War And Peace
“Fela? Think you can convince them to calm down?”
The monsters in the pit were clearly panicking. A few, like the two with animal ears, ran to take cover inside some of the carved out houses. A whole lot more had emerged, looking more than ready to fight. Some of them looked fairly scary too, like the ones with scythes attached to their arms. Between Brakkt’s skill and sword and her overpowered Spectral Chains, the scythe that would likely remove their souls as easily as a knife through butter, and her regular old pistol, she wasn’t too worried for her personal safety. Though she did activate a Projectile Reflection, just in case one of them decided to do something from down below.
But she didn’t want to fight them if at all possible.
“I can try,” she whispered. “They might not be too happy to find a monster taking the humans’ side.”
“You’re not taking sides. You’re brokering peace. Saving lives.”
“I doubt they’ll see it like that. My family would have…” She trailed off with a shake of her head.
“We won’t let anything happen to you. If worse comes to worst, we’ll just carefully back out of here and leave.”
Brakkt shook his head. “They won’t let us do that so easily. I believe we just stumbled upon something that humans weren’t supposed to see. If they let us get away, this oasis will have to be abandoned for fear that we will tell someone.”
Alyssa could honestly not believe that it hadn’t already been known about. The volcano was very likely the only real landmark in the entire plains. True, the path was a few miles north and most people probably stuck to the path to avoid getting lost, but this wasn’t a new formation. It might have been like this for hundreds if not thousands of years. There had to be some explorers that made their way here over that time.
Unless monsters had killed them all.
Fela, ahead of Alyssa who was just behind Brakkt, started slowly down the path. It was a fairly narrow walkway that hugged the wall as it wound down to the shoreline of the watery basin. They couldn’t walk side by side. That was just how narrow it was. And that narrowness was likely the only reason they had a chance to talk. It worked the opposite way as well, keeping the monsters from approaching in anything but single file.
Their approach had apparently not been expected. The monsters, who looked like they had been preparing to give chase, started backing away, moving into a semicircle around the pathway. One of the insectoids with scythes for arms jumped. Iridescent wings carried it right up to the wall where it started crawling higher, staring down at the humans and Fela. It didn’t go directly overhead, but Alyssa kept an eye on it just in case it was planning on ambushing them.
The scythe insects were by far the most populous of the monsters. There were six of them, including the one climbing on the rock. Or, rather, six of them had come out to fight. There might have been more hidden away. It was, in all honesty, difficult to tell. The two with animal ears had hidden. Using her soul sight, Alyssa found another five had not joined the defense. Two monsters hadn’t come out of the water. They looked like the bunyip with a single long tail from the waist down, but… rather than a fluffy snake, Alyssa was almost certain that they were fish of some sort. Their tails, what little of them that poked above the water, had fins. Mermaids? The tails were really long though, so maybe some kind of eel? Two were goblins. Alyssa recognized them, at least.
Another two monsters didn’t have any sort of animal analogy to their forms. One looked rather like a human wearing some strange armor and wielding a sword even longer than she was. Her armor, obsidian black and twisted with glowing red almost tattoo-like designs, didn’t fully cover her. Rather, the armor looked like it was growing out of the sword, which was made of the same material, and was slowly enveloping the body of the human. With her holding the sword in her right hand, her left hand and left leg were hardly touched by the armor. Her left foot was completely bare, even.
The other was a strange creature. It looked like two people, a little girl standing behind a tall man with a greying beard who, by all appearances, was human. But the two of them only had one soul and it was centered in the little girl. An illusion? Or some kind of construct?
In front of them all, the bunyip had drawn itself up high on its tail, towering over everyone else. Alyssa wasn’t sure if that meant that she was the leader or if she was just the most dangerous and was trying to make herself into a larger target to protect the others.
None of them, Alyssa noted, had scales. While Irulon had probably been exaggerating about Brakkt’s lack of knowledge, Alyssa was wondering why she had left Oz behind. He would have been able to tell what was most dangerous in the room.
“We come in peace,” Fela said like some kind of stereotypical alien. Even though she had watched some movies at the house, Alyssa didn’t think she had paid that much attention. And they hadn’t watched any of those kinds of movies either, so it was probably just coincidence.
The bunyip drew itself up just a little further. The white fur along its tail bristled with the tensing muscles. Its eyes, black sclera with silver irises, emitted an uncanny light in the darkness of the cavern. “Liar,” her voice rumbled, echoing off the relatively smooth cavern walls. “Already, those two prepare to attack.”
Alyssa winced, unable to fault that statement. Brakkt had his sword in hand while she had her pistol and spell cards out. She considered holstering her pistol, but it was a bit late. Not only that, but disarming while that scythe-arm insect thing was trying to get to an ambush point was just stupid.
Fela turned away from the assembly of monsters, meeting Alyssa’s eyes. She gave a half shrug. “Well, I tried.”
“You call that trying?” Alyssa hissed. “Ugh. Fine. Look—” She took a step forward, only to pause and retreat upon noticing the monsters tense. Especially that sword woman. Alyssa wasn’t sure if that sword was enchanted or not, but it was big enough that it would probably cleave right through all three of them in one swing regardless. “We’re honestly not here to hurt anyone. Our caravan is preparing to set up camp for the night. Noticing a bunch of monsters in the distance, we wanted to make sure you all weren’t going to attack us in our sleep.”
A murmur started up, mostly among the insectile monsters, though one of the goblins looked like it was paying vague attention. Alyssa only caught a few words of it. Caravan. Home. Abandon. The context wasn’t hard to put together. Even the bunyip’s face, though still bristled with fury, took on a note of despair. It was just a subtle movement in her shoulders with a relaxing of the muscles in her face.
“Tell me how you found us,” she said, voice low and demanding. Her slightly luminescent eyes bored into Alyssa.
Pressing her lips together, Alyssa stared back. After a moment of thought, she reached up and pulled off her sunglasses. “I see everything.”
It wasn’t really true, but… true enough. And it seemed to calm down the bunyip. Perhaps she thought it was a unique ability. Or… oh no.
“What are you?” the bunyip asked.
Alyssa slid her sunglasses back in place and just about blurted out that she was, in fact, a human in the process. At this point, it was almost a reflex. She managed to stop herself just in time as a better response occurred to her. “A friend. If you’ll let me.” The bunyip frowned, but Alyssa wasn’t done. “We honestly only came down here because we thought you would chase us if we tried to leave. As long as you aren’t harassing caravans through this area—”
“Of course we’re not. How could we expect to remain hidden if reports of monsters committing regular attacks made it back to the humans?”
“Then we have no quarrel with you. We won’t even tell anyone that you’re here.”
“Like I’ll believe that,” she said, drawing herself up to full height once again.
“Can we cut them now?” the sword woman said. Her facial expression hadn’t changed since Alyssa and the others walked down the path. Her cheeks were rosy with a heavy blush and her mouth was agape in a vapid smile. “That looks like such a nice sword. But I’m so much better.”
Brakkt, at Alyssa’s side, tensed his grip on his sword.
Alyssa considered just chaining them all up. It would give them a moment to talk without worrying about being attacked, but it would probably guarantee that there would never be trust between them. Perhaps that wasn’t truly necessary. After all, it wasn’t like she was planning on coming back anytime soon. But, if they thought word of their little sanctuary was going to get out, they would have to leave. If kicking them out could be avoided, Alyssa would have preferred that option.
But if they were going to attack…
“They’re telling the truth, you know.”
Alyssa snapped her head up to the cavern entrance. Kasita sat on the edge of the path, dangling her legs over. She swung them idly, looking down on the ongoings with a faint smile.
“Weren’t you supposed to be watching the entrance?”
“Ufu~ but it’s boring.”
“More humans,” the bunyip said, sounding defeated despite the apparent advantage of numbers.
“Not quite.” Standing, Kasita’s form shifted and changed. It went through several rapid variations. From her more sultry Waterhole form to one inspired by Fela, a long-eared elf, a large beach ball that rolled down the path a short ways. The ball shifted seamlessly back into Kasita’s usual form. She didn’t even stumble coming out of that roll. “I am a mimic, as you can see. That one there is obviously a hellhound. There are three draken sitting at the entrance to this cave as well. They’re a bit too large to fit inside, but I guarantee that if you harm these humans, we’ll all take exception. Even if we didn’t, that one right there—” Kasita pointed right toward Alyssa as she continued to move down the path. “—possesses magic capable of destroying this entire mountain in a single spell. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes, as has Fela. Perhaps you’ve noticed the crater in the moon? That was her as well.”
“I was trying to get through this without threatening them,” Alyssa whispered as Kasita came up close.
“Some monsters need a show of force in order to be cowed. Just think of how you met Fela.”
“I didn’t threaten her.”
“No, but you turned her enemy into a fine red mist just by pointing in her direction without even saying a word.”
“Eheheh…” Exquisitely sinister chuckling echoed off the smooth walls and water. The sword wielding woman took a step forward. “One more doesn’t matter. I’ll cut and cut and—”
“Wait.” The man with the little girl hiding behind his back took a step closer, holding a hand in front of the sword woman.
“Oh? Ufu~ Hello cousin.”
“Cousin?” Alyssa snapped her head to Kasita. “You know—”
“No. Cousin as in we are both illusory monsters. You are a doppelganger, are you not? I am Kasita.”
The man standing in front of the little girl melted. He didn’t show off fear or worry in his face. Rather, his face completely froze as his entire body disintegrated into a dark oil. In seconds, his entire body was nothing more than a puddle around the feet of the little girl. A puddle that warped up her legs, drawn into her skin as it turned to a dark onyx color.
She walked forward, moving closer to the intruding group. As she walked, Alyssa noted something interesting.
Alyssa had thought that the bunyip was the leader. Propped up on her tail, she was the largest monster in the room. She had taken charge of the conversation, and had been the only one to really speak aside from the sword woman. The insect creatures had murmured a bit, but that wasn’t really conversing. Not with Alyssa and company, at least. But with the doppelganger moving forward, the bunyip lowered herself. She didn’t prostrate herself as if the doppelganger was some kind of royalty. She just lowered herself to a more normal height.
Even that much was an obvious sign of deference.
“Volta,” one of the insects said, reaching a hand out as if to stop the doppelganger from getting closer. But she ignored it entirely.
She stepped right up to Kasita. Unfortunately for the doppelganger, she only came up to Kasita’s chest, so she was stuck craning her neck just to meet Kasita’s face.
Perhaps as a show of good faith, Kasita shrank down. She maintained her form as Alyssa’s sister, but that sister became a very little sister, perfectly equal in height with the diminutive doppelganger. “You’re the leader here?” Kasita said.
“I’ve been here longest. And I’ve kept humans from discovering us on multiple occasions.”
“I understand. I have been in a similar position in the past. Though we didn’t have such a nice sanctuary like this,” Kasita said, eying the chamber. “We were slaves. The less said, the better.”
“We don’t want to have to leave.”
“You shouldn’t need to. This one—” Kasita motioned as if she was going to put a hand on Alyssa’s shoulder, only to pause as she realized that she couldn’t quite reach in her current form. Instead, she grabbed hold of Alyssa’s hand. “Alyssa killed the slavers and rescued all the monsters. She even helped the rest of them escape the humans’ largest city. I stuck around, curious as to her motivations and drive. She’s a lot more normal than I first thought, but fantastical in other ways. But I can attest that she won’t want to disrupt your lives here… And if you try to fight, you will lose. Her magic is on par with that of a dragon.”
“Alyssa?” the doppelganger said, turning to the girl in question. Her eyes had no color to them. Not even the slightest bit. They weren’t black holes in her head—not like the gaunt—there was clearly some fleshy orb in her eye sockets, but they were closer to black marbles than to normal eyes. “You are the Alyssa?”
Feeling a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach, Alyssa could only glance askance to Kasita.
“You’ve heard of her?”
“From a few sources. Our sanctuary housed a small group of monsters a month or two ago. An elf in that group mentioned the name.”
“Oh? You met the group I was talking about then. A salamander and a honey bee were with the elf, were they?”
“They stayed for some time,” Volta said with a nod of her head. “I believe here was the first rest that they had taken in quite some time. All seemed weary and wary.”
“They aren’t still here, are they?” Kasita said, a bit of hope tinging her voice.
“The salamander and bee left for the Great Forest after only a few days. The elf stayed around for a few weeks more, but eventually left on her own for the mountains of her people.”
“On her own?” At the doppelganger’s nod, Kasita bit her lip. “I hope she’s alright. It’s quite a distance.”
“She claimed to be an expert in druidic magic. I wouldn’t worry so long as that is true.”
Kasita nodded and even smiled a little. “Well, I’m glad to know that they at least made it this far. In any case, that should hopefully convince you that there is no need to fight. These humans are friends, not enemies.”
Volta sighed, turning from Kasita to look over the other three intruders. “It’s a precarious situation you’ve all put me in.”
“How about this as an apology,” Alyssa said. “We will be traveling back through this area in… a few weeks time?” She had to toss a questioning glance toward Brakkt. It had been a week and a half, but she wasn’t exactly certain how far away they were, whether they had been making good time or not, or even how long they would be at Illuna and then, after, Owlcroft.
In fact, if Tenebrael’s plan worked, she should be able to make portals after distracting the Astral Authority. So getting back to Lyria might not even require them to go this way. But… then again, making a portal so close to Owlcroft was probably not a good idea. For security purposes if nothing else. A bit of travel might be necessary.
Shaking her head, Alyssa focused on Volta. “We don’t have much to spare at the moment, but we will be heading to Illuna. Are there supplies we might be able to acquire there that you would be interested in?”
“You’re heading to Illuna?”
“We’re escorting some girl, which is why we thought it would be prudent to ensure that the large group of monsters on the horizon weren’t going to attack. Or rather, we’re traveling with the people who are escorting her. Our business actually lies in Owlcroft.”
“You know it?”
“I would warn you away from it if you hadn’t already demonstrated reckless abandon by charging into a den of monsters that you knew was occupied.”
Alyssa fought a frown off her face. “We can handle ourselves.”
“You won’t be able to sit and chat with the creatures around Owlcroft as you are doing here. Not even a mimic will save you from that. All are maddened by the influence of the demons. They have been unusually active as of late.”
Brakkt stirred, moving forward only to freeze as a few of the other monsters started. Carefully, with slow movements, he sheathed his sword. He held out his hands, both now emptied, showing them off to the monsters before letting them drop to his sides. “Active in what ways? Plague incidents?”
“Among other things. More and more demons have been climbing out of the pit. They wander mostly aimlessly, spreading out in all directions. But when a few come across the human city, more and more will take note. It won’t be long before they are overrun.”
“How long? Are we talking days? Weeks? Longer?”
“In the order of weeks. Perhaps even months so long as the activity doesn’t increase further. It is attrition that will overrun them, not a sudden force.”
The tension in Brakkt’s shoulders lessened slightly as he nodded. “How long has this been going on?”
“Roughly a month.”
“We’ll be there soon,” Alyssa said. “And they’ll have a new enemy to fight.”
“I suppose we would be remiss to stop enemies of the demons,” Volta said, shaking her oily hair back and forth. “Next time, perhaps send in Kasita first to let them explain the situation before getting everyone up in arms.”
“Be on your way,” the doppelganger said with a shooing motion of her hands.
“You didn’t want supplies?”
“If you survive Owlcroft, I’ll let you know what you can bring back.”
“But…” Alyssa trailed off as Volta walked back to the monsters.
The bunyip was first to rush forward, putting her hands on Volta’s shoulders as if to check for damage. The insects quickly gathered up around her as well.
“Let’s get out of here,” Alyssa said, noting the sword woman still staring directly at Brakkt. “We’ve disturbed them enough. And we got information out of it.”
“Why would Illuna not have sent word back to Lyria?” Brakkt hummed as they started walking up the path.
“Pride? Perhaps they thought it would be a temporary thing. Or maybe they don’t realize that they’re losing a war of attrition. Assuming Volta is correct, of course. I don’t have much experience in warfare, but I can picture it being a slow and subtle thing. Losing a few soldiers here and there would quickly spiral out of control as losses keep piling up.”
“We should get to Illuna quickly. See if we can’t convince the guild to pick up the pace.”
“We’re almost there. They should be fine alone for the last leg of the journey.”
“I would rather not. Just in case. Having Raugis harmed while I was anywhere near her proximity will reflect… poorly.”
“Then we’ll see about getting a few more miles a day out of their horses.” The harsh sunlight slammed into Alyssa as she exited the cool cavern. “Maybe we could even travel through the night,” she said with a wistful sigh as the heat set in.
Alyssa’s Notes: Been a while since I had a chance to write, but I haven’t come across too much truly new stuff in my journeys so far. Except the Astral Authority. Iosefael and I discussed them when we met, but it wasn’t a very good discussion. Still, on this trip to Illuna, I managed to find some time to compile a few notes on them. They can be found along with my notes on angels.
And now there are all these new monsters I should probably add to my notebook. Hope I find time soon.