Into the Desert
Riding across the open desert was far calmer than the harried race through the city streets. Whether that was because the draken had gotten their excitement out of their system, whether they found it too hot, or whether they wanted to preserve energy didn’t really matter. Ironically enough, Alyssa almost would have preferred the high-speed twists and turns of the city. At least that would have kept her awake. They were moving at a brisk pace, but one just slow enough that her eyes felt heavier and heavier every time she blinked. There wasn’t enough adrenaline to keep her awake and alert.
Shaking her head, Alyssa pulled out her phone in an attempt to distract herself from the call of the sandman. One hour left on the timer, plus some change. Despite her words back in Tzheitza’s shop, she couldn’t fall asleep until that timer hit zero and Irulon wasn’t dead—she hadn’t even realized that she had left Irulon behind when heading to her room until she had come back out. That had been a bit of a shock considering that she had only just berated Irulon for disappearing moments before. Looking over at the princess now, Alyssa couldn’t see anything wrong. Irulon had pulled a tome from her rucksack and was reading through it. Every so often, she would make a mark in it with a fountain pen.
Glancing at Izsha put a… complicated expression on Alyssa’s face. Upon first seeing the horses that Oz and his crew were riding, Alyssa had almost asked if there was a spare for her again. But after riding for the near two hours that she had been riding, she was having second thoughts about that. Izsha had a much narrower width to its body than the horses did. Oz, Lumen, and Catal had their legs spread wide just to straddle the horse. It didn’t look all that comfortable. Bow-legged was a term she had heard before, though she wasn’t sure if it applied. Her own saddle was almost more like a regular chair in terms of how far she had to spread her legs. Though regular chairs didn’t have giant monsters poking their head out from her crotch.
And wouldn’t this line of thought be absolutely mortifying to discuss aloud, Alyssa thought with a mild giggle. Uh oh. Random giggling. I really am getting too tired to stay awake.
“Izsha,” Alyssa said softly. “Would you mind moving a little closer to Irulon. Close enough for me to talk to her?”
The dinosaur didn’t even glance back, merely angling itself slightly to comply.
That was another advantage over horses that Alyssa hadn’t really considered before seeing Oz’s horses. Draken were intelligent. Horses were as well, but not nearly to the same degree. Izsha was more like a chauffeur that could take directions, respond to changes in the situation, and generally worked autonomously. Though the reins of a horse superficially looked analogous to a steering wheel, the reality was far more complicated. Watching Oz lightly kick at the horse’s sides, lean to the sides, apply just the right amount of pull to one side of the reins or the other, and probably a hundred other subtler movements that Alyssa was missing told her instantly that she wouldn’t simply be able to jump on a horse and move like she was on Izsha. It probably wouldn’t take years of training, but it wouldn’t be a thing she got under her belt in a few minutes either.
“How are you doing?” Alyssa said as Izsha neared the other draken. “Any stabbing pains in your chest? Maybe aches in your left arm? Headaches?”
“Nothing has changed since the last time you asked.” Irulon didn’t even look up from her book. “While I understand you are concerned, your persistent pestering is rapidly growing irritating.”
“Sorry. I’m just tired and this heat isn’t helping.”
Days in this strange world were significantly warmer than nights, but not so unbearably hot that she felt like walking around all day was a chore. Certainly not something that might cause heat stroke. Thanks to the aqueducts, the city had plenty of publicly available water as well. Though Alyssa always made sure to boil everything before filling her water bottles.
This desert, however, was hot. She wasn’t even that far away from the city. Looking behind her, she could still see the palace standing tall and one of the wall towers not far away. Yet the air was dry and stale, the meager wind didn’t bring any respite, and there wasn’t a tree in sight—at least not one with leaves attached to its branches. The only shade around came from tall rocks jutting up from the otherwise flat dirt, much like the Brechen Overlook. They were too few and far between to actually use while traveling.
Alyssa had dug out Aziz’s notebook and scribbled out a dozen of the Chill spells, after taking a picture of the spell, of course. That was the only reason she hadn’t noped out of the expedition. Well, that and her feelings of responsibility toward Oxart. She shuddered to think what the desert might feel like without Chill active.
As they were leaving, the gate guards had mentioned Oxart. She had apparently taken a horse on her way out, but not one of the ones specifically bred for the desert heat like what Oz was riding. That meant two things, according to Irulon. Either the fairy would push too hard and the horse wouldn’t be able to take it, resulting in Oxart walking through the desert, or else the fairy would be forced to stop and rest for the day a whole lot sooner than the draken and desert horses. Either way, Oxart shouldn’t be in trouble for more than another day. They would catch up to the captain, rescue her from the fairy, then… continue onward, much to Alyssa’s chagrin.
As for tracking Oxart, the draken were handling everything. They were hunters, apparently. A big juicy horse somewhere in the distance was calling to them. Or… smelling to them? How they told the smell apart from the horses Oz and his crew were using was a question best left to a zoologist.
“Your trinket. Would it be possible for me to finally take a look at it?”
Alyssa jerked slightly at being addressed. She had been dozing off a bit. To her side, Irulon had closed her tome and slipped it into the rucksack hanging from Musca’s side. Her eyes, violet at the moment, were locked on the phone in Alyssa’s hand. If Irulon was offering to distract her from her tiredness, maybe she could last until they stopped for the day. But her phone…
Glancing down at it, Alyssa frowned. She had asked Tenebrael for four things, essentially. She had wanted an indestructible phone that couldn’t be lost or stolen, could connect to Earth’s internet from anywhere, and had infinite batteries. The latter two definitely worked. Since getting the phone back approximately twelve hours ago, she had left it on the entire time. The battery was firmly at one hundred percent. Even though she hadn’t been using it for music or watching videos, it should still have dropped at least a single percentage. Taking pictures alone should have eaten up a bit. The internet worked as well. Her latest search of ‘how to ride a horse’ was still displaying a bunch of video results.
But indestructibility? That evil angel had said that it was invulnerable. Not really something she wanted to test just in case Tenebrael had decided to be lazy about her other requests. She wasn’t even sure how Tenebrael’s magic could make it immune to being stolen or lost. When she had asked Tenebrael, Alyssa had been thinking it would just reappear in her pocket any time she needed it and didn’t have it, but she couldn’t really test that either. Apparently calling to it would work, according to Tenebrael, but it would be best if she never had to try.
Lending it to Irulon? She would probably be careful, but she might also try to take it apart to find out how it worked. “As long as you don’t break it. You know where it comes from. I won’t be able to get another one if something happens to this one.”
“I do know where it comes from, which raises the question just who you handed it to that possessed the skills necessary to upgrade it. I can’t imagine anyone local.”
Alyssa shifted in the saddle. Were Irulon someone else, she might have admitted that it was Tenebrael. Or she might have made up something. But Irulon was too… smart might not be the word given all the inaccuracies in her guesses of what Alyssa was and where she had come from, but she was definitely too something. A lie would be spotted immediately. And it would probably make her upset as well. At the same time, saying that it was Tenebrael might upset her as well, though for different reasons. Alyssa had not forgotten the brief interaction between Irulon and Oz while the former had been fixing Kasita. She had specifically told Oz not to blaspheme against Tenebrael.
Would claiming to be on speaking terms with that angel count as blasphemy? Or something heretically similar.
“Someone you cannot tell me about,” Irulon said. Snapping her head to the side, Alyssa found herself staring into those black and white eyes once again. “You fear for their life? No. But it is someone that you think would upset me. An enemy of mine? I—”
“It’s complicated,” Alyssa interrupted before she could go off dissecting everything. “The individual values their privacy. I… humbly request that you ignore it for now. Perhaps later.” In what was likely a transparent attempt at distracting Irulon, Alyssa held out her hand, offering the phone. “It’s called a phone. Or a cell phone. A cellular telephone? Normal people just call it a phone.”
Irulon’s eyes did not turn back to their normal violet, but she didn’t continue speaking either. Accepting the phone, she started turning it over in her gloved hands.
“Ah. It won’t work through your gloves. It requires bare skin to operate.”
Though she nodded her head in acknowledgment, Irulon didn’t make to remove her gloves. She continued turning the phone over, examining it with those white lines in her eyes spinning as fast as they could. Bringing it up to her face, she sniffed at it, both the front and back side. “Unknown material covering the majority of one side. Glass covering the other, though the glass is strange. It is too smooth. Few imperfections. Hm.” She handed the phone back to Alyssa before taking her gloves off.
“Plastic. The unknown material, that is. I… don’t really know what it is. Some man-made material. There’s a button right here,” Alyssa said as she handed it back. “Once you press that, most everything is controlled by touching the glass. I can unlock it with my fingerprint, but it will ask you for a password before it actually lets you in. Zero, nine, one, three, nine, three.”
“A significant number?”
“My birthday. I really shouldn’t use my birthday, but I also don’t keep anything truly important on or connected to my phone. No credit card information or bank account information. At least not without being protected by a different password.”
“Hm. Six places for ten possible numbers, possibility of repeat numbers. One million possible combinations. Cost of failing to enter the proper combination?”
“If you fail a few times in a row, it will lock you out for several minutes. I think if you fail too many times, it locks you out for a full day, but I’ve never actually experienced that.”
“Time deterrent. I see. Hm.”
“Yeah, I can tell what you’re thinking. It isn’t meant to be the most secure thing in the world… uh… my world. Here, let me show you some things it can do.”
Alyssa started explaining, and showing where applicable, just about everything she could think of. It was a bit difficult while riding on the backs of the draken. When she first tried to lean over, she just about fell off. Only Izsha stepping to the side to catch her saved her from a tumble to the ground. She started out with how phones were originally basically Message spells except two-way and without all the stacks of paper required. She then explained texting as being letter delivery except instant. Of course, she hadn’t been able to demonstrate either. Tenebrael had not seen fit to allow her to actually contact Earth. Since no one else in this world had a phone, those features didn’t seem to impress Irulon all that much.
The ability to play music, on the other hand, actually had her eyes spinning even more than before. Alyssa only played some classical music, assuming that someone from a medieval period would be more receptive to that than something more modern. Maybe she would show off some of the good stuff later.
“This might interest you,” Alyssa said, handing the phone back after loading up a video. “This is a recording from a drone—a remote controlled device—flying through New York City, a city back in my world.”
Irulon went utterly still. Her eyes, still black and white, did not blink even once for the full five minutes that the video played. She didn’t say a word. Even her breathing seemed to have stopped. The only noise she made was a slight intake of breath as the video cut from daytime to nighttime. Even when the video finished playing, Irulon still hadn’t moved. She just stared at the screen.
Starting out with a smile, Alyssa grew worried as the video went on. Was Irulon alright? Her eyes were still spinning, but what if she was having some kind of stroke? How much time was left on that timer? Alyssa almost reached out to grab her, only to pause, not wanting to startle the princess and possibly give her a heart attack. Instead, she softly cleared her throat.
“I want to go there.” The phone’s screen had blinked off due to inactivity, but Irulon still hadn’t looked up from its glossy surface. “I want to see it for myself. I want…” Irulon shuddered. A tremor ran from the tips of her boots all the way up to the top of her head. Musca actually looked back, before jumping slightly. The bump seemed to shock Irulon out of her trance. She shook her head and tore her eyes away from the phone. They were a bit damp.
That… Alyssa wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She hadn’t thought the video was anything particularly special or moving. It was just a drone flying through a city. A fairly impressive city with plenty of skyscrapers, but hardly worthy of tears. The Maletsunyane Falls came to mind as something a bit more touching. Beautiful canyons, waterfalls, national parks. If Irulon got a look at the city from the ground level, smelled the pollution, saw the more grungy aspects, would she feel the same?
Maybe they could find out.
“Well, I want to go back too,” Alyssa said. “No idea how though. I admit, I was kind of hoping to walk into the Observatorium’s library on the first day and find some spell that just teleported across worlds, or something. Obviously, it isn’t going to be that easy.”
“No. No it will not. I have been researching a similar topic for the better part of a decade and have only the slightest clue where to begin. Though I did have an interesting idea involving your pet mimic.”
“She’s…” Alyssa sighed. “I hope nothing that will hurt her.”
“It is merely in the idea stages. I will let you and your pet know more when I have a more concrete theory. In the meantime, you still haven’t shown me the function of this trinket to duplicate anything nearby.”
“Pictures? That’s pretty simple. Here.” Taking the phone back, she snapped a quick picture of Irulon before switching the phone to video mode. She started at Irulon before slowly sweeping the phone around, ensuring Musca and Izsha both got a little screen time. Oz, Lumen, Catal, and their horses were a short distance back, but Alyssa made sure to include them as well before ending the capture. “I really should be taking lots of videos. No one back home will believe that I actually rode a dinosaur, let alone any of the other crazy stuff I’ve done.”
Of course, even if she put these videos up on the internet when she got home, it was doubtful anyone would believe her. Some people didn’t even believe in the moon landing. A whole different world filled with magic and monsters? She could already see the claims of bad CGI in the comments.
Well… at least her family should believe her. Coming back from the dead was unbelievable enough. What was a dinosaur compared to that?
Alyssa had expected some comment along the lines of the phone being an instant portrait creator, but Irulon just hummed as she viewed the video and images. Looking up, Irulon followed Alyssa’s instructions and took a picture of the rings in the sky. But again, all she did was hum.
Until she flipped the image gallery back to one of the spells Alyssa had taken a picture of. The Loophole spell.
“Query: Can you use the trinket to cast spells you have captured?”
“Uh. No?” The answer was out of her mouth before she could think about it. But was it true? Alyssa wasn’t sure. She wasn’t the magic expert. Even if she could, there was one very good reason why she shouldn’t try. “Casting spells destroys the card. I would rather not destroy my phone on accident. The only reason I’ve been taking pictures of every spell I come across is so that I can copy them to a piece of paper if I need to cast them. My own private library.”
“Speaking of, I do want to make some spell cards some time. Make a deck of my own where I know what all the spells are instead of stealing other people’s decks.” Kasita said that she would help with that in return for some spells of her own. That agreement had been because of Alyssa’s injuries, but she really didn’t have a reason to deny the mimic spells. No matter what Oz said, Kasita wasn’t like that fairy.
A solemn piano note stole Alyssa’s thoughts. It continued in a low tone, playing each note slowly. Dum, dum, da dum, da, da dum, da dum, da dum… She glanced over, wondering what Irulon had done, only to find Irulon staring down at the phone in confusion. Then it hit her. Cold sweat broke out over Alyssa’s body despite the heat of the desert. She recognized what that song was. Those foreboding notes.
Chopin’s Funeral March.
“Ar-Are you feeling alright?” Alyssa asked while looking around. She couldn’t see any possible incoming danger. No dust clouds in the distance. No fireballs flying their way. The ground wasn’t opening up into a massive sinkhole. Irulon was glaring in her direction, but that was probably because she had heard that question several times in the past few hours. “Here, let me see the phone for a moment.”
Irulon handed the phone back without complaint and also without acknowledging Alyssa’s question about her health. Brushing away a black feather, Alyssa got started disabling the alarm. It was just a standard alarm set in the phone’s clock with a custom song, but… Her eyes drifted away from the screen, watching the black feather waft back and forth on its way toward the ground.
Alyssa looked up. Immediately, she jerked back, almost falling from Izsha in the process. The only thing that stopped her was the pale hand of that angel as it reached out to grab hold of her arm.
“Hello again, Alyssa Meadows.”
Tenebrael helped Alyssa back to a steady position before… taking a seat on Izsha’s head. The draken didn’t seem to notice even as the angel’s black dress draped around its sides. Musca didn’t look over either. They continued charging forward at exactly the same speed. Irulon was watching, but she was watching Alyssa, not the white-eyed monster that practically floated just ahead of Alyssa.
Because of Irulon’s eyes, Alyssa didn’t say a word. She had recovered from her shock enough to glare. Even that was probably too much with the way Irulon’s mind worked. Too late now.
Tenebrael made a show of pulling out that little black notebook from somewhere behind her back. She flipped it open to the page marked with the little black ribbon, stared at it for a few seconds, glanced over to Irulon, then turned back to Alyssa. “I am supposed to collect Irulon’s soul right now.” Alyssa tensed as the black wings stretched out, drifting closer and closer to the oblivious princess. But Tenebrael pulled back at the last moment. “Or I was supposed to. I cannot take the soul from a living body. The entry in my book has been crossed out.”
Alyssa let out a small sigh. That probably meant that Irulon was fine and would be fine. Tenebrael couldn’t kill her, not without violating one of those abstract yet extremely convenient rules about not harming humans.
“It seems our experiment was a success. Mostly. The book has updated itself. Irulon now has a new soul collection date.” Tenebrael paused to start flipping through the pages. She went silent just long enough for Alyssa to stiffen while trying to not glance at the princess. “Not soon, so don’t worry too much. And who knows, perhaps your continued interactions with the woman will alter that date further, though whether that brings it closer or pushes it farther away is not a question I can answer at present.”
Letting out another sigh, this one filled with slightly more relief, Alyssa let herself relax just a hair. It was an interesting thought, however, that the book updated. It raised the question of whether Irulon’s life would have been in danger had Alyssa never come to this world, or even if Alyssa wouldn’t have sent out that warning Message. Since she had interacted with both the princess and several others in this world prior to the whole incident the night before, had she done something that put the princess’ life in jeopardy? If she hadn’t stopped the Society of the Burning Shadow’s first attack, maybe Brakkt would have perished at the hands of shadow assassins while Irulon would have lived last night.
The book, it seemed, could not account for Alyssa’s actions. But, if she left people alone for a time, it would accurately predict their demise? Tzheitza, not being present, likely had her future written down exactly in that book. Irulon, Oz, Lumen, and Catal, on the other hand, Alyssa could pull out her pistol and shoot at, instantly changing the book’s course. Since Irulon, at the very least, wasn’t scheduled for death anytime soon, being shot would force the book to change again.
Actually, would the Tzheitza theory go as she had just suspected? She had interacted with the potioneer a significant amount. Would that have changed anything? It almost sounded like the book needed another experiment to test complete inaction with someone Alyssa had already spent a good deal of time interacting with. Not that Alyssa would suggest such a thing to the angel. She didn’t want to get back to the city only to find out that Tzheitza had died because the angel decided to give the Taker some Divine Inspiration, or whatever.
But what if it happened anyway?
Alyssa ground her teeth together. Just the possibility of knowing the future was going to drive her crazy.
That book. She didn’t like it much. Thinking about it, she could easily understand Tenebrael’s desire to ruin it. Though if it did just update itself, was there really a point to screwing it up? Alyssa’s eyes flicked over to Irulon before settling back on Tenebrael. Yes. Yes there was a point to screwing it up, even if the changes only temporarily forced it to rewrite itself.
Putting the book out of her mind—there wasn’t much she could do about it aside from exist, she wouldn’t be able to read the angelic script even if she somehow stole it from Tenebrael—Alyssa reached forward. She had a bone to pick with Tenebrael. Several bones, in fact. Practically a whole graveyard’s worth of bones. However, she didn’t think she would get through every issue she had with the angel in one sitting. Getting through any with Irulon watching from the sidelines wouldn’t be possible.
So she clamped her hand around one of the angel’s knee-high boots. The black dress went down to the angel’s knees, but the way she was sitting on Izsha’s head gave Alyssa far more of a view than she had bargained for. Apparently, angels did not wear undergarments. But Alyssa was far less concerned with the angel’s crotch and far more concerned with keeping her from suddenly leaving.
Tenebrael merely glanced down at the hand with a bemused expression, as if the hand would do absolutely nothing if she actually wanted to vanish. She didn’t. She just sat on Izsha’s head with a faint smile touching her lips. Only when Alyssa increased the intensity of her glare did Tenebrael roll her eyes. “Fine,” she said, holding a hand out. The black nails on her fingers began to glow. “Removing entropic progression in the local area.” A mystic circle sprouted from her extended hand, drawing out a complex design that looked somewhat like the inner workings of a pocket watch. Alyssa had half a mind to take a picture of it, but it vanished with a flash of light before she could even raise her phone, let alone hit the photo app.
Alyssa jerked forward as Izsha’s movement stopped, almost cracking her head open on one of Tenebrael’s knees. Shoving herself back from the smiling angel, she glanced around. Everyone was frozen solid. Musca was standing on one foot. Irulon was staring, but her eyes were no longer tracking Alyssa. Oz’s horse had all four feet off the ground, if only barely, making it look like they were just hovering above the yellowish dirt of the desert.
The only two moving were Alyssa and Tenebrael.
“Go ahead,” the angel said, crossing her arms under her chest. “As thanks for participating in my experiment, I will give you a little reward.”
There might be more important… or rather, more useful questions to ask. But one had been on Alyssa’s mind ever since Irulon had mentioned it. She had tried not to think about it, but any time she found herself at a loss for distractions, her mind wandered back to the topic. Taking a deep breath, she stared at those glowing white eyes.
“Do I have a soul?”