War And Peace
“You stupid angel. I just want a stupid portal from here to Owlcroft. Ugh. Work damn you!” Alyssa let her arm drop with a groan. Her fingernails hadn’t even turned black. Five minutes of trying to make a portal and she had nothing to show for it. She didn’t understand the rules. Was it because time was stopped outside their little bubble? Was Tenebrael just screwing with her? Ugh. She needed Iosefael to come and explain again, or explain properly. She had thought that she was getting the hang of using miracles.
Izsha was still running. Maybe that was the problem. Irulon had mentioned that human created portals failed because of movement of the world itself. But… it just didn’t seem like a thing that would happen. She only needed a portal long enough for Izsha to jump inside.
But they were running out of time. Maybe the clock hands would continue ticking backward, but Alyssa had a feeling that twelve midnight was the limit. And the hands were close together. Less than three minutes left.
Digging through her cards, Alyssa pulled out an Empty Vessel spell and cast it. The shroud of glass shards encompassed the three, wrapping around them in a bubble just barely smaller than the clock underneath Izsha’s feet. Empty Vessel had worked back in Lyria. It likely worked for the same reason that the entropy stopping miracle had worked. The Astral Authority were not as divine as they seemed. They might even be considered fully mortal, though they clearly had some connection to the Throne. Or perhaps only to the Seraphim that actually led their group, much like how Alyssa was connected to Tenebrael.
Unfortunately, Alyssa was not sure whether or not it would keep her hidden if they had the scent of her connection to Tenebrael on their noses.
And poor Izsha. Alyssa could tell, the draken was getting tired. She wasn’t quite sure how she knew. It wasn’t like Izsha had told her or even mimed it to her. They were keeping up their speed. But it was something subtle. Maybe it was the way that Izsha wasn’t jumping between trees anymore, but trying to go in the straightest line possible. Maybe it was the slightly more ragged breathing. Or just how the Izsha’s muscles felt underneath Alyssa’s legs.
Izsha needed a rest. Maybe not a long one. They could probably keep moving, but not at top speed.
If the Empty Vessel didn’t work…
The clock hands ticked closer and closer together. There were at most two minutes left.
“Izsha. Stop,” Alyssa said quietly. “Just for a minute.” An extra minute of running wasn’t going to make a difference at this point. But a minute of rest might.
They were still in the forest. It had become significantly less marshy the further they had gone, not that it would matter much. Alyssa was fairly sure that the time stop spell was doing something that made the ground much harder than it otherwise would be. If there were a lake, Izsha could probably walk right over the top of it.
The trees were much thicker where they were now. Both in density of the land and in individual tree girth. They were quite tall as well. Maybe redwoods? Or the Nod equivalent. Alyssa wasn’t a dendrologist. Having to go around them constantly probably contributed to Izsha’s exhaustion, but they might also make for good cover. With Izsha now standing still, Alyssa could only see twenty feet in any direction before the trees just blocked it all out.
Of course, hiding might not matter all that much if the Astral Authority was following magic, but it couldn’t hurt.
The low humming reverberation that had been going on since the time stop miracle started changing. It was subtle at first, but quickly grew both louder and in pitch. Both hands of the clock hit the twelve o’clock position with a thunderous click. The hum ended rapidly, sounding like the final portion of a grandfather clock’s chime.
Beneath their feet, the mystic circle faded.
Slowly, things started moving again. Wind gently gracing Alyssa’s skin despite them being stopped was the first sign. Leaves began rustling, swaying in that same breeze. The sounds of the forest returned to normal. Some birds chirping could be heard in the distance. The leaves rustling grew to a static-like background noise. A frog croaking actually made Alyssa jump before her brain actually matched the sound to an animal.
Alyssa waited with bated breath, watching the surroundings. Even though she had something of an innate sense of their surroundings, Kasita also looked around, swiveling her head from one side to the other. Izsha wasn’t looking around too much in comparison. The draken, panting, coiled its muscles, readying an escape if necessary.
Five minutes passed by in a flash. Although she jumped at a few odd sounds, there was no sign of the Astral Authority. Either through invisibility or through stopped time, they had managed to escape.
And she had no idea how far they were from Illuna. Or even how much progress they had made toward Owlcroft. They had left the road under Alyssa’s command—she had worried that the Astral Authority might just follow it. If they were even intelligent enough to reason out such a thing. She honestly wasn’t sure how creative they might be.
“I didn’t manage to send a Message to Irulon before you stopped time. What do you want me to tell her now?”
“Wait. No. No magic. No more than necessary, anyway,” Alyssa amended, looking at the shards of glass around them. “Spells are used all over, but they are technically requests to Tenebrael. With a direction to look in, the Astral Authority might just decide to check on anyone using any spell.”
“So we’re on our own?”
“For now. We have food and some supplies. And I doubt the forest will be empty of things to eat.”
“No tent though.”
“Might be for the best. Less to leave behind if we end up having to flee again. For now,” Alyssa said, resting a hand on Izsha’s side, “let’s take a short rest. We’ll try to contact the others later.” If only her mother had a phone.
Then again, phones were probably more connected to Tenebrael than regular magic. It wasn’t like there were cell towers around this world that they could use to connect to each other. They had to be using some kind of magic. For all Alyssa knew, Tenebrael was the cell tower. And, if so, was also sitting around spying on every single message and conversation.
Resting, as it turned out, was nearly impossible while the threat of a sudden attack lingered in the air. Alyssa was tense. Izsha was tense. Kasita was tense. Even when she closed her eyes and tried to relax, she just wound up jumping at every little sound. The sounds of the forest were made all the worse with her eyes closed—everything just sounded so much louder.
Alyssa wound up pacing around in a small circle to bleed off her anxious energy. She couldn’t go far. The Empty Vessel spell was centered around her. Moving would reveal Izsha or Kasita if they weren’t sticking close by. The Astral Authority probably wouldn’t care, but they might be looking for those Alyssa had escaped with. Especially Izsha, given that the draken had been with her during the similar situation in Lyria.
But the more time that passed, the more Alyssa felt safe enough. The Astral Authority had access to rapid transportation through their square portals. If they knew where Alyssa was, they surely would have caught up by now.
“Do we know where we are in relation to the road to Owlcroft?” Kasita asked, peering through the trees.
“I think it curved to our right as we ran. And I don’t think we crossed the road ever during our run. But it was hard to tell. The road is just so poorly maintained that I might have been imagining not crossing it.”
“That’s something. I’d rather not have to backtrack a bunch. Those Astral Authority things are probably swarming all over the place.”
Alyssa nodded. Even when they had been on their way out from Lyria, little golden lights could be seen flittering about the sky. She honestly couldn’t have left fast enough. They hadn’t bothered Alyssa then, not after she lost them. However, that might not be true anymore. Like Kasita had said, the Astral Authority seemed to be getting faster about locating signs of Tenebrael.
All the more reason to get to Owlcroft as soon as possible.
“Izsha, how are you doing?”
Like Alyssa, the draken was slowly able to relax more and more as time passed. Izsha had even taken to resting on its side. It was still clearly ready to jump to its feet at a moment’s notice. But Izsha’s breathing had slowed from the panting gasps of their flight. At Alyssa’s question, Izsha looked over to her and offered a bob of its head.
“Sorry for pushing you so hard. But…”
Izsha made a trilling noise in the back of its throat. Not a threatening or angry noise. It didn’t sound particularly pleased either. Alyssa was honestly not sure what it was supposed to mean. Maybe an assurance?
Whatever the case, Izsha got to its feet, bending slightly in the way it always did when Alyssa was getting ready to mount.
“Thanks. I promise to make it up to you somehow,” Alyssa said as she climbed into the saddle. Holding out her hand, she grasped Kasita’s arm and hoisted her up onto Izsha as well. It was always a bit of a strange sensation. Kasita looked like a proper person who weighed a normal amount. But Alyssa picked her up as if she were a pillow. “Go ahead and take it easy. Go at whatever pace is comfortable for you.”
The most comfortable pace was apparently a light trot. They started out looking for the road to Owlcroft. Not necessarily to stay on the road given her concerns that the Astral Authority might follow it. But staying adjacent to it would keep them from getting lost.
Although, if the Astral Authority did follow the road, they would probably find the pit all on their own without any need for Alyssa to call them there. It was a wonder that they hadn’t found it already. Unless Tenebrael’s statue, the portals, and Alyssa’s giant mystic circle had just kept them concentrated around Lyria.
Izsha’s trot turned into a gallop before long. Not that draken galloped. Galloping required four legs. Draken only had two, plus two smaller claw-like hand-things. But, if they had a horse with them, it would have to have been moving in a light gallop to keep up.
After two hours of being back on the way—moving adjacent to the road—Alyssa felt safe enough to try out a quick Message to Irulon.
If the Astral Authority came for her… she would just have to try stopping time again.
“Message. Irulon. We’re on our way to Owlcroft and are trying to keep a low profile to avoid disturbing the fake-angels again. Not sure exactly where we are, but we did find the road and are following it. Will Message again if we don’t attract attention from this spell.”
In less than a minute, Alyssa had a response. ~The Astral Authority is swarming around Illuna. We’ve not left yet because of it. They aren’t attacking, but the people are frightened. It is probably harming their impression of monsters, unfortunately. I’ll keep you updated if things change.~
Alyssa quickly relayed the Message to the others. “So we really are on our own, it seems.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. As you said, we have some supplies and are more than capable of surviving on our own.”
“Still would have preferred their presence.”
“Well, it could be worse. It could be—”
“Don’t say it.”
“What? I was just going—”
“Don’t say it! You’ll make the Astral Authority notice us or cause demons to swarm out of the forest or it will suddenly start raining or whatever you were going to say.”
“I don’t think I have that kind of power.”
“Let’s just… not curse ourselves for the time being.”
“If anything, you’re the one with that power. Have you ever wished something wouldn’t happen but it did?”
“All the time,” Alyssa mumbled. Really, she didn’t have all that much to complain about. Most of the troublesome situations she had gotten into were her fault. Except this one, of course. This was Tenebrael’s fault.
Following alongside the decrepit road while still staying out of sight from it wasn’t the easiest thing to do. But it wasn’t too bad either. As long as they poked their heads out of the forest every so often to make sure that they were following it, they wouldn’t lose it.
Izsha kept up the pace well through lunchtime. Though, not all that many people in Nod had a mid-day meal. Breakfast was a large and hearty meal. One obviously made to get people through the day. Dinner was a smaller affair. At least, smaller than Alyssa used to have back on Earth. Enough to get through the night. If people ate anything for lunch at all, it would usually be some kind of a snack. Old bread. Fruit, if someone could get a hold of some. Maybe even something made with sugar if they were lucky and wealthy enough. Lunch passing was more an indicator for time than any caloric need.
Draken didn’t even eat all that much anyway. They wouldn’t turn away a slab of meat if one was lying about, but, at least while traveling, they tended to go light on any feedings. Kasita didn’t eat at all. Magic somehow supplied all her needs.
So, when the sun dipped behind the rings in the sky, casting the land in darkness, Alyssa was probably the only one really starting to get hungry.
But she didn’t complain. Not while Izsha was still maintaining the pace of a horse’s gallop. A full day of running had to have been hard on it, even if it wasn’t complaining.
An hour after nightfall, just as Alyssa was about to call for a break, the treeline of the redwood forest broke. Though she wasn’t an expert in arboreal matters, Alyssa could tell that it wasn’t a natural end of the trees. There were stumps. Lots of stumps. Man, or monster, had deliberately felled the trees here. But nature was trying to take the area back. Larger saplings, ones that had clearly been around for longer than a season or few, were growing between the stumps.
Beyond the felled forest, the land was relatively flat. For a moment, Alyssa thought there were fields around. But… if they were fields, they were untended. The plants were overgrown, crowding each other out, and weren’t all one crop either. Weeds, plants, grains, flowers, and more all grew together.
Just beyond the fields, a town sat atop a small hill. It wasn’t a large town. As big as Teneville. Maybe slightly larger. But it had one big difference.
Two. It had two big differences. There wasn’t a giant statue of Tenebrael or a temple to her. And there wasn’t a single light on in any of the homes. Even though Teneville went to sleep soon after night fell, except during the festival bonfire nights, it was still possible to see light shining through the cracks in windows, doors, or the walls of the homes. Without an easy way to light fires, people didn’t like to let their personal flames go out. They would get up multiple times a night just to feed the embers to keep things going until morning.
But here… there was only darkness.
And a strange sense of foreboding.
“Wait,” Alyssa said softly. Closing her eyes, she focused on Tenebrael’s power and the aspect of it that let her see souls. There were only two in the entire village. They had a distinct feel to them. The slime to a regular mortal’s candle. Demons. Or rather, infected. “There are two infected in that village. I think they’re pretty weak compared to some of the ones I’ve seen elsewhere.”
“Do we go around?”
Alyssa hesitated in answering. The easy answer was yes, they would be going around. It was safer. They could always send a Message to Trik and Fela. The two of them were trained for demon fighting. Plus Brakkt and Irulon would be there to even the odds.
Here, it would really only be Alyssa with maybe Izsha helping if the demons were outside. Kasita could act as a distraction and maybe help with a spell or two. But Alyssa would still be carrying out most of the legwork.
However, if she wanted to set up a camp, the town would be a good spot to do so. Even abandoned, shelter was shelter. And she wasn’t sure that she would be able to sleep easily knowing that two demons were out and about. They did tend to stay in one spot unless they spotted something, but that hadn’t held true for the Taker and Octavia. Not to mention the possibility that one was staring out its window, noticing her right at this very moment. Or, if not now, then when she inevitably went to make a camp fire. She could go without for a night. Their packs had some food that didn’t need to be cooked. But boiling water was almost a necessity. And water was what she needed the most of at the moment.
If the abandoned town had a well, even half dried, it might be worth it.
“We’ll go forward,” Alyssa said, holding out a hand to summon a Spectral Axe. “Carefully. Slowly. They aren’t next to each other. We should be able to take them one at a time.”
“Sounds fine with me. Nothing we haven’t dealt with before.”
Alyssa pinched her eyes shut with a grimace. “Did you have to say that?”
“Nothing. Never mind. Izsha? Do you want to take a short rest before we head forward?”
Izsha didn’t respond except to start forward. It didn’t carry them at a gallop. It didn’t even got at a moderate trot. Alyssa could have hopped off and walked faster.
But she didn’t mind the speed. In fact, the slower the better.
Walking through the abandoned town was an eerie affair. Up close, it was even more like Teneville. One didn’t really notice the temple while in the village proper, removing that particular difference. Instead, there were just empty buildings. Doors hanging off their hinges. Cracks and broken cobblestone in the walls of the houses. A roof collapsed here or there. Overgrown plants even in what had once been roads and pathways.
It was what Teneville might have become had they been overrun with demons.
Alyssa had to wonder what the Astral Authority might have done in the actual village. After the statue killed the first Kindness that Alyssa had ever seen, she had gone back to Lyria. No portals had opened up to spit out more of the Astral Authority in the short time that she had been around the area. But she didn’t know what had happened afterwards.
When she got back to Lyria, she would have to poke her head through the portal and see if that statue still stood.
But that was a thought for another time.
For now, Alyssa hopped off Izsha’s back, gesturing to one of the dilapidated buildings. The soul was right against the wall, as far as she could tell. In Teneville, she had hesitated, worried that her sight of souls might have been giving her wrong information. She had sent Kasita in to confirm, which ended up with Kasita getting noticed. What should have been a quick fight turned into a minor, but potentially dangerous fight.
This time, Alyssa did not hesitate. An opportunity had presented itself to her. She would not waste it.
The scythe passed straight through the wall as if it didn’t exist. It only met resistance when it hit the soul. An ear piercing wail split the sky, but Alyssa ignored it, gritting her teeth and gripping the scythe with both hands. Like with all demons that Alyssa had killed, the scythe required tugging, pulling, and a bit of leverage. With a foot on the wall of the building, Alyssa pulled back.
The sticky ball of tar of a soul came straight through the wall. A swipe of the scythe carried it safely away from Alyssa. She considered sticking around until the true demon showed up to take it back, but figured there wouldn’t be much point.
Besides that, the infected had screamed.
Closing her eyes, she could see the other soul, several buildings away, in motion.
“It’s coming,” Alyssa said, narrowing her eyes. “Be prepared.” Her fingers tightened around the ethereal shaft of the scythe as she moved to a more open position. Izsha and Kasita both flanked her. The former coiled its muscles, readying for an attack. Kasita pulled out a few spell cards, holding them between her fingers, pointed down the remains of the street.
A single infected was not a threat.