Freedom of Choice
“You stupid bitch! Can’t threaten to kill me now, can you?” Cid shouted at the hole in the tunnel floor. His eyes widened momentarily as he reached up to his throat, but the black smoke from the Contract spell was already disappearing, leaving him with a full grin on his face. “Hope you enjoy it down there as much as I did. Say hello to Bacco for me.”
Alyssa watched in silence from her shroud of fractal illusions as he slid the light holder back into the wall. The trapdoor snapped shut, becoming nearly impossible to tell apart from the surrounding floor. If she hadn’t known it was there, she wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Elven engineering? She hadn’t known that elves were engineers. Craftsmen, yes. Engineers? Maybe she could start an industrial revolution, she just needed to go visit the elves.
Later. For now, she needed to get Kasita out of whatever dungeon she had fallen into. Alyssa wasn’t too worried about the mimic. Unless that trapdoor dropped her into a furnace, she should be fine. Tzheitza had stabbed her enough over the past week that Alyssa had a hard time being worried. Even the Taker torturing her wouldn’t cause much harm unless he realized that she was a mimic and changed his tactics to compensate. And Kasita had assured her that she would be fine. In fact, she might have already escaped. Alyssa pictured some kind of barred cell, which she would easily slip through just by changing to something small.
Now, what was her plan? Tzheitza and Oz wouldn’t have been able to follow, so maybe return and open the doors for them? Cid might get away if he continued on down the tunnel. Following him would be fine, but if he started walking back to the secret entrance, she would have to keep ahead of him. There simply wasn’t space in the narrow tunnel to slip past someone.
Not without potentially brushing up against him.
Alyssa felt her blood curdle as a new voice broke the silence. A man emerged from the shadows behind Cid. A shorter man, though not significantly so. He still managed to cut an imposing presence with his dark leather outfit. It almost looked like a trench coat with how long it was, though it clearly had been tailored for his narrow frame. A long sword hung from one hip and a shorter dagger on his opposite. No tome of spells like Irulon had, though he could have spells hidden inside his coat. Tzheitza had said that he was an arcanist, though he had only been around a Rank Three caster back when he worked with the Knights Solaris.
At hearing the slightly nasally voice, Cid jumped and spun around, losing all the haughty confidence from when he dropped Kasita down the hole. “T-Taker. I-I-I thought you were waiting down below.”
“You cut your deadline close. I was heading out to find you. My appreciation for saving me the trouble.” The Taker took a step forward, sending Cid a step back.
“I did everything you asked for. The girl is down in the dungeons. I-I couldn’t get her weapon away from her. Or her spells.”
“So not everything.”
The Taker took another two steps forward. Cid staggered back, tripping over his own shoes and landing on the ground. He was right over the trapdoor, though with how much his hands were shaking, he probably was too focused on the Taker to realize, though the Taker was still a good distance away from the disguised lever. “Please, I did the best I could.”
“I suppose expecting anything more from you would leave me disappointed,” the Taker said, clasping his hands behind his back. “Would that I had more time, I could teach you, instill upon you my standards. Unfortunately, they want this taken care of as soon as possible. You’re free to go.”
Cid didn’t move. Even as the Taker walked over to one of the lights—not the same one that had activated the trapdoor—he stayed on the floor, just blinking his eyes. Ever so slowly, a smile parted his lips. “Really?”
“If you wish to stay…”
“No!” Cid shouted. The Taker paused, turning to him with a raised eyebrow. “I-I mean, no thank you, uh, boss.”
The Taker gave a curt nod of his head, pulling the light as he did so. Cid remained where he was, no hole opened up beneath him. No other traps did anything to him. Instead, a section of the wall slid away, falling into the ground to reveal yet another staircase.
Alyssa started eying the nearest light holder to her. Did all of them open up something? Maybe a few even activated traps. Not just the trapdoor, but spike traps or falling ceilings. She slid away, moving to the opposite side of the tunnel to keep from accidentally triggering anything.
“Her weapon,” Cid blurted out before the Taker could descend. “She has more than just the long one. There is one under her arm and one at her hip. They don’t look anything like the long one, but they are definitely the same kind of weapons… I haven’t actually seen her use them, but she pulled one out and pointed it at me just like the big one.”
The Taker stilled for one moment before bursting out in a tittering sort of laughter. “Well done, Cid. Well done. I didn’t think you had it in you to be useful. Any other interesting tidbits I should be aware of?”
“Uhh… She uses regular magic as well? I didn’t see her spells, but she used one on me.” Cid’s hand moved up to rub at his neck again as if he were confirming that the smoke noose had indeed vanished. “Contract, I believe its name was.”
“Death magic, Rank Four. Similar spells won’t be an issue.”
“And that potion maker. I haven’t seen her in a while, but she was probably following us until we reached the house.”
“Ah yes, Tzheitza. I’ve already sent my latest disappointment to deal with my dear old comrade. Unless she has lost her touch since her retirement, the assassin will fail—hence disappointment—but it should have proved a distraction for her. Best not to use that exit, just in case. In fact, remain in the Waterhole until further notice.”
Alyssa’s stomach dropped out from under her. She clutched her shotgun to her chest. An assassin? Tzheitza was a former mercenary who could almost certainly take care of herself. Oz was with her as well. They would be fine. They should be fine. But Alyssa still clenched her teeth together, angry at… a lot of things. Herself, for dragging them into this. Cid and Bacco for dragging her into this. The stupid gang. This Taker.
Tenebrael. Couldn’t forget about that stupid angel.
She had a Message spell. She could warn them. From the way the Taker was talking, it was already too late. Shouting a warning in their ears could be just the thing that distracted them into making a mistake. The Taker didn’t seem to think that the assassin he had sent was up to snuff either. Besides, she couldn’t do it now anyway. Not with these two so close to her. The Empty Mirror spell kept her safe from being spotted and heard, but it wasn’t perfect. If she intentionally reached out of the veil of shards, say to brush at Kasita’s elbow, the spell would allow it. Speaking with the intention of sending her voice out of the bubble might just reveal herself.
No. She would have to trust that they could take care of themselves. Hopefully the assassin wouldn’t be expecting Oz.
As she thought, Cid had started to blubber to himself. “But-But I’m free to go. You said it yourself!”
“I changed my mind. Don’t leave the Waterhole, Cid. Your life is worthless enough as it is; I don’t want to waste my time hunting you down. But I’ll have to. You’ll be caught by Tzheitza and she will make you tell her everything. I know you. You’re a squealer.” The Taker’s hand, gloved with black leather that matched his trench coat, dropped down to his dagger. “Or I could save myself the trouble.”
“W-Waterhole? I love that place!”
“That’s what I thought. We’ll talk later, Cid.” Turning back to the stairs, the Taker left the passage. After a moment, the wall rose up out of the floor, sealing his path from the rest.
Cid flopped over on the ground, no longer able to prop himself up on his hands. His breaths were rapid and heavy, as if he had just run his first mile in over a year. For a few minutes, he didn’t move, content with his rest.
Neither did Alyssa. She stayed where she was. A part of her wanted to run back, find Tzheitza and Oz, and help them with their assassin. But she would most likely just be in the way. Tzheitza might be more than a match for the Taker’s latest disappointment, but Alyssa doubted that she would be. Aside from that, she couldn’t just leave Kasita down in the cells. While she might have escaped already, she could still be pretending to be Alyssa. They hadn’t planned for this exact situation. They had expected an ambush of sorts. If she was still disguised and the Taker found out that she was a mimic, she could find herself in serious trouble.
Besides all that, if the Taker found himself looking into an empty cell that was supposed to be holding Alyssa, he would probably march right back up here, kill Cid, and then go hunting for her. She could care less about what happened to Cid, but not much. Not after this, admittedly expected, betrayal. But with the Taker, she had the initiative at the moment. Losing that could cost not only her, but Tzheitza, Oz, and even Kasita. She needed to act now. Or, as soon as Cid got out of the way. Climbing over him while he was lying in the middle of the floor risked too much. All she needed to do was walk down the stairs while invisible and shoot the Taker in the back of the head.
A man like that, she was willing to accept his death on her conscience.
Cid didn’t stay on the floor for long. He pulled himself to his feet. Given how much his legs were shaking, it was a surprise he managed to stand at all. Yet he did. He even managed to take a few steps, moving forward until he paused right where the Taker had disappeared down the side passage. “I hope you two kill each other,” he spat out. As if spooked by his own shadow, he took off running away from Alyssa, leaving her alone in the tunnel.
Waiting just long enough to ensure that he wouldn’t be returning soon, Alyssa walked up to the same light holder that the Taker had used.
It was brass like the others, scuffed up and ugly. Forged in a hurry, probably. Like all the others, it looked like it had been hammered into the wall haphazardly. The lights weren’t evenly spaced. Some where higher up on the walls than others. A few didn’t even have jars of light sitting on top of them. One holder had broken glass littering the floor around it. If someone like the city guard found their way down here, they would pass by the holders not knowing that at least a few of them were hidden levers. Some were probably designed to kill or capture the puller, just in case a guard or escaping prisoner got the bright idea to test it out. At least, that was how she would have done it if she were the leader of an evil crime syndicate.
Of course, if she were in charge, she would have some kind of key system so that not just anyone could open the top secret doors to her underground dungeon.
Which is exactly what Alyssa did. Pulling the lever caused a ripple in the slowly moving shards of her invisibility spell. As soon as she let go, the ripple returned to normal. At first, she had been worried about reaching through the veil of the spell. It looked just like shards of glass. Just because it didn’t whip about like a tornado as the Fractal Mirror spell did didn’t mean that it wouldn’t tear off her arm if she put it through.
But it didn’t. It did feel strange. Like dipping her arm into a cooler filled with water and ice, minus the cold. When she put her arm through, most of it moved out of the way easily, but some of the shards felt hard against her skin. Strange, but no harm seemed to come of it, so she wasn’t going to worry over it too much.
The hallway opened up just as it had when the Taker pulled the lever, revealing another set of stairs. The ceiling started low, no higher than the already cramped main passageway, but it stayed roughly the same height. Both the walls and stairs were much smoother, having been made of actual bricks rather than just carved from the surrounding earth. The actual size was still rather narrow, but the extra headroom alone reduced the claustrophobia tenfold.
Finding no guards, she started down the steps. It was a bit odd that this criminal organization didn’t have any guards outside their secret passages, but maybe it made sense. A fully armed man sitting outside or even inside a house all day would be far more suspicious than a boarded up and abandoned old house. Their best security was their secrecy.
As with the stairs inside the house, a far more obvious lever at the bottom closed up the opening. From there, the path split. A hallway crossed from the left to the right with identical doors on either end. There weren’t any signs indicating what was behind those doors.
Alyssa picked the right path. She had two primary reasons. The first was that the trapdoor Kasita had fallen through was in this direction. The second was the pained moaning echoing off the walls. It wasn’t Kasita. The groaning was far more masculine than Kasita’s voice.
Or… her normal voice. If she wanted to, she could probably disguise herself as Cid—or anyone else for that matter—and sound just like him. This voice didn’t sound like Cid though. It was a bit too deep for him. It did, however, sound familiar.
Alyssa hesitated outside the door. If she was right, the other side would be some kind of prison. Maybe it wouldn’t warrant such a fancy word, but there would be holding cells and captives. And, most likely, the Taker. Opening the door, even with her invisibility, would surely attract his attention. If he was even half the man the others talked him up to be, he would know without a doubt that someone invisible had entered the room.
So rather than barge in like some kind of fool, Alyssa pulled a card from her pocket. Another of the spells Irulon had made for her. Another Fractal spell. Infinite Regress. Rank Five.
In all honesty, she didn’t want to use it. It sounded too similar to Fractal Mirror. Perhaps even stranger despite being a lower rank. But she couldn’t just walk in without starting a fight. As long as she understood the spell’s effects, Infinite Regress should allow her to safely scout out the interior if not deal with the Taker.
Closing her eyes, Alyssa cast the spell. When she opened them, she found the door gone. The hallway extended further out, continuing onward until there was a door far far off in the distance. Just in front of her, there was a slight glistening field blocking off most of the hallway. Most. Leaning around it, the door was right where it had been before. The hallway hadn’t extended at all. The spell put a mirror in the way. Had she not been invisible, she probably would have seen herself.
With a deep breath, she walked into the mirror.
The world dimmed, becoming saturated like an old film. Not quite black and white, but much of the color bled out of her surroundings. The door reappeared in front of her and, looking back, she saw the hallway just as it had been before she stepped into the mirror. So far, everything seemed to be working.
Image, she thought. Stepping to the side, she found a copy of herself frozen in the air where she stood, posed exactly how she had been when she thought. Thinking it again created a second copy of herself, this time standing to the side and staring at the first. Moving around, she could pass through herself without any resistance, as if they weren’t actually there. It almost made her nauseous, reaching out to touch her own face only for her hand to pass right through her cheek. She had already seen Kasita take on her form more than once and that was bad enough. At least Kasita had substance. Looking at her clones, they were just empty. Vacant in being and utterly still.
Alyssa pulled herself together with a shake of her head. She had to focus. According to the spell’s description, it would only create three copies. Three again. But no time to muse over that magic number at the moment. She had already wasted at least thirty seconds. The card hadn’t mentioned a time limit and most spells she had used didn’t wear off until she slept, but that was no reason to assume the same would hold true in every case.
Taking a step to the side, she thought it again. Image. Simple as that. As soon as she thought it, another copy of herself shimmered in her place, overlaying her form. She quickly moved out of her image, standing aside. Three of herself. Or four if she included her actual self. Hopefully that would be enough.
Turning back to the door, she took a deep breath and pulled it open.
What lay beyond was a small room, circular in design. A single chair sat in the very center, out in the open. Brown spots of dried blood littered the floor around it. Barred cells had been carved out of the curved wall, one every few paces with a thick wall between each. Bacco huddled in the back corner of one, lying directly on the floor—there were no beds or seats, just a small bucket.
Alyssa’s double—Kasita—stood behind the bars of the cell directly opposite of Bacco. She had her arms crossed as she stared out of the bars with a smug look on her face. The Taker stood on the other side of her cell.
He wasn’t looking at his latest captive.
In the short few seconds it took Alyssa to process the room’s layout, he had reached into his trench coat and pulled out a black knife. A flick of his wrist sent it across the room.
And straight into Alyssa’s stomach.
She stumbled back, letting out a sharp cry of pain.
She had been hurt before. A new kitten when she was younger that hadn’t enjoyed her abundant affection, a fall from her bicycle that still left a black scar on her knee, she had even broken a finger one time while messing about on monkey bars. She regularly got slivers, cuts, and scrapes at her job—her old job at the home improvement store back on Earth.
But this… this was different.
A knife was sticking out of her stomach!
“Well, well. Bringing a friend? Looks like you aren’t the fool I took you for. Your friend, however, is.” The Taker stepped away from the bars, moving closer. “Is that you under that shroud, Tzheitza? No. She would know better than to stand in one spot after opening a door.”
Alyssa barely paid attention to his words. She had a dagger in her stomach. A dagger in her stomach! Her skin burned where the metal touched her, but deeper inside, she felt cold ice spreading through her veins. Grazing her fingers over the hilt sent jolts through her body. Gritting her teeth together, she tried pulling it out. Alyssa screamed again. Trying to pull it felt like she was trying to pull her insides out.
Blinking away a glaze of tears over her eyes, she tried again.
Only to cry out as a second dagger sheered clean through her wrist. The tip, poking out of her skin, started growing. Icy tendrils spread away from the black metal, wrapping around and inside her arm.
“Drop the shroud, interloper,” the Taker said. He stayed back, half behind the chair in the room as if it might work as a shield, but the two daggers in his hands showed he was more than ready to continue the offensive. “You have until the count of five. One.”
Alyssa grit her teeth together. Rather than try to pull the knives out, she drew her pistol.
Aiming wasn’t easy. The gun felt heavier than normal. It wavered back and forth no matter how much she tried to steady it.
“Three.” The Taker flicked his wrist early, just as she squeezed the trigger. But her shot went wide, not even coming close enough to make him flinch. On the other hand, his dagger sailed across the room, cutting through the air on a collision course with Alyssa’s face.
She pinched her eyes shut.
Author’s Note: Just a Top Web Fiction vote reminder! Thanks everyone!