War And Peace
Alyssa could feel it. And she wasn’t the only one.
Two days of travel had brought them much closer to their destination. Owlcroft was supposed to be a week out from Illuna. But that metric was based on horses moving at a steady trot. Izsha was much faster. And, without other people, they could travel even quicker than that. Izsha moved at its own pace, setting the schedule entirely, including when to stop for breaks and nights.
The only real input that Alyssa had was when demons were afoot. And they were around in surprising numbers. Since the two in the abandoned town, they had come across another ten. The first morning, they had only come across two more. Yesterday, they had to fight off five, two of which had attacked at the same time. They had fought three today and it was still morning.
But they were getting close.
The bedehouse in Lyria had an aura around it. A miasma in the air that caused fear, weighed down everyone in the area, and simply oppressed everything. It was a singularly unique sensation, one that Alyssa hadn’t ever felt before then. But now, she could safely say that she had felt it for a second time. Except this time, it was even heavier. Every instinct in her body was telling her to turn around and run away.
Adrael’s staff helped. Alyssa had tied it to the saddle. It was easily within grasping distance for her and was pressed against Izsha’s scales. Kasita could easily reach it as well. She was actually afraid to let go. Because it only helped. At the bedehouse, simply touching the staff was enough to completely negate all effects of the aura. Here, it was different. Here, the miasma was so oppressive that Alyssa could feel it even when gripping the staff with both hands.
Even with the staff blocking a large portion of the aura, the woods would have still been oppressive. There was just no sound. Nature had certain noises to it. Ones that Alyssa had grown increasingly familiar with over the course of her stay in Nod. There should have been birds singing, crickets chirping, rustles and noises of the trees and leaves as animals and wind moved through them. Instead, there was nothing. Nothing at all.
Given their inconsistent speed and lack of real knowledge of the surrounding lands, Alyssa honestly had no idea how far away they were. Riding was easy. If they wound up riding until nightfall…
It might be better to ride through the night. Setting up any kind of camp would be difficult with only the one staff. Izsha would have to follow her around so close that they would definitely be tripping over each other. Besides that… Alyssa doubted that she would be able to sleep.
Perhaps it was for the best that it was only the three of them. Irulon might have had some kind of solution for the sensation, but Alyssa doubted it. She had sent a Message asking if the bedehouse guards had any kind of protections, but Irulon had come back without any definite answer. Alyssa couldn’t even imagine Irulon, Fela, Brakkt, and Trik all needing to hold onto the staff as well, plus their mounts and the pack horse.
It would have been chaos.
Tzheitza and the Taker had apparently fought at the pit itself, killing infected comrades. That was the story that Alyssa had heard her tell, anyway. Perhaps the sensation hadn’t been as strong back when the pit was new, but… she could easily imagine the oppressive atmosphere and the horrors of killing former friends being enough to drive a man insane.
How did the guards stand it? Were there even any guards? A lack of guards around the pit would explain why there were so many infected in the lands around it. Then again, hunters, adventurers, brigands, and anyone else who wandered as deep as Alyssa was might just succumb to a lack of faith in Tenebrael if they got this close. Which would probably make most guards relatively pointless unless true demons were just pouring out of the pit.
She supposed that she would find out soon. It couldn’t be far. Even the trees and plants looked like they were on the verge of death.
“Demons to our right,” Alyssa said, voice not quite a whisper, but close. Speaking any louder just felt wrong. The air itself wouldn’t allow it.
However it was that draken managed to hear words without proper ears, Izsha heard. They drifted off to the left side. Not a sharp angle. The demons were far off. Alyssa would have said something if they were closer and Izsha understood that as well.
She kept her eyes closed, concentrating on seeing souls. Seeing threats.
There were a lot of threats dead ahead. But they had been dead ahead for a full day now. They were getting closer. It was just a bit difficult to tell the exact distance when there were so many all bleeding together. A bunch of the souls, far below the earth, actually looked like they were directly on top of Alyssa. It was just the strange way the soul sight worked. Without reference points, it was hard to tell if something was deep underground or directly underfoot.
The mass of souls had to be the pit. Alyssa couldn’t even count how many there were. Hundreds. Thousands. All of them were that same slimy type of souls. Infected. Even though they were all next to each other, the souls didn’t interact. Not like how humans and monsters interacted. Little pieces of their souls didn’t dart away to join with others. Rather, the souls that got close to others would pull back and withdraw, like they were trying to protect themselves from any interaction at all.
At least… with each other. Alyssa distinctly remembered Kasita trying to spy on the demon in Teneville. Its soul had interacted with Kasita’s just before it attacked.
Alyssa had to wonder if this was close enough. There was a steady trail of demons leading back to that mass. Or, rather than a trail, it was more like they were scattered around with more toward the mass than away from it. A Kindness moving toward the most dense portion would surely find them.
But if the Astral Authority just attacked the closest ones and then focused on Alyssa, this was possibly the worst place to try to run from them again. It was too easy to stumble into demons.
“More directly in front of us. And to our left up ahead. Go back to the right. We’ll just take the one out there.”
Alyssa still had a scythe in her hands from the last few demons that they had to dispatch. She could hold it for an unlimited amount of time, but the amount of cards she had were significantly less unlimited. She had to be careful with it. As Irulon had warned her when she first used the spell, it could kill easily. Too easily, almost, but that was what made it good against demons. Still, she had no interest in accidentally killing her friends. With her ability to handle souls, there was a slight chance that she could shove a soul back into a body, especially if the body wasn’t damaged, but testing that…
“Directly ahead now,” Alyssa said, readying the scythe.
An infected beyond the trees shambled around like a zombie. Its back was to Alyssa, but that didn’t last long. Izsha was a fairly quiet predator, but it was impossible to move at a high speed through the forest without making some noise.
The infected turned, showing off burning red eyes. It snarled, mouth gaping and spittle flying everywhere. Fingernails as long as its fingers raised up, readying an attack.
Alyssa didn’t even blink. Izsha charged by. As they passed, Alyssa swung the scythe, hooking it into the infected’s head. It immediately stopped moving, going limp, but the tar-like soul stayed stuck in its corpse for a good twenty feet until Izsha ran past a tree. The scythe and the soul passed clean through. The corpse did not.
The worst thing about killing the infected wasn’t actually the fight. None of them were even close to the level of the Taker. Alyssa had yet to run across an infected that even reached the one that had been in Teneville. Lyria starved them in the bedehouse or in barricaded homes to weaken them. Or they had done so before Fela came along. She wasn’t exactly certain of their policy now. Out here in this forest, with no sounds of animals or prey that they might be able to eat and likely no intelligence to cultivate crops on their own, they were likely all completely starved, just wandering aimlessly until their bodies finally gave out.
No. The worst thing wasn’t killing them. Alyssa was used to that. It came easily.
The worst thing was stopping, waiting for the stupid true demon to appear, and then scouring the pentagrams from the land.
It did give Izsha a small break. Alyssa hadn’t been the one setting the pace, but she was fairly certain that Izsha was pushing itself quite a bit in the interest of getting this mission over and done with sooner rather than later.
Alyssa shook the soul off the scythe behind them as Izsha slowed down. The others couldn’t actually see the soul, so Alyssa actually had to signal when to stop. She did so with a light pat to the smooth scales on the side of Izsha’s neck.
The demon appeared before too long. A blazing pentagram etched itself into the dirt. Every plant in a six foot radius around it just died. The closest of the sickly-looking bushes and trees actually burst into flames. The fire didn’t spread, thankfully. There was something infernally magical about it. The first time, Alyssa had just about had a heart attack at the thought of burning the forest down with her trapped inside.
It was the same demon as always. Black leather boots, skirt, and straps making up a top with a mask that hid all skin but a little bit around the glowing ember of an eye. Alyssa wasn’t sure whether or not this particular demon was following her kills around, if she was the only true demon assigned to this planet in some kind of mirror to Tenebrael, or if she just randomly got assigned to the same souls that Alyssa forked over on the regular.
Which was somewhat ironic to think about. Tenebrael had called Alyssa her little reaper. But the vast majority of the reaping Alyssa had done wasn’t headed to Tenebrael at all.
Every single time, the demon waved to Alyssa. It was a jaunty little wave like she had just seen a neighbor at the supermarket for the first time in a while. Alyssa just glared back. At least the demon hadn’t dropped another ember. So far, anyway. Perhaps they took some time to prepare.
The demon went about her business. She kicked the base of the scythe haft, spinning it around until the gleaming blade lanced straight through the gelatinous blob. A second pentagram formed beneath the soul, adjacent to the first. It quickly wound up sucked into the flaming geometric shape.
As the glow faded, Alyssa just waited. The demon always left right after.
Alyssa’s muscles tensed as she started looking around, wondering if there was some ambush coming. The demon hadn’t even done anything and she had Alyssa on edge. She closed her eyes, concentrating and checking for souls. There weren’t any around aside from present company. Alyssa didn’t see anything nearby and none of the ones further off were moving in their direction as far as she could tell.
Opening her eyes, Alyssa half expected the demon to be holding out another ember. Alyssa did have some of Tzheitza’s anti-demonic serum, so she could destroy one if necessary. But it would just be another thing on top of her already stressful plate.
The demon wasn’t offering an ember. Thankfully. Rather, she reached up to the side of her mask. It, like much of her outfit, was held together by buckles. At least two, but possibly more that Alyssa couldn’t see easily. Just like the first time Alyssa tried to talk to the demon, she scratched at the side of her mask before gesturing toward Alyssa.
Alyssa could only shake her head. “I’m not interested. Not at all. Hurry and leave so I can get on with my day.”
The demon’s sole visible eye narrowed. Her hands gripped the haft of her scythe.
Alyssa tensed, gripping her own scythe, only to frown as the demon slammed the tip down into the ground.
She pulled the scythe back toward her, dragging a burning line through the ground. The flame, a deep red color that Alyssa had never seen in an actual fire, didn’t spread to the surrounding underbrush. Much like the still glowing pattern underneath the demon’s feet, it stayed right where it was.
The scythe slammed into the ground again. With a second pull, it formed another line. Then a third between the two.
At first, Alyssa feared that the demon was drawing out a pentagram for some reason. But it wasn’t. It was a single letter.
The demon moved outside the pentagram that spawned her, digging her scythe into the ground as she moved. One line met another, which met another, and another still.
Izsha backed away. Alyssa hadn’t said anything. Neither had Kasita. And yet, as the demon moved around, carving letters into the ground, Izsha knew. Or the letters that were apparently appearing out of nowhere were scary enough to force a movement.
“A warning?” Alyssa said as the demon stepped back into the pentagram. “Let me guess. If I come any closer, you’ll try to kill me?”
The demon looked affronted that anyone would suggest such a thing. Pressing a hand to the black leather straps that covered her chest, she shook her head. After a moment, she pointed down at the smaller circle that the infected’s soul had been drawn into then toward Izsha and the riders. At that, she nodded.
“The infected are going to try to kill me? Great warning,” she said, hoping her sarcasm was apparent. “I wouldn’t have guessed. It’s not like they’ve ever attacked me before.”
Somehow, somehow, Alyssa could tell that the demon was frowning. The mask completely covered her mouth and even cheeks. But the one visible eye just gave her such a flat look that it couldn’t have been anything else. With a shrug of her shoulders as if to say that she had tried, the demon vanished in a burst of flames from the pentagram.
Once again, the forest returned to its state of utter silence. Izsha wasn’t moving, so she didn’t even have the breeze blowing past her ears. The ruby red flames of the message were still going, but they weren’t actually burning anything. It just ominously glowed in the dim light.
“Alright, Izsha. The demon is gone.”
“What was that all about?” Kasita said in a whisper as Izsha marched over to the pentagrams.
Alyssa pulled out a spell card. A Physical class spell designed to dig holes in dirt—though they didn’t work on harder stone. They were easy to draw and relatively low rank, but she only had made a handful of them the night they had stayed in the abandoned village. She hadn’t thought that she would need more than a dozen. “No idea,” she said as she carved a foot-deep trench into the ground where the pentagrams were. She had to use a second card to destroy the words. The fire thankfully went out the moment the line was disrupted. “But we should probably watch out up ahead. The infected haven’t been giving us trouble so far, but the demon has to know that. Perhaps they’re stronger up ahead. Or perhaps the warning was about something else entirely. I… really don’t know if I should have tried listening or not.”
“It wanted you to take off its mask again?”
“Probably a trap then. An attempt at tricking you into doing what it wanted. Just like last time.”
“That’s what I thought, but…” Alyssa shook her head. She was acting as best she knew how on as little information as she had. Tenebrael said that demons couldn’t be trusted. Period. Not because they wouldn’t tell the truth, but because they would only tell the parts of the truth that served their whims.
Which just made her all the more nervous about that warning. It meant that there probably was something to be worried about up ahead. Whether that came from demons, infected, the Astral Authority, or even angels was completely up in the air.
But it wasn’t like they could turn around and go home now.
“Let’s move. And let’s go a bit slower too. We don’t want to get ambushed or fall into a trap.”
Izsha made a grunt that Alyssa took as an agreement. In seconds, they were off. Their pace was still brisk, but not the straight gallop that it had been earlier.
The road was somewhere to their left, if Alyssa’s sense of direction wasn’t completely screwed up. From the abandoned village, they had been vaguely following it. However, there were more infected on and near the road than elsewhere. It wasn’t really necessary anymore either. As long as that sense of foreboding didn’t wane, they were headed in the proper direction.
Trusting Kasita and Izsha to be aware of their immediate surroundings, Alyssa went back to focusing. Astral Authority fake-angels, angels, and demons didn’t appear to her sense of souls. Luckily, Kasita could vaguely sense them, even if she hadn’t needed to so far, so Alyssa felt she could trust that task to her friend and focus on what was likely the real danger.
With the warning from the demon, avoiding all infected might be for the best.
It, unfortunately, took more time as well. Alyssa had to map out a safe path of travel to weave in and out of the shambling zombie-like infected that littered the forest. Some parts, Izsha could simply run around them, taking a wide looping path. But others, they had to drop to a crawl. In one case, they even had to stop for a full half hour as one particularly active infected staggered across their path.
Much of the time they had gained thanks to Izsha’s haste since leaving Illuna was lost. Probably not all of it, but Alyssa wished she knew just how far away Owlcroft would be. If it was only a few more hours off, she would have tried carrying on through the night. But if it was a day or more, they would need to rest at some point.
She wished that there was another abandoned village. For all she knew, there was one. But it wasn’t on the same road that led to Owlcroft. Leaving Lyria made her realize just how shoddy the map she had was. It was something she thought about bringing up with Jason. If a decent map was as bad as the one she had taken a picture of, constructing rail lines between towns and villages wouldn’t be easy.
No caves either. If they had to rest, it would be out in the open.
Alyssa didn’t want to try. She didn’t think she would be able to sleep. But even still, she started looking around for anywhere that might let them rest. Even for just a few hours.
“Izsha. Angle left until… there,” Alyssa said as Izsha followed her directions. “There is a single infected up ahead, but plenty more around for quite a distance. The demon was warning us against infected, probably, but we aren’t going to be able to avoid them all.”
“A single one is fine. We’ve dealt with up to three at a time before.”
“Be on your guard anyway. Both of you.”
Izsha decided to speed up with a definite destination in sight. Alyssa didn’t bother slowing it back down. There was nothing around that would take notice. Just the one infected.
And Izsha quickly came across it.
Alyssa had been likening the infected to zombies ever since she first came across one. But that wasn’t exactly accurate. In Earth media, zombies tended to shamble around, moaning and groaning. And while there were certainly similarities, it would probably be more accurate to call the infected feral humans rather than zombies. Their posture tended to be somewhat hunched. They lunged and attacked with clawed grips and sharp teeth. Some did stagger around, the weaker and starved ones, but some even held weapons.
This one, however, made Alyssa’s stomach churn. It wasn’t crouched down, readying for an attack. It stood straight with a posture that not even Alyssa had at the best of times. One hand was behind its back. The other held a knife. Its clothes weren’t the torn ragged mess that the others had. Rather, it was a slim suit of black leather. Not shiny and not made out of straps and belts as the true demon’s outfit was. It was more like Oz’s leather armor than that.
For a moment, Alyssa almost thought that it was a normal person.
The embers in its eyes on its ash-white face eliminated all doubt.
“Careful,” Alyssa said as Izsha charged. “This one isn’t like the others.”
As soon as she spoke, the infected smiled and rushed forward to meet their charge. Alyssa had her scythe at the ready as well as her deck of spell cards. Spectral Chains lashed out, but it jumped, springing clear to the opposite side of Izsha.
The blade in its hand lashed out.
A Shorten Distance carried Alyssa and Izsha a step out of the way.
“Subjugation,” Kasita uttered. A wave of light lashed out toward the demon. It tried to dodge, but the edge of the wave clipped its leg.
The demon went to the ground, kneeling. But it was clearly resisting, moving back to its feet. A second Spectral Chains kept it in place as Izsha reared around. This time, it did not get out of the way of her scythe.
The soul didn’t come loose right away. Much like the Taker’s soul, it felt like trying to remove a marble from a crimped pipe.
“Izsha, crash it into a tree again!”
It took a moment for the draken to find a suitable tree. Anything too narrow and the tree would just snap. Too many other trees around and they wouldn’t be able to rush at it at any good speed.
As Izsha was still picking a target, the infected started laughing. “Just like last time?” it said with a derisive chuckle. The sound of its words wasn’t something a human could mimic. They had a reverberation to the tone. “It won’t matter. I will kill you.”
Alyssa didn’t respond. She knew that infected could talk. Octavia had apparently tried multiple times to convince Irulon and the Pharaoh to release her, offering them promises of power or even just good behavior. Neither listened. And Alyssa wasn’t listening now.
She held out the scythe with both hands as Izsha started running.
The demon screamed, turning feral for just a moment.
“Projectile Reflection,” Kasita said, moving a hand in front of Alyssa’s face.
The demon’s knife hit her arm the second it was in the way. With a loud tang, it spiraled off somewhere behind them.
Alyssa sucked in a breath. She hadn’t even considered that the demon might still try to attack.
It slammed into the tree a moment later. Alyssa almost found herself pulled out of the saddle. But she held on tight with her legs. With only a moment of additional resistance, she, the scythe, and the tar-like ball of soul made it through the tree.
“It’s done,” she whispered, letting Izsha know that they could stop.
The true demon appeared once again. This time, she didn’t even glance in Alyssa’s direction. She just collected the soul and left without a single comment.
Which was more than fine with Alyssa.
They would have to get some rest.
And apparently be wary of more of the capable infected up ahead.