Alyssa stepped into the palace stables, exiting a shimmering portal. She barely managed to drag Iosefael through before the rippling liquid dispersed into the air. Tenebrael had ended up allowing Alyssa to leave the little box without any trouble. More surprising, she allowed Iosefael to leave. It was a close thing, but it had to have been intentional. The portal only collapsed after getting the angel out.
In contrast, the other portal was still up and running. All the draken were on this side, even Izsha, which Alyssa was pleased to see. Brakkt was here too, which meant that there probably wasn’t anyone on the Teneville side. Not unless Irulon or one of the others had gone back. They weren’t in the stables at the moment, so Alyssa couldn’t be sure where they were.
Brakkt, Alyssa couldn’t help but notice, had his hand on his sword, ready to draw it. Even after he had seen who was standing in his stables, he remained on guard. It wasn’t quite a glare that he offered Alyssa, but it was close. Dragging Iosefael behind her, she moved right up to him.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry for taking Izsha into the city without clearing it with you. It didn’t cause any trouble, did it?”
He pursed his lips, breathing deeply through his nose. “Izsha was spotted returning to the palace without a rider. That will likely cause me some hardships in the future.”
“Sorry,” she said again, this time ducking her head slightly. “If it helps, it was probably worth it. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the fallout to see exactly what happens, but I got what I needed.” I hope.
Iosefael hadn’t actually taught her anything yet. The angel had claimed that she wouldn’t be able to do much of anything while in Tenebrael’s black box. Aside from offering a quick verbal dossier on the Astral Authority—which Alyssa needed to write down in her notes as soon as possible—they hadn’t done much else. Alyssa was taking a gamble bringing her back here. She could probably teleport away. She might even be able to do it from within those chains, though she hadn’t done so while being dragged into the portal to begin with so it was hard to say for sure. But Alyssa was relying, maybe a bit too much, on the idea that angels weren’t supposed to lie. That had burned her before with regards to Adrael, but Iosefael seemed by far the most prim and proper angel around. At least of those angels that Alyssa had encountered.
Iosefael promised to help. Alyssa believed her.
And if Iosefael went back on her promise, Alyssa would find the angel, Sparta kick her into a portal, and leave her to rot in Tenebrael’s prison. She was in no mood to play games while a whole host of fake angels attacking her was a possibility.
“I take it that’s an angel?” Brakkt said with a nod to the bundle of ethereal chains. “Not Tenebrael.”
“No. I mean yes, it is an angel. Not Tenebrael though.”
“Will her feathers help with Tzheitza’s research?”
Alyssa blinked. She hadn’t even thought about that. Brakkt probably had his sister in mind. Octavia, not Irulon. They still wanted a cure for the demonic infection. “You know what? I’m not sure. I imagine so. I’m sure she won’t mind donating a few.”
Ignoring the squawk from the angel, Alyssa glanced over to the large portal that led back to Teneville. “For now, I’m going to take her to my home. We might be doing some rather destructive magic, so an empty lake seems like a good place to practice. But I’ll be sure to pluck her clean before she leaves.”
“Why is it in chains if it agreed to help?”
“Yeah, why am I in chains! I said I’d help you.”
Alyssa frowned down at the angel. “I don’t trust you to not follow only the letter of your word. Saying you’ll help me is all well and good, but if you don’t help me for ten years, it isn’t very useful help.”
Iosefael’s shoulders slumped in the chains. “But… you need to let me go. People died while we were in that box. Without Tenebrael here, they’ll… rot. It’s not pretty. You wouldn’t want to subject your worst enemies to it.”
Biting her lip, Alyssa nodded. She didn’t want to cause unnecessary suffering. But… “What happened to Kenziel?”
“An Archangel Tenebrael recruited to do your job for her one time. I thought she would be doing so now, but… maybe she got locked into one of those boxes too.” Tenebrael had said something about putting her away in a box. Until taking that portal into the obsidian room, Alyssa had thought that was just a turn of phrase. But now, it was probably literal.
Iosefael shuddered in her chains. “I never really interacted with Archangels before. Just Adrael that one time. They aren’t a common sight on Earth these days. But… look, I’ll come right back. I promise. I just… I need to gather these souls before they rot any further.”
“Hmm… No distractions? No detours.”
“No. Right back as soon as I collect them.”
Letting out a slow breath through her nose, Alyssa stared into the faintly luminescent green eyes of the Principality in front of her. That was her programming talking, almost certainly. Being in charge of collecting souls, it was probably hard to ignore. But… Alyssa released her hold on the Spectral Chains. As the ghostly links faded, Iosefael stretched her wings wide.
“If you don’t come back—”
“I will! I will!”
Alyssa glared right up until the angel vanished in a flurry of white-gold feathers. Then, she sighed as she looked back to Brakkt. “Guess I’m delaying my plans. Hopefully for only a few minutes.”
“You didn’t gather her feathers,” he said as one of the ones wafting through the air disappeared on contact with his face.
“She’ll be back. She better be back. But… she did have a fairly important task to attend to. If I had kept her here, it would have just been harming completely innocent people.” As far as Alyssa knew, it was still a mystery how Adrael had managed to attack mortals. But, thinking about how desperate Iosefael sounded, Alyssa couldn’t help but wonder if the Principality might have tried attacking her had she tried to keep her from her job.
Maybe that was it. That assault on the Society of the Burning Shadow had been interfering with all Adrael’s hard work, her very purpose for existing. A mandate handed to her by the Throne. Alyssa could see herself getting a little upset at something like that.
Looking around, Alyssa found the stables something of a mess. All the saddles and saddlebags were off the draken, but most were lying on the floor with their bags still full of gear. No one else was around. Alyssa wasn’t exactly expecting Irulon to help out and Kasita really couldn’t do much heavy lifting, but where was Tess, Fela, and even Alyssa’s mother. Of all people, Alyssa didn’t think her mother would shirk off helping unpack.
“Did the others just leave you to take care of this on your own?” she asked, watching as he pulled some leftover provisions from one of the packs. With their shortened trip back, a good amount of what they had taken with them was no longer needed as travel supplies.
He looked at the cloth-wrapped dried meat, perhaps considering whether or not to store it. Eventually, he just pulled out the meat and tossed it to one of the draken. Setting the cloth to the side, he pulled out another package of meat and tossed that one to another draken. “It’s fine,” he said as he worked. “I told them they didn’t need to stay. Fela is assisting your mother in carrying your weapons to her home. Irulon is gathering research materials for this portal. I believe she wishes to examine the statue in Teneville a little closer as well. Tess is carrying a few of my sister’s affects up to her chambers.”
“Well, let me help at least.”
“You know where all the gear goes?”
“No… but…” Alyssa put her hands to her hips, frowning as the Black Prince tossed another slab of meat to a draken. “If all you’re doing is feeding the draken our leftover supplies, I can do that. Then you can put some of the gear away. Or were you going to brush the draken down? I can do that too. That will free up some of your time. At least until the angel comes back. I’d feel bad about just sitting around and watching you do all the hard work.”
Brakkt looked down at the meat in his hands for a moment before tossing it too. Izsha was the one to snatch it out of the air, chomp on it a few times, and swallow it mostly whole. “Sometimes it is easy to forget that someone other than me doesn’t mind being in the presence of the draken. Very well,” he said, turning toward the storage room.
Draken facial expressions were not easy to read. That said, the three draken who had yet to get a snack took on an obvious glower. One even made a bit of a threatening trill in the back of its throat. Alyssa didn’t think that they would pounce on Brakkt with his back turned, but… She bent down and grabbed three packages of meat, quickly unwrapped them, and tossed them one by one to the three angry dinosaurs.
As she finished, Brakkt returned with the same dandy brush that she had seen him use on occasion. “Go with the direction of the scales, but don’t be afraid to go against them if they’ve got grit stuck underneath. Focus on dirt, dry scales, and other material—especially around where the saddles were sitting. Don’t touch the talons. They require special care. I’ll handle that later.”
“Right.” Alyssa had never brushed down draken before. Or horses, for that matter. But she had seen him do it before. The brush had a little leather strap on the back side, perfect for sliding her hand against the wood to keep it in place. The bristles were coarse and rough. If she used it on her own skin, she would probably look like she had fallen off a bike onto a sidewalk. Draken scales were far tougher than skin though.
When she looked up from the brush, Izsha was standing just a few steps away, clearly intending to abuse their familiar relationship to get brushed down first. Alyssa was fine with that. If she made a mistake in her inexperience and accidentally hurt Izsha, she was far less likely to get her head chomped off. Best to use her favorite draken as training.
At first, Alyssa diligently worked without distraction. Izsha seemed to enjoy the treatment. It almost purred as she pulled a small pebble from between two large scales. Brakkt walked back and forth across the room at a relatively leisurely pace. He would pull something from the bags and either carry it off to the storage room or add it to one of the piles that were probably destined for elsewhere in the palace. But the longer she worked, the more the silence weighed on her.
She didn’t think she was on bad terms with Brakkt. Not like she was with Oxart at the very least. But after them fishing and firing guns together, she had thought that they got on rather well. Having known him for two months, she had the distinct impression that he preferred the company of the draken over that of any human except perhaps Irulon.
Then again, they both liked draken.
“So… what got you interested in draken in the first place?” Alyssa asked, mostly in an attempt to fill the silence, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t genuinely curious. She actually spent a fair amount of time around Brakkt but she felt like she knew almost nothing about him. Other than that his armor was a little scary and that he was a good swordsman. But it was a good safe topic that might let her get to know him on a more personal level.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” he said as he hung an emptied saddle on a rack near the storage-room door. “I don’t really know where it began. I guess… I once caught a snake when I was child. I kept it as a pet.”
“You saw a snake, decided to make it a pet, but thought to yourself ‘two fangs isn’t enough, I’d rather a creature have a mouth full of sharp pointed teeth’? Is that right?”
He smiled. She got him to smile. That was a win all on its own. Brakkt didn’t seem like the kind of person who smiled all that often.
As Alyssa moved on from Izsha—who wasn’t all that filthy to begin with as she had taken a dip in the lake not long before they left—she carried on an extremely casual conversation with Brakkt. They didn’t speak of anything heavy or dramatic. No troubles of Lyria or worries over existential threats. Just simple things. For instance, Alyssa learned that Brakkt enjoyed traveling outside the city. Not just their little trip down to Teneville, but in general. He liked getting away from duties, responsibilities, and his younger siblings.
Much like Irulon, Brakkt had never held much interest in ruling Lyria. Or anywhere, for that matter. But, if something happened to Ryab, his eldest brother, he would take the throne out of principle more than anything. It made him an effective shield against those younger siblings that might have more ambition than their position offered.
Between his mild magical prowess, diligent training, his enchanted sword and armor—the former of which never left his side, even while sleeping—and the draken, Brakkt was not a soft target for assassinations.
If he could, he would spend most of his time outside Lyria’s walls. Camping, living off the land, maybe even trying to find another dragon just for the fun of it.
Alyssa talked about herself as well. How her first go around in Teneville went and her journey to Lyria up to and including rushing past the gate guards because of her nervousness about wearing noble colors. “Though,” she said as she thought back, “I haven’t seen many people around here wearing purple. I’d have expected Decorous to always be marching around with a purple ermine cloak waving behind him in the wind.”
“City guard aren’t allowed to wear any heraldry except in specific situations, such as within the palace for dinners or balls or court with the Pharaoh. It’s supposed to be a sign of their devotion to duty.”
“If that’s the case, you should probably forbid all the other fanciful things Decorous wears.”
“It isn’t our decision. The nobles collectively run the city guard. They are really only under our control during times of attack or strife.”
Alyssa opened her mouth to ask about the palace guard uniforms, which did incorporate purple, but feathers in the air interrupted her. Iosefael appeared in the air, hovering above the line of draken that had assembled for cleaning. The dinosaurs were surprisingly organized about the whole thing. Alyssa felt a little bad that she had to step away. “She’s back,” she said, staring straight up.
It was a good thing that Iosefael didn’t wear a dress. Her golden armor hugged her body and didn’t leave much to the imagination, but it certainly left more than a wide open dress would if she was anything like Tenebrael.
Iosefael looked around before descending. It was a nervous type of glance, like she was expecting to be ambushed at any moment. When she finally got down to eye-level with Alyssa, she actually shuddered. “Hi.”
“Took you a while.”
“Someone else died right as I was about to come back and then someone else and then one more, so I went and collected three more souls.”
“Uh huh. You look nervous.”
“What if they see me with you? I don’t want to be attacked.” Her green eyes drifted off to the portal in the middle of the stables. “And that is definitely something they’ll keep an eye on once they notice it.”
“I’m surprised they don’t have… what were the scouting ones again? Kindnesses? I’m surprised they’re not watching me constantly.”
“They probably are. Or maybe they don’t know. If that’s the case, you should stay as far away from these as possible. And cut off your connection to Tene.”
Alyssa pressed her lips together. If she wasn’t already on this Astral Authority’s list, that would probably keep her safe for the time being. But… that would really only keep her safe. And likely only for a short time. The Astral Authority was apparently hunting for Tenebrael. Something on Earth had garnered their attention. Whether that was Alyssa undoing the spell on her mother, Tenebrael arguing with Iosefael, or some other angel passing by and noticing something wrong, it set them after her. Even one of those other two angels noticing that they had swapped souls could have done it.
“What happens if they get Tenebrael?” It was the question that burned in her mind. “What happens to this world?” The Seraphim might not be acting because whatever programming they had was broken, but that still didn’t mean good things if Tenebrael disappeared.
Without her, magic disappeared. She had already said that all spell cards were just compressed prayers to her. If she disappeared, Alyssa couldn’t see them working anymore. The people of this world wouldn’t be ready for such a thing. They didn’t even have flint and steel to light fires. Their farming relied on magic to revitalize the fields and accelerate growth, even if the actual sowing and reaping was done by hand. Without harvests continuing, people would starve.
And the monsters, what would happen to them? Kasita was basically an all magical being. What would happen to her if some other angel came in and replaced Tenebrael as this world’s Dominion. Even if Kasita could survive the loss of Tenebrael’s magic, Iosefael claimed that the monsters weren’t even supposed to be in this world in the first place.
Even if the Seraphim didn’t come by and blow up the planet like they were the Death Star, Tenebrael’s death or incarceration would still mean the end of life as it currently existed on this world.
Iosefael’s silence wasn’t a comforting factor either. It meant that Alyssa’s thoughts on the matter were more or less accurate. Probably.
“Iosefael,” Alyssa said, straightening her back and looking the angel directly in the eyes. “We’ve wasted enough time. Let’s get started.” And maybe, after learning how to defend myself, we can figure out a way to help Tenebrael.