War And Peace
There was a certain peace to sleeping on top of Kasita and Izsha. Alyssa couldn’t move far from either of them without the protection of the staff failing. It made some… tasks more difficult than they needed to be, but she wouldn’t be here long. She could bear with it. It wasn’t a restful kind of sleep, but she got enough to do what needed to be done.
Still, it was quite the change. When she first met Izsha, she had nearly fallen over herself in an attempt to get away. Those sharp teeth were terrifying. But now, she didn’t fear anything from this particular draken. She still wouldn’t want to be left alone in a room with Musca or some of the others, but Izsha was perfectly fine.
Kasita, Alyssa had never feared. Not physically. Tzheitza and Oz complained about her and suggested that she might try to poison them, but Alyssa had never really believed that she would. Now, even with Kasita having a number of potentially deadly spells in her possession, that hadn’t changed.
Alyssa trusted them.
As they raced through the forest with at least ten infected chasing after them, Alyssa could only hope that they trusted her as well.
Or rather, at this point, they didn’t have much choice.
“Get ready,” Alyssa shouted. They weren’t far now. She could see it. The mass of souls that had to be a part of the pit was practically underneath their feet. And she did not want Izsha falling down inside, with or without her. “Be careful. I think we’re close.”
“Another two are after us,” Kasita said. Her voice was calm, but tense and clearly worried.
“And one more up ahead.” Alyssa gripped Izsha’s neck, holding tight. “Take a sharp right, Izsha.”
Even with her holding on, she almost fell out of the saddle. And they weren’t done yet. “Back to where we were headed.”
Izsha let out a low, rumbling growl as they turned back. The turn let one of the closer infected catch up, almost close enough to grab hold of Izsha’s tail. The stupid fake-demons were fast. Far faster than any human-shaped creature had a right to be. Thankfully, a quick Shorten Distance got them out of reach.
For the moment.
The trees here, once large and proud, were withered to the point of being husks. They were the kind of trees that one would find around the home of the Addams Family. No leaves. Ruined bark. Shriveled branches. They were completely dead. And the sun… even though there wasn’t a cloud in sight, the sun did not try very hard to illuminate the dead forest. Everything had a greyish tone to it. Like someone had taken a picture and slid the saturation bar most of the way down. That probably had something to do with the sorry state of the plant life.
The thin trees made it easy to see ahead, however, so Alyssa wasn’t complaining. She doubted Izsha was either.
The treeline broke after a while. There were many smaller trees, maybe ones as tall as Alyssa while riding Izsha. But they weren’t thick. They were the same skeletal trees that had occupied the forest for almost the entirety of the day’s journey.
A river wasn’t far away. But… it didn’t look like the kind of river that Alyssa cared to drink from. It was perfectly clear. So clear that it might have been glass, if not for a bit of whiter water around the edges of the banks. Someone else might have thought that it was the perfect drinking water, but she distinctly remembered her brother mentioning something about clear water. Clear water meant that nothing was living in the water. If there was water and yet nothing living in it, that meant that there were likely toxins in the water. Something that was killing anything that tried.
Which was unfortunate. Food, she and Izsha could go without for a while. But their supply of water was practically gone.
Irulon and Brakkt were on their way, just the two of them without Trik or Fela or any of the guild, but they were at least a full day back if not more. Their last Message had mentioned their hesitance to continue forward with the aura of oppression around them. Returning still wouldn’t be a problem. Not so long as they reached their destination soon and got away quickly.
It wasn’t like they could stop for water anyway. Not while being chased.
Alyssa fingered the Annihilator spell again as Izsha jumped clean over the narrowest point in the river.
The second Izsha’s talons found the opposite bank, Alyssa felt it. A deep and uncomfortable cold that dug into her spine. Kasita breathed like she had been punched in the stomach, never mind that something like that wouldn’t hurt her. And Izsha… Izsha stumbled. Never once since meeting the draken had Izsha made a single misstep.
She was so stunned by the sudden feeling that she didn’t even notice what they were standing in front of right away.
There were buildings. Kind of. Calling them buildings was a drastic overstatement. She hadn’t noticed them from the opposite side of the river, thinking them to be more trees and nothing else. If the first village they had run into had been a ghost town, this was an ancient ruin left to crumble in the elements.
There were clearly man-made objects jutting up in the distance. The frame of a wall. A post that might have been part of a fence. A mound of cobble. Nothing whole. Not even one complete structure. Not even one complete wall. There was nothing but dry, lifeless dirt, the skeleton of a town, and hundreds of pentagrams.
A signpost with carved lettering, hanging from a broken chain, spelled out the name of the town.
Beyond the furthest wall, there was nothing.
Not nothing as in no more village. Nothing as in nothing at all. What had likely once been a road through the center of the ten or so houses simply ended. A smooth line beyond which lay nothing. That nothingness continued as far as Alyssa could see. It swept wide to either side of the remains of the village.
When she had first heard of it, she had expected a canyon or a crater. This was just a black hole with perfectly smooth edges. Judging by the souls beneath them, it went on for quite a ways as well, but, surprisingly, not as deep as she would have expected had she seen the hole in the ground before knowing that there were demons and infected at the bottom of it. A hole like this, she would have expected it to reach down to the center of the planet. Or to be in another reality entirely.
“Izsha! Move!” Kasita shouted.
Alyssa nearly fell backward off the saddle as Izsha reacted without a moment of hesitation.
While they gaped, the infected had been swimming. Throwing a look over her shoulder, Alyssa noted several downstream, but plenty had managed to get more or less straight across. One was just outside grasping distance. A Fireball from Kasita made it stumble just enough to buy them a few more feet of a lead. A Shorten Distance got them another dozen feet ahead.
Though there wasn’t much room. The village was quickly coming to an end.
And the slimy souls of the infected in the pit were somehow starting up toward the surface.
“I’m on it.” This was it. They weren’t going to get any closer. “Tenebrael! We’re here! These demons have plagued the land for long enough. The Astral Authority has plagued you for long enough. The enemies of our enemies are not our friends, but we can use and abuse them anyway. All we need is a show of force. A powerful sign to draw them together. That is your will. Carry it out through me. Let us start a war between our enemies! A war that… will hopefully not destroy the rest of the world.”
“You don’t sound very certain,” Kasita called out. “Subjugation!”
“It’s working, isn’t it?”
Alyssa’s fingernails were black. Mystic circles were forming in the air around her.
“Is it? It’s not doing much!”
The Enochian around the geometric lines and shapes was still moving, flowing around, but… Kasita was right. Other than that, the mystic circles that had formed were not moving. They weren’t growing or spreading to the sky like they had over Lyria. Something was wrong. Had she not said enough? Was she not close enough?
It should still work. The Astral Authority had detected even minor usages of Tenebrael’s power. They would be here. They would call for reinforcements. Even without the great visage of Tenebrael looking down over the pit, the plan would work.
In fact, they were already here. The square edges of a portal opened up in their path.
Izsha took a sharp turn just as Alyssa burned another Shorten Distance.
Alyssa could feel her mistake in leaning to the wrong direction before she even left the saddle. As if she were in slow motion, she watched the ground rush up to meet her. With it came a crushing sensation of despair. Like the ground itself was a hundred bedehouses. No longer touching the staff, the chills hit her before she hit the ground.
But she still hit the ground as well. Momentum made her roll along the hard Earth for a good ten feet until she came to a stop at the edges of the golden portal.
An obsidian-black scythe carved through the borders, slamming into the ground inches from her face. The warped space of the portal dissipated without even admitting a fake angel.
Arm pulsing with pain from where she landed, Alyssa followed the haft of the scythe up to the black leather gloves of the demon. The true demon.
“T-Tenebrael,” Alyssa stuttered, not because of fear, but from that feeling of hopelessness. “Wrap me in your warm embrace.”
The mystic circles forming around her drew in close, hugging right up against her skin. It didn’t fully dampen the sensation of despair. It wasn’t as good as Adrael’s staff. But it was something.
Enough to give her a modicum of motivation back.
Alyssa wasted no time in getting back to her feet. If she hadn’t had the dragon armor on, she would probably have wound up much worse off. As it was, she could feel pain all up her thigh and back. Ignorable pain, thankfully. At least while faced with a true demon and all the infected.
Two Spectral Chains kept the closest feral infected from lunging at her. More were coming up from the path leading to the river. And on the opposite side, infected were climbing up around the rim of that darkness of the pit. Some were still chasing Izsha and Kasita, both of whom looked like they were trying to get back to Alyssa, but couldn’t just turn around with the infected on their tail.
They were out of the way enough to take care of one problem.
A white-hot beam of total annihilation forced Alyssa to close her eyes. Only for a moment. A much shorter amount of time than when she had used it on the Taker or even at the Society of the Burning Shadow’s outpost.
A gouge in the ground, shallower than at the outpost, still went a good hundred yards beyond the river. Water was flowing down from both sides of the river. Billowing clouds of steam covered the land and more plumes were still rising from the hot molten rock and earth that lined the gouge. None of the infected were left on that side of the town.
The true demon shot her a glare. Not a harsh one. More like the look Alyssa might give if a coworker spilled something in the break room back at her old job. It was just more menial work to do.
Alyssa didn’t care. In fact, it was better if the true demon left.
Which the demon did. Instead of teleporting using one of the many pentagrams that littered the unscarred town, she lifted her scythe, rested it on her shoulder, and hopped down into the gouge that was slowly filling with water.
While there were mystic circles wrapping around her body, she wasn’t sure why they had failed to attract more of the Astral Authority. But she was starting to suspect that it was the fault of the true demon. If at first you don’t succeed, Mister Kidd… Try, try again, Mister Wint. Hopefully with the demon distracted for at least a few seconds, she would be able to do something.
“Oh Tenebrael, Dominion of Nod. A show of force has become necessary. Demons seek to tarnish your name. The Astral Authority remains at bay.” Her fingernails had remained black, even after falling from Izsha’s back. Larger circles were assembling around her with every word she spoke. “Woeful be any who attempt to stop your will. Though many of your designs are dissembled, I know my purpose here. Grant me the power to—”
Alyssa stumbled back, barely dodging the blade of the scythe as it split the mystic circles in two. The demon was back in front of her, just staring.
“Do you mind?” Alyssa asked through grit teeth, pulling out a dozen more Annihilator cards. She wouldn’t have time to shout out another speech. The infected from the pit were coming.
Three Annihilator beams fired off in a cone in front of Alyssa, hopefully decimating most of the oncoming horde. With these ones aimed at the pit, Alyssa held them longer than she had the first one. The true demon had been caught in the blast. Alyssa could only hope that it would mildly inconvenience her.
“Dominion Tenebrael,” Alyssa shouted before the spots cleared from her eyes. “You stupid angel. Do something! Anything!”
Alyssa snapped her head to the side. The demon was apparently not inconvenienced at all. She stood upright on the narrow bridge of land between the two parts of Owlcroft that had not been annihilated. There was a bit of smoking steam rising from her shoulders, but her outfit hardly looked blemished. With a canyon of glassed earth on either side of her, Alyssa had to admit to being disappointed. Though perhaps that was the wrong reaction. That the true demon was smoking at all was a good sign that something worked.
Unfortunately, Alyssa didn’t think that she had enough Annihilators in her deck to cause any real damage if a little smoke was all three had done.
And she didn’t have enough room to cast them. Not enough cardinal directions. Izsha and Kasita were still off in the distance. Over the true demon’s shoulder, Alyssa watched as Izsha’s tail snapped out, sending one of the infected flying into the pit.
As for the pit itself… Her latest Annihilators hadn’t harmed it at all. The edge was lower, following the new curvature of the land around it, but the opposite side—however far it was, a difficult thing to tell when it was a perfectly uniform black—didn’t seem to have been marred in the slightest.
Movement from the demon snapped Alyssa back to her current problem. At first, she tensed, ready to jump back or even attack. But the demon wasn’t acting hostile despite having been blasted with an Annihilator beam.
Instead, she reached up to her mask and undid those buckles near her ear. The mask covering the lower half of her face hung limp from the opposite side.
Alyssa wasn’t quite sure what she had expected to be under the mask. Aside from the glowing part, the eye was relatively normal, as was the skin around it. Somehow, she still expected to find a forked tongue, sharp teeth, or maybe a gaping maw not unlike the pit itself. Instead, there was just a normal mouth beneath. One with black-painted lips, which Alyssa had to wonder about in comparison to Tenebrael, but nothing so unusual as to be notable. In fact, there was really only one notable thing about the whole situation.
“So you can take that mask off yourself.”
“Indeed. I have a lot more… control around here,” she said, dropping the l-sound at the end of control. Alyssa wasn’t quite sure what accent that was—maybe something from England—but hadn’t heard anything like it around Nod.
“Uh huh. So you couldn’t have taken it off back at the bedehouse?”
Alyssa pressed her lips together for a moment, glaring. “Is this the part where you try to convince me to leave without calling down the Astral Authority?”
The true demon sighed. “Tenebrael is short-sighted as always. She won’t be able to use us to distract the Astral Authority for long. It’s swings and roundabouts, really.”
“Oh yes. Of course. How convincing. I’ll just pack up and head back home then.”
“You don’t have to believe me.”
“Didn’t need you to tell me that,” Alyssa said through grit teeth. Her eyes flicked around for any of the approaching feral infected. The Annihilators seemed to have killed every infected that had been headed in her direction. At least those who had made it up to the surface. There were still more down in the pit climbing up. The true demon was probably intending to stall until they arrived and could further try to stop Alyssa.
It was a war of attrition. She only had so many Annihilator spells. As long as the demon didn’t send all of them up at once, Alyssa would lose. There was no other way around it. The Annihilators would keep her safe from a few waves, but there were more. So many more than just a few waves’ worth of infected.
She didn’t know how long that would take, but she didn’t want to find out.
“You’re the one stopping the Astral Authority from finding you? And keeping Tenebrael’s magic from working?” The scythe through both the portal and the mystic circles was a pretty big giveaway, but Alyssa just thought she would ask.
“Astute,” she said.
Alyssa rolled her eyes.
“I thought I would buy us a moment to chat before you made a mistake.”
“Oh chat. Yes. Lovely. Maybe you should have chatted at any of our other encounters. Now isn’t really the best time,” Alyssa said, flicking her eyes toward the pit. A few infected were climbing up using their bare hands. Which did not go over so well for them. The earth was still red hot. Alyssa wasn’t sure if they felt pain—the Taker had been wandering around nearly headless for a good while without complaint—but their skin sizzled and burned. In some cases, it even fused with the molten rock. One infected toppled backward, falling right back into the pit it had just climbed out from.
Spectral Chains launched from Alyssa’s fingertips. The demon made no move to dodge or counter the spell. The ethereal chains wrapped around her, pulling her arms tight to her sides. She looked down at herself with a detached curiosity.
“Is this really necessary?”
“If you keep interfering. Tenebrael! Dominion of Nod. Hear my request for these woeful demons…”
“Wouldn’t you rather join us? Tenebrael is a bumbling fool who cannot offer what you desire.”
“What? A bit of extra strength and a lot of excess drooling? I could drool on myself just fine right now if I wanted,” Alyssa said with a shake of her head. “Grant that I may bring forth your glory to this forsaken land…”
“Not enticing. I have enough and I’ve seen the slime you call power in the infected. To all my efforts as I exercise the authority that has been granted to me…”
“A way home?”
The next words were hesitant to come forth. The growing mystic circles in the air around them even froze momentarily. A way home… She could see her father and brother again. Reunite her mother and father. But as soon as the thought entered her mind, Alyssa shook her head. It was probably true that the demon could send her home. Tenebrael had said as much. They wouldn’t lie, but the truths they told would benefit themselves first, everyone else never.
“A joy. A rapture unforeseen. For now the sky is all serene…”
“You should at least promise something real,” Alyssa said, suddenly wondering if Tenebrael had been correct in her assessment of demons and the truth. “I’ve killed dozens of your infected. We require strife and conflict to draw our enemies nearby.”
“Is that really what you think you’ve done? True, their mortal bodies were destroyed. The important parts were saved. Rescued from utter damnation within Tenebrael’s gullet or the harsh mechanisms of the Throne.”
“I’m sure those corrupted balls of tar are happy being tortured for eternity. Tenebrael! Hang your ensign high above! Set the sky all ablaze!”
The bubble of mystic circles and Enochian text exploded outward as soon as Alyssa finished speaking. Several more infected tumbled back into the pit as a wave rushed along the ground. A blaze of Tenebrael’s black-white magic lit up the sky. It wasn’t quite the same as the mystic circle that had appeared over Lyria, but the sky filled with miraculous clockwork.
Alyssa felt it immediately. A warmth. The gnawing horror that came from being so close to the pit vanished. Tenebrael’s glory flooded through her.
With a triumphant grin, Alyssa dropped her gaze from the sky back to the demon in front of her.
Only for her grin to falter.
The true demon was smiling as well. A calm, serene smile.
“It is only torture if you find life itself to be torture,” the demon said as if there weren’t portals appearing in the sky all around them. She seemed utterly unconcerned with the Astral Authority showing up on her doorstep. “But you’ve been fighting against those who would harm others ever since arriving in this world. You’ve merely been misled by this world’s Dominion into thinking that she is the righteous one. You haven’t forgotten how you met her, have you? She eats souls, collects human sacrifice, toys with and belittles you.”
A Patience dived down, aiming its spear directly for the still-bound true demon.
Alyssa didn’t have a moment to think let alone react.
But she didn’t need to.
Black needle-like daggers pierced straight through the back of the Patience’s head and shattered porcelain mask as they emerged. A blur crashed into it from above, slamming it into the molten glass of the gouge. The humanoid form blurred again before landing next to the true demon.
“Hello again,” the nasally voice of the Taker said, eyes burning embers but otherwise looking perfectly normal. A slash of his hand severed the ethereal chains that bound the true demon.
“We really have the same goal,” the demon continued as if nothing had happened, ignoring the ghostly links as they fell away from her body. “The souls I collect are replaced into better bodies. Stronger bodies. Ones that need not suffer through the mundanity of life, yet can still participate in all the pleasures and experiences that life offers. Don’t you want to save life, Alyssa?”