There and Back Again
Alyssa started with the pistols. Setting the food carefully on the ground, she picked up one of them and started turning it over. It really looked brand new. There wasn’t a ding or a scratch in the metal as far as she could see. She almost wondered if it had received the same treatment as her phone. She wasn’t about to try Annihilator on them, especially not without Tenebrael explicitly stating that she had done something to them. And not when trying to call one of them to her outstretched hand failed. Her phone appeared just like it should. The gun did not.
Pressing a button on the side dropped the weighty magazine into her hands. One by one, she used her thumb to drop the brass bullets to the table. She knew for a fact that the magazine hadn’t been fully filled before. It was now. And, pulling back the slide, she found one extra bullet already chambered. After quickly reloading and reassembling the pistol, she slid it into her holster. Right where it belonged. She then repeated the process on the other pistol, finding it fully loaded as well.
There was a small cloth set atop a box where the pistols’ barrels had been resting. Before taking the guns, it had made the barrels aim upward, displaying the two guns while also pointing them directly where Tenebrael had been. The angel had clearly never taken a firearm safety class in her life. Removing the cloth, Alyssa found one box of ammunition. Enough for four full magazines. Not much considering the rate Alyssa had been going through it, but more than what she had before, so she wasn’t going to complain. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much room in the satchel with all the boxes of Chinese. For now, Alyssa swapped the food for the ammo, figuring that she could fill Izsha and Musca’s saddle bags with the food once they got out of their stasis.
Which should be soon, she thought glancing over at their still forms. Can’t come soon enough.
Alyssa was more than ready to get out of this place.
The phone went into her pocket. She barely glanced at it before sliding it in. It was too complex to look through for every little thing that Tenebrael might have done to it and, besides that, she doubted that Tenebrael would have done anything to it anyway. It was already souped-up.
Her cards went away much the same. They looked like they hadn’t been touched. A quick glance through didn’t reveal any new cards, so there was no point in investigating them more thoroughly. She left Irulon’s tome right where it was, intending to return it to the princess as soon as she was able.
The shotgun, like the pistols, looked cleaner than when she had pulled it out of her gun safe. Sliding her fingers along the barrel felt only like smooth hard metal. Not a single imperfection. Definitely no mark where the end had nearly been chopped off by the Taker’s sword. A quick check found it was fully loaded as well. The strap was different. Before, it had just been a belt that would work to sling it over her shoulder. Now it was filled with additional shells, each ready to be loaded at a moment’s notice. That combined with the fresh box sitting right in front of the gun, plus the spare shells she had left at Tzheitza’s shop, meant that she had quite the surplus of ammunition for the shotgun at the moment.
Which Alyssa wasn’t going to complain about in the slightest.
Slinging it over her shoulder, she found it nestling into place as if the strap had been adjusted perfectly.
Stupid angel, she thought with a smile. Her smile waned as her eyes moved to the final object on the table.
“I don’t like this.”
Alyssa jumped. Her heart hammered against her chest while her hand dropped to the grip of her pistol. She had it half out of its holster before her brain finally decided to recognize the voice. “Kasita,” she said, sighing in relief as she glanced over her shoulder.
The mimic stood at a surprising distance from everything, being almost back up against the building the hellhound and shadow assassin had been trapped against.
Which was a thought that sent a chill down her spine. She didn’t have any way of detecting them active. Kasita could see them and would presumably warn her, but as much as she trusted the mimic, seeing for herself couldn’t be beaten. At the very least, it would make aiming at them far easier.
Holstering her pistol again, Alyssa grabbed hold of her deck of cards. Unseen Sight didn’t reveal anything new around her. She wasn’t too surprised about that. It had been several hours. Enough for morning to come and for noon to be soon arriving. The shadow assassins and the hellhound were probably long gone by now.
“You don’t like this?” Alyssa finally said. “The staff?”
“Any of it. You do realize that there is nothing there, don’t you?”
Nothing here? Alyssa turned back. There was stuff here. A black cloth over a table. Some food placed on top. And a golden staff lying on its side. She grabbed the tablecloth between her fingers and rubbed back and forth. It was soft and velvety. Far too luxurious to leave in the desert. She would have to fold it up and take it with her. If nothing else, it would fetch a fair amount of coin from some noble… probably. Unless it only existed for Alyssa. “Can you not see all this?” Selling The Emperor’s New Clothes might be a more difficult task.
“Some of it,” Kasita said. “All the things you’ve had before are there like normal. The food as well. But there is nothing under that cloth. Except there is.” She shuddered.
Glancing back to the table, Alyssa knocked her fingers against the table. It didn’t make a sound. No hollow woody sound, no metallic clank, no stony thump. Stepping back, she lifted up the tablecloth and peeked underneath. The first thing she noticed was a lack of table legs. Looking up, she found no table top either. She could reach up and feel the soft velvet of the tablecloth and even press her hand upward into the cloth.
“Yeah. Huh. And that… thing. Remember how I said that those feathers were strange?”
“You said you might die if you try to mimic them,” Alyssa said as she let the cloth drop back to its spot. There was a bit of a hand print where she had moved the cloth from the bottom. Running her hand over the top smoothed it back out. Weird, but hardly the weirdest thing that she had seen since meeting angels.
“Well, that thing is worse.”
Ignoring the mysteries of the table for a moment, Alyssa reached a hand out to the staff. She didn’t move quickly, but slowly and reluctantly. Despite having been hanging onto it for dear life earlier, the prospect of touching it was somehow unnerving now. Not just because of what Kasita had said, but just because she feared that the moment she touched it, it would smite her. Or Adrael would pop up. Or something else bad would happen.
But Tenebrael wouldn’t have given her something dangerous. Even if angels really could harm people as easily as Adrael had, Alyssa could at least believe that Tenebrael didn’t want to see her dead. She still didn’t think that Tenebrael would pop up to save her life unless another angel was the one endangering her. Mostly because interacting with the denizens of her world seemed troublesome for Tenebrael.
Biting her lip, she clasped her hands around the golden haft. The metal felt warm to the touch. Much warmer than she expected of metal. Or maybe much cooler than she would have expected for something that had been sitting out under the desert sun for a few minutes. But, other than the eerily warm sensation in her arm, Alyssa didn’t feel any other effects. No sign of any angel feathers either.
Regaining her confidence, she brought it over to her side of the table and rested the end against the ground. “Seems alright to me,” she said, looking up to the ruby orb.
“Just try not to swing it at me, alright?”
“Of course not.” It really wasn’t meant for swinging anyway. It wasn’t a bō staff. The ruby orb at the one side made that end far too heavy. Maybe it could be used as a club, but she doubted that was its intended purpose either. Even though Adrael had thrown it, it was probably more like a magic wand than a martial baton.
Now that she was thinking about its weight, Alyssa started frowning. Wasn’t gold supposed to be extremely heavy for its size? To the point where a small block was hard to pick up with one hand. For a staff like this to be made of gold, she would probably have to deadlift it just to get it off the ground. But she could lift it up and wave it around with a single hand. It didn’t cause so much as a mild strain.
Shaking her head, she chalked it up to magic and left it as that. Was it bad that she shrugged her shoulders at so much that would have made her gape in shock a month ago? If she were a scientist, she would say yes, but she wasn’t. Puzzling over the enigmas of the universe wasn’t her job. Things were the way they were regardless of her understanding.
“What is—” A thundering crash cascaded off the buildings, echoing over the village. Alyssa turned just in time to watch the peak of the cross topple forward, falling straight through the partially collapsed roof of the church. “What is that!” she shouted.
Someone else was still here, dismantling the building. The hellhound? Or… wait. What time is it? Pistol out and in one hand, staff back on the table, she pulled out her phone with the other. A tap on the glossy face brought up the clock. Twelve hours already? She didn’t know the exact time that Irulon had cast the spell, but she knew when she had showed Irulon pictures of Tenebrael. The two times hadn’t been far apart. Half an hour at most. Assuming that was correct, then the Fractal Lock that kept the fairies in their cages and the splitting spell from progressing had worn off.
Narrowing her eyes, Alyssa glanced around. The hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end. “Am I a bad person for hoping that those fairies were crushed?” She really didn’t want to deal with them. Especially not while Irulon was in such a vulnerable state. The Fractal Lock on the fairies had only been ten to fifteen minutes before Alyssa’s Fractal Lock on the princess and the draken.
“I’m conflicted,” Kasita said after a moment of thought. “I feel bad for them, but I don’t want them near me either.”
“Yeah. Let’s just keep an eye out. We won’t have to be here for long. The stasis will be running out soon. As soon as it does, we can get out of this hellhole and get back to the cave.” They wouldn’t be totally safe there, but, with Irulon’s tome, she might be able to seal off the entrance until everyone had fully recovered. All she needed was for Musca and Izsha to be mobile. The princess didn’t even need to wake up right away.
“I’ll stick next to you. Don’t want to fall under their sway again and wake up finding myself being eaten.”
“Good idea… Wait, can you even be eaten?”
“If they make me want to bring my true self to them. I doubt they would, they would probably try to gnaw on my illusion. But it is possible.”
Alyssa turned her back to the table and the draken behind it, leaning against it. Only after she put her weight on the table did she remember that there wasn’t actually a table there. She didn’t fall, but the realization did flip her stomach as if she had just gone down a drop on a roller coaster. She didn’t like leaving her back open, but the church was the most likely direction for the fairies to come from if they headed toward her. With Kasita essentially having a full view of everything around, Alyssa would be counting on the mimic to watch her back.
“Do they try to eat absolutely everything,” Alyssa asked after a minute. “Fairies, that is.”
“They’re carnivores. I know that much. They use their powers to eat whatever falls under their sway. I think they usually stick to common animals, but I really don’t know. The first one I’ve ever seen was on the Brechen Overlook. Like I said, while I have lived among monsters, most of my life has been with humans.”
“It’s just that… we had fairies back home. Mythology, not reality. But from the stories, I would have assumed that they were nice. Like, they’re usually the hero of the story, or allied with the hero, as most main characters in fiction are human. They would offer support of the magical variety. A fairy godmother is a fairly common character.”
Just thinking about it made Alyssa want to find some books or plays from this world. Fictional ones. Plenty of historical fictions from Earth dealt with the slaying of monsters and fantastical journeys to strange lands. Magic as well. The Odyssey, Beowulf, and stories from King Arthur’s mythology to name a few off the top of her head. But here, where monsters were a real thing that real people went out and really slayed, a story like the Odyssey might well be true here. Maybe a little exaggerated, but she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
What would fiction look like in a world where her fiction was all reality? Did they dream of glass cities and people going to mundane jobs like janitors? The thought almost made her laugh.
“Strange,” Kasita eventually said, which did make Alyssa chuckle.
She almost asked what fiction the mimic knew of when she heard a noise at her back. All her good humor bled away to a nervous tension as she turned.
Irulon slumped forward. Already leaning toward one side, she promptly fell face-first into the dirt.
Holstering her pistol, Alyssa rushed over. Tenebrael had supposedly healed her completely. Alyssa couldn’t actually tell. Tenebrael had fixed everything that Adrael had done, including the damage to the black armor. With the top fitting much tighter on Irulon than on Alyssa, there wasn’t even a slight gap where the two sides connected. Taking care to be gentle, Alyssa flipped the princess over so that her back was against the ground.
Her eyes were closed, but she was breathing. There was something… off. Alyssa shook her head and ignored the weird sensation in the back of her mind. Pressing fingers up against Irulon’s throat, Alyssa found a steady pulse. The princess was alive. Undoing just enough of her armor to get to her skin, Alyssa felt around the princess’ chest. It was a bit invasive, but it was all in the name of health. Where once there had been a gaping hole in her ribs, Alyssa’s fingers found a hard sternum.
Of course, even if she had found a hole, Alyssa wasn’t sure what she could have done. Another Fractal Lock, probably. She lacked the medical skills to mend more than a scratch. And something told her that burning the wound closed wouldn’t have helped as much on the heart and lungs as it had on Alyssa’s shoulder.
Just as she started considering slapping the princess—she knew from experience that trying to wake her with anything less was an exercise in futility—Alyssa felt warm and moist air against the back of her neck. Turning her head, she saw the orange and black tiger stripes of Musca in the corner of her eye. More importantly, she saw rows upon rows of razor sharp teeth.
Alyssa pulled her hands away from Irulon at a glacial pace. She tried her best to avoid any sudden movements. “Hi. Musca. You remember me, right?”
The only response she got was a blast of warm breath right in her face. It made her flinch, but Musca didn’t follow up with a chomp of those teeth. Instead, the draken moved to the side slightly, pressing its muzzle right up against Irulon’s face. It made Alyssa a little more nervous with how Musca had nipped at Irulon back at the palace, but this time, it just nudged and pulled away.
“I swear,” Alyssa said as soon as its eye turned to her, “I wasn’t doing anything other than checking that she was alright.”
A snarling snap made Musca look away, giving Alyssa a bit of breathing room. Izsha’s teeth chomped down on thin air. Having apparently expected something solid between those teeth, it immediately let out a deep growl as it whipped its head back and forth, searching for its target. Unable to find anything to attack, it settled on Alyssa, Musca, and Irulon, making what Alyssa would describe as a confused whine.
Carefully, still making no sudden movements, Alyssa closed up Irulon’s armor, stood, and took a step away from Musca. “Sorry,” she said. “A lot happened.” She was about to leave it at that. Both draken were looking right at her. They were clearly dissatisfied with that explanation. Alyssa didn’t know how she knew. It was something subtle with the way their eyes shifted or their nonexistent lips peeled back. As much as she knew that they were intelligent monsters capable of understanding human language, it actually took her a moment to remember that fact. They wanted more.
So Alyssa gave them a bit more. “Had to put you all in Fractal Lock until I could heal Musca and Irulon. We need to get out of this village. Then I’ll explain what happened if you want to know more.” As far as she was concerned, now that the fairies were free, it was imperative that they leave at once. Irulon hadn’t seemed concerned when Musca chomped down on the first fairy’s head, but Alyssa didn’t want to take the chance that a group of the little monsters would be able to overpower them and take control.
Or that they would take control of her, for that matter. She had thrown off one with only a little difficulty, but if a group could combine their powers, she might be in trouble.
And Irulon was still unconscious. What was wrong with her? Had Tenebrael not healed her properly?
The princess hadn’t slept at all the night before—or day before. Whenever. Was that it? She was so exhausted that her body was taking every scrap of sleep it could get? That was great for her body, but Alyssa wanted out. “Can you carry her?” Alyssa said, looking up to Musca. “Without letting her fall off your back? We don’t need to go far. Just to that cave we spent the day in.”
The draken made a noise. Alyssa wasn’t sure how to interpret it. It was a low trill from the back of the throat. Encouraging? Discouraging? Alyssa hadn’t a clue.
Musca snapped her teeth, not quite lunging at Alyssa. It did make her jump back again. Thankfully, Izsha came to her rescue, putting itself between Musca and Alyssa. They… talked? They made noises at each other, staring, glaring. They even paced around a bit as if they were trying to intimidate each other.
The whole display made Alyssa more and more nervous the longer it went on. What were they arguing about? What if Musca wanted to eat her? What if Musca convinced Izsha? Irulon’s tome was all the way back on the table. The spells she had on hand weren’t enough to fight off two draken. Not without resorting to Spectral Axe, which would kill them. She would if it came down to it, but that was a last resort. The draken were not enemies. They couldn’t be. Irulon trusted them. Brakkt trusted them. Even Alyssa trusted them. Or Izsha, at least.
Just as she was considering her chances at making it back to Irulon’s tome in time to Fractal Lock the two draken, their argument came to an end. Whatever dialog they had ended with Musca kneeling down next to Irulon. Izsha bent, opened its mouth, and clamped down on Irulon’s collar. The dragon scales didn’t tear, rend, or break as the draken partially lifted the princess. In a surprising feat of oral dexterity, Izsha gently placed Irulon over Musca’s back, face down. Her stomach was pressed up against the saddle.
At the sound of a clipped chirp from Izsha, Musca stood up again. Irulon stayed in place. And she stayed in place as Musca started walking. The draken probably shouldn’t do any running or jumping, but it seemed that they were mobile.
Musca’s slit pupils turned to Alyssa. It let out a slight huff through its nose before turning away.
Izsha, on the other hand, approached, coming right up next to Alyssa.
Unless they had learned to speak, Alyssa couldn’t even ask what they had been talking about. Which was not a bad thing. Alyssa wasn’t sure she wanted to know. “Thanks,” was all she said.
“Aww, they like you. Ufu~”
Alyssa wasn’t sure she believed that, but she wasn’t going to argue right now. Whatever happened, it got results. Turning to the table, she considered shoving the food into Izsha’s saddle bags, then thought better of it. They could do that later. For the short trip out to the butte cave, she could carry it. Rolling everything up in the long table cloth, Alyssa slung it over her shoulder. Curious, she stretched a hand out and patted at the air. There was nothing there anymore. No invisible table. It had vanished when she took the black cloth.
Kasita disappeared as well during the process, so Alyssa didn’t even bother looking for the mimic as she clambered into Izsha’s saddle. It was an awkward affair with all the bulk, but they were off.
At a languid pace to keep Irulon from falling.
By the time they made it to the cave, Alyssa’s back was sore, her arms were straining, and she felt sweaty enough from the desert heat that cleaning her armor had probably been a pointless task. But they made it. And Irulon had only fallen off Musca once. She hadn’t woken up, but she had mumbled something about Tess when Izsha pulled her back onto Musca’s back. Alyssa was taking that as a positive sign. As long as they were safe in the cave, Alyssa was content to let the princess rest for a few more hours.
The butte, like most buttes, was a tall and fairly wide section of rock that jutted up above the relatively flat surrounding desert. Alyssa guessed that it was made of sandstone, but she wasn’t a geologist. The cave was up a little hill of brown dirt and it wasn’t a very wide opening. To get inside, Alyssa had to get off Izsha’s back lest she smack her head.
When her feet hit the ground, she noticed it. A few sharp gouges in the ground. Four shallow gashes, each about an inch apart. One stride forward and she found another set of marks.
It might have been there before. She hadn’t been paying all that much attention to the ground during their earlier visit. The only reason she noticed was because she had dropped a box of chicken strips.
Izsha bent down and sniffed. Not at the chicken, but at the marks. When the draken started growling, Alyssa knew that she couldn’t deny it anymore.
Something was in this cave. Something with sharp claws.
Setting the food down, she pulled out her shotgun. It felt good in her hands. Just knowing that it had some stopping power compared to her pistols was a comfort. Turning back to Musca, she held up a hand in what she hoped was a stay gesture. If the interior was dangerous, they could leave. There was some gear in there, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she couldn’t recover it. However, she was feeling a little confident with her refurbished armaments and her monstrous friends. She had a raptor on her side.
Glancing at Izsha and nodding her head, the draken bobbed its head right back.
They advanced into the cave slowly. It wasn’t a large cave, more of a U-shaped hole in the wall. They followed the tracks slowly. The more she looked at them, the more certain Alyssa was that they were aimed inside the cave. None were pointed in the opposite direction. Whatever made them was still inside.
Before she could peek around the corner to where she had spent the night, she heard it. A crunch. Loud and a bit wet, followed by smacking of a tongue.
That was enough for her. Whatever was in here could stay in here. There were surely other, less occupied caves around. She turned to leave, only for Izsha to bump into her.
She went sprawling across the ground. It took all her presence of mind to point her shotgun toward where the noise had come from while lying on her side.
Her backpack sat with some of Irulon’s supplies against the back wall. Its contents—the compass, a flashlight, a first aid kit, a thermos, sunscreen, a whistle, and plenty more—had been spilled all over the floor, dumped out from a brand new hole in the top of the pack. In the middle of all the garbage, a mound of black fur sat.
A huge paw shoved a protein bar into the gaping mouth, wrapper and all. It crunched down twice before realizing that it had company.
The burning eyes of a hellhound turned to face Alyssa.