With her real eyes and a bit of closer look through her blood sight, Eva could see that Lucy had not survived unscathed. The skin covering her tendrils closest to the explosion had darkened and cracked. There was a bit of singing going on even on the opposite side of her body.

Whatever had been peeling her apart must have been damaged in the explosion. All of her tentacles were lying on the floor, writhing somewhat, but not being pulled from her main mass.

The important part was that she had survived. With her lack of a central heart or even a central brain, Eva doubted that Lucy would suddenly disappear into a portal to Hell. She would be able to heal as long as she didn’t bleed out.

It probably wouldn’t come to that, but Eva could ensure that it wouldn’t with her dagger.

“Careful,” Zoe said as Eva took a step into the room. She put a hand on Eva’s shoulder, stopping her from moving in any farther.

“I am.”

And she honestly was. This room had been set up to be extremely unfriendly towards demons. Half the markings inside were nothing that she had seen before. She almost wished that she had had the presence of mind to take a picture of it with her shiny new cell phone for Devon. He would have been able to tell her what it was all for.

But she hadn’t. She had been worried for Lucy and had immediately jumped to act on that.

Gingerly walking into the room, Eva approached the wiggling mass of tentacles. She had already broken the shackles that were right in front of the door. The shackles holding Lucy were broken as well. Much of the floor was broken between them and Eva couldn’t see anything on the walls or ceiling that might be dangerous.

At least, nothing between her and Lucy. Moving around the room, she could see some drawings around the kitchen windows and the bedroom doorway.

Eva stayed well away from there as she approached.

“Hey Lucy, I’m here.” Eva spoke in a soft tone of voice, keeping as calm as possible. “It’s Eva. You remember me, right?”

Lucy could be absolutely vicious when pressed. She had heard from Irene just what had happened to the enigmas that had infested her room. Startling Lucy could be a quick way to get herself killed.

The pile of tentacles didn’t respond. It just continued squirming around itself. Eva hadn’t really expected otherwise. In order to speak, Lucy not only had to form a mouth, tongue, throat, lungs, and everything else required, but she also had to use her tentacles to do so. With how injured she was, Eva wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t hear from the woman for a long while.

It was reassuring that she wasn’t lashing out in an attempt to strangle Eva.

“I’m going to press the flat of my dagger against your body,” Eva said as she knelt down next to Lucy. “It will help stop your bleeding. Don’t worry. You’re safe right now.”

Eva waited just a moment before reaching her dagger out, slow and steady. For all she knew, Lucy wasn’t in a state to understand a single word that she had said. The moment she touched her blade to the tentacles, she might find herself without an arm.

But, nothing happened. The flat of her blade pressed against one of the more profusely bleeding spots just as she had said it would. Lucy wiggled, but didn’t try to reach out.

If anything, she drew back in on herself.

Ignoring the reaction, Eva concentrated on the blood. She didn’t do anything with it for a moment but press her dagger against Lucy. As it pumped through her body, Eva gathered more of it under her control. When blood reached the points where her tentacles had been pulled off, Eva hardened the blood.

It wouldn’t be comfortable. Plates of hardened blood, even without any sharp edges, would be inconvenient when walking around. Or crawling, or whatever Lucy did when she wasn’t shaped like a human. But it would keep her blood inside of her. That was the important part.

The blood at the tip of her dagger hardened as she pulled away. It was done. Lucy was still a blob, but she wasn’t a bleeding blob.

Standing up, Eva let out a sigh of relief. She had been worried. Real worry. Not some superficial concern like she had felt for Lynn Cross after just about killing her with a teleport. The only reason she had cared for and healed Lynn was because of Shalise.

It was a bit strange. Not something that she really would have expected of herself under the best of circumstances. And after tromping through her domain, Eva had been all but certain that she would have reacted with revulsion upon seeing Lucy outside of her human form.

With a shake of her head, Eva looked back to the rest of the group. Zoe and Ylva were both looking around the apartment, though Ylva’s eyes were glued on a certain half-a-hexagon on part of the undamaged floor. Nel was slumped against the door frame. Clad in full armor, Juliana stood over her. Two elongated bars of metal stuck out from her hands as she posed herself half-crouched and ready for anything.

Eva was at a lost about what to do now. Tracking down those people who had been living in the room was a good start, but perhaps not this very minute. Certainly, Lucy couldn’t stay here. She needed a safe place to rest and recuperate.

The women’s ward would work. Her blood wards might have been taken down by the Elysium Order in less than a half-hour, but they would keep plenty of people from just wandering in.

And that was a definite concern.

No one seemed to live on this floor. Perhaps the owners of this apartment room had rented out the entire place. Maybe they had done something worse. But there were people on the floors above and below.

Her explosion hadn’t been one of those silent kinds. People had definitely heard. Some of those in the closer rooms might have even felt it. A few people were already on their way downstairs.

But Eva wasn’t sure that she could just wander off with her. Lucy was contracted to Martina Turner. It might be some sort of faux pas to just run off with her.

Whatever happened, something needed to be done now.

“Zoe,” Eva said, “people are coming to investigate the noise.”

After snapping one last picture with her phone of a partially intact ritual circle, Zoe glanced back towards the door. “How many?”

“Uh, all of them?”

“Great. You don’t see the original occupants of this room anywhere?”

Eva shook her head. “Not anywhere in my range. Didn’t see them on the way up either.” Though she hadn’t exactly been paying attention then, she was fairly confident that she would have noticed someone familiar.

“It is probably safest for them to remain in their rooms.” She started towards the door, but paused. “So long as this place doesn’t burn down. Can you extinguish–”

A chilled wind blew through the apartment room. Nothing Eva or Zoe had done. It took Eva a moment to notice Ylva looking around the room.

The fires weren’t anything large. Small smoldering cloths or wood. Whatever was flammable that hadn’t been put out by the force of the blast. Though none of it was major, there was the possibility that it all could flare up and ignite something.

Not that it mattered. All the flames died instantly under Ylva’s gaze.

“Thanks,” Zoe said as she stepped out of the room to intercept the other tenants.

She went out, holding her hands up as she approached the nearest person. Not as if she were being held up by a gun—or a wand, as was more likely at Brakket—but in a calming manner, trying to assure everyone that everything was just fine. Perhaps not fine, but rather under control.

Whatever the case, Zoe could handle it.

Eva had more important things to focus on.

Namely, sitting down and taking a nap.

Now that the immediate danger and excitement was over with, Eva could feel herself becoming less steady on her feet. Between Sawyer, Serena, and now Lucy, Eva could barely extend her fingers. She simply couldn’t maintain the pressure needed to keep her palms open. Normally it wasn’t something she had to even think about doing.

Potions, being almost exclusively designed for humans, had been doing less and less for Eva over the past few years. Even still, taking a blood replenishing potion might not be a bad idea. She would have to take a good ten or so before it affected her even a fraction of what a human would need, but every little bit would help.

Of course, that was something of a personal matter. More pressing was the fact that there was an enemy about.

Someone had tried to kill Lucy. Not just kill, but torture her along the way.

Eva blinked as she sat down on the floor. Juliana had mentioned that both Lucy and Daru were missing. If Lucy was here, where was Daru?

Tuning her senses for the morail demon, Eva found nothing. He wasn’t in the building. Or if he was, he was hidden behind whatever suppression field had hidden Lucy. But she also couldn’t see him with her sense of blood, so he probably wasn’t around.

Taken away by the people who put Lucy into this situation? Fled? He may already be dead, back floating in the Void along with Arachne. If he wasn’t, maybe he had something left behind that Nel could use to track him down.

Glancing over, Eva found the augur slowly coming around. Thanks entirely to Juliana’s diligent efforts in waking her.

Likely a waste of time. She would take one look around the room and pass out again.

Or maybe not, Eva thought as she looked around the room herself. A good amount of Lucy’s torn tentacles had been vaporized by her explosion. The ones that hadn’t were gathered in the corners of the room. A far less gruesome sight than having them scattered everywhere.

Looking up, Eva noticed Ylva’s gaze. She had returned to the hexagonal marking on the floor.

“Thoughts?” Eva asked. She had no idea what the marking was. Her question was broad enough that it could also include thoughts on the former occupants. She had warned Ylva, or mentioned them at least, but obviously nothing had been done.

Ylva’s cold eyes turned up to Eva for just a moment. “Hunters,” she said as she looked back to the hexagon.

Eva brushed some of the lingering soot and debris away from the mark. The hexagon had a simple symbol contained within. Not any sort of magical sigils or runes, but a simple skull with feathered wings stretching out from behind it. “What is it?”

“A sign. A sign We have not borne witness to in centuries.”

“What does it do?”

“Do? Nothing.” Ylva’s head shook ever so slightly. “Not how it is now. Upon someone being released from their mortal restraints, it calls out an agent of Death. Nothing so high as a god of Death, but a mere servant such as Ourself. Used in ages long past to ensure that a loved one passed on properly, it has fallen out of use in recent centuries.”

“That’s…” Eva glanced back towards the entrance of the room. There had been shackles set up. Complicated ones. She had never seen anything quite like them, nor could she guess about their specific purpose. Nothing good, that was for certain. “You’re the nearest agent of death, aren’t you. This was a trap for you?”

“We came to the same conclusion.”

Eva looked back to Lucy. A thought crossed her mind and she almost reached out to pat the now still demon. She didn’t know whether or not Lucy would appreciate the contact. It might still be a bad idea to unnecessarily touch her.

“Would it have worked with Lucy? Demons don’t die like mortals do.”

“We are… unsure. We would not feel a demon’s passing under normal circumstances. Such a symbol would force the call no matter what died. The hunters believed that it would work that way, at least.”

Obviously, Eva couldn’t help but think. “So, you didn’t notice anything about them while we were gone?”

“Our observations were limited. They came and went at several points, never acting overly suspicious.”

“Well, they got Lucy in here somehow.”

“The woman carried in a larger case yesterday evening. We believed it to be mere luggage. Never once did we feel the presence of a nearby demon.”

“Neither did I, on my way here. I only found her because I can see through walls.”

“It is fortunate that you did.”

“So,” Eva said after a lull in the conversation, “how do we find them?”

If they knew about Ylva, they probably knew about Nel as well. She would look around for any part of them that might be used to track them. If they did know about Nel, Eva doubted that they would have left anything behind.

But they couldn’t be allowed to get away with this. She had learned her lesson from Sawyer. She was no good at long and drawn out torture sessions. A quick kill would get the same end result.

“We will be wary. Do not seek them. Anywhere they might live could be as trapped as this building. Charging into battle with a foe as prepared as this would end poorly.”

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