War And Peace
Last Ditch Attempt
“Does anything hurt? Does anything feel strange? Are you… alright?”
Izsha stood upright and it stood under its own power. There was a bit of a wobble, but considering that Izsha had just died, that might be expected.
However, Izsha didn’t respond. Not in any significant fashion. Alyssa didn’t expect the draken to turn around and start talking, but she did expect something. Anything. A nod. A shake of the head. A noise. But Izsha didn’t move. Alyssa had thought that standing upright was a sign of good things, but now…
Aside from Alyssa’s voice, there were plenty of other outside stimuli that Alyssa would have expected a reaction from. The Astral Authority was flying around en masse. Infected, both feral and of the weapon-wielding intelligent type that the Taker seemed to have become, were doing their best to take down any that strayed too close. The Patiences didn’t seem to have the intelligence—or perhaps patience—to sit back and let their longer-ranged allies handle things. As soon as one would pop out of a portal, it would immediately dive down toward the nearest infected. Which only seemed to work out for a quarter of them. They would immediately find themselves pounced upon and torn apart, often without even managing to spear their target. There were just too many infected.
More and more were pulling themselves up from the edges of the pit with every passing second.
Another portal opened near Alyssa. The golden edges of the Astral Authority’s preferred mode of transportation were bright enough that she could tell they were appearing even when out of her direct line of sight. Her hands were still inside Izsha, but she had found that she could pull one out long enough to draw a pistol without disrupting anything.
So she did.
Pistol in hand, Alyssa aimed over the top of Izsha toward the opening. Although nothing had come from it yet, the opening was roughly the size of a person. Larger would have meant a Diligence or even an Equanimity, but person-sized indicated a Patience or Kindness.
Sure enough, a silver spear emerged first. A porcelain mask attached to a silver filigree body stepped out. It took one look around before settling its blank visage on Alyssa.
“Tenebrael,” Alyssa said, finger already squeezing down on the trigger.
But she didn’t get a chance to finish.
An arrow slammed into the Patience’s face, splitting the mask clean in two. The silver around the protruding arrow began tarnishing, turning a foggy yellow-brown color. The spear fell to the ground, sliding down a small slope on the riverbank until it landed in the water with a light plop.
Alyssa pivoted as the portal closed, swinging her pistol around to aim at the attacker.
It was a demon. Or an infected. She honestly wasn’t sure if there was a difference between the two. It was a man, just a bit taller than the Taker, with burning embers for eyes. He had another arrow out, nocked, and the string drawn back to his shoulder.
There was a brief moment where Alyssa met his eyes. Her finger remained still tight around the trigger.
But he aimed upward, piercing the wings of a Diligence. As it spiraled into the river, he turned again, nocking another arrow as he found a new target.
Letting out a small sigh, Alyssa reholstered her pistol as she focused back on her current problem.
Izsha hadn’t reacted in the slightest to any of the goings on around them. Not even an errant twitch of its head. If a demon, feral or otherwise, started attacking, Alyssa had a sinking feeling that even then, Izsha wouldn’t do anything.
“One of those demons took a swipe at me,” a familiar voice complained over Alyssa’s shoulder. “How uncouth. Have they no manners? I can’t even believe what Tenebrael is… What are you doing?”
“Iosefael,” Alyssa said slowly as she looked back. Had it only been ten minutes? It felt longer. A lot longer. Iosefael should have been back a long time ago. And yet, at the same time, it felt like it was all too soon. Alyssa had thought that she had been making progress. Between the soul reacting and interacting, Izsha looking right at her, and the body standing upright, everything seemed like it should have worked. She had to be close. Just a bit more… massaging.
What if all she was doing was hurting Izsha? It had to be possible. It just had to. If Irulon had swapped positions with Alyssa, she surely would have figured it out. But every moment that passed without Izsha recovering just gnawed at her once ironclad confidence. Even with all the help from Tenebrael and with Iosefael agreeing to wait before death’s coach could ferry the soul away, she had failed. Had it been doomed from the start?
“I… I don’t know what I’m doing,” Alyssa admitted, feeling the last vestiges of her determination crumble.
A warm hand rested on Alyssa’s shoulder, though it was quite cool in comparison to Izsha’s soul. It was probably supposed to comfort her, but it had the opposite effect. “I’m sorry. I tried to tell you…”
“Why? Why isn’t it working? What am I doing wrong? I thought I understood what Tenebrael wanted me to do, but…”
“Tenebrael wouldn’t know what to do. I doubt any angel could tell you.”
Alyssa’s eyes strayed away from Iosefael’s face, looking past the angel’s golden-white wings to where the Justice and the true demon were still battling each other. Even though she had been using Tenebrael’s magic for who knew how long, the Justice hadn’t tried attacking her. Its face was lined with cuts and scars from the true demon’s scythe. It didn’t bleed, but the marks were there. One corner of its angled jawline had been cut clean off, revealing nothing in the way of flesh or muscles. It was just more of whatever made up its pure white skin.
It had only been a few minutes since the demon had spoken to Alyssa. An ally of life, she had said. Would she know what was wrong? Could she give even a small hint toward what Alyssa was doing wrong? Even though she had gone to the demon when Tenebrael had been missing, Alyssa hadn’t made any kind of deal. It had been a mistake, introducing those embers to the world, but she had gone in already knowing that she wasn’t going to give up anything for information. Tenebrael just wasn’t important enough.
Izsha, on the other hand…
“They couldn’t help you either,” Iosefael said quickly, not even needing to follow Alyssa’s gaze. “That one would tell you that she could help, but would end up corrupting and perverting your friend into one of her minions. The relic might continue existing in a way that you could interact with, but nobody would be happy with the situation except for that one. And that’s the best case scenario.”
Alyssa grit her teeth. She didn’t want to believe that. But at the same time, she knew that Iosefael was telling the truth. Even had she not known that angels were not supposed to lie, there was evidence for her claim. Seeing the Taker again, watching how he showed up in defense of the true demon and then went on to call her his lady… Izsha would wind up the same.
A slave to the demons, used in a war against the Astral Authority like all the rest.
If it was even possible in the first place. As far as Alyssa knew, there were no cases of monsters becoming infected. That didn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t contract the plague. If the true demon was going to make an exception for anyone, it would be for Izsha at Alyssa’s behest, if only because she wanted to get her hooks into another human.
But Alyssa couldn’t do that to Izsha.
There had to be another way.
She needed more information. Irulon. Even Tenebrael would likely try to help if Alyssa asked her while she was around. Even if she just had a little more practice or time, Alyssa could probably figure it out herself. She thought that she was so close with the way Izsha’s body was up, but…
But there was no more time. Iosefael was here to take Izsha’s soul now. Even though Izsha counted as a relic in their eyes, the angels weren’t going to just let the soul go.
Clenching her teeth together, Alyssa sunk both hands back into the mystic circles.
“Alyssa, it’s too—”
“I said I would let you remove Izsha’s soul. I wasn’t lying about that. But I’m going to remove the soul myself.”
Iosefael fell silent. She didn’t float forward or make any other movement to stop Alyssa.
Alyssa took that as a go ahead.
A scythe would remove it instantly. But, given that it was a weapon developed by humans, Alyssa wasn’t sure if it would hurt Izsha or not. It was probably designed around the same principles as their wings, but Alyssa couldn’t be sure. Regardless, gently pulling it out with her hands seemed far more caring than swiping a blade through Izsha’s body.
Like with the scythe on non-infected, the soul came out without any force required. It didn’t even take a light tug. The moment it passed beyond Izsha’s scales, the body wobbled. But it didn’t fall over. There wasn’t any part of the soul left inside. Alyssa even closed her eyes and checked. All of Izsha was a wispy mist in Alyssa’s arms.
“Since I healed the body,” Iosefael said when Alyssa looked to her, “it is in a strange state of being. It is technically alive, but there is no will behind anything it does. The body will stay here until it starves to death. But, without a soul, it won’t actually be dying? What a complicated situation you’ve created here. But I think I can probably kill it. First, the soul.” Iosefael held out a hand, looking morose. “No offense intended, but I’ve seen those abominations that you’ve made of souls. It would be best for someone more experienced to compress it for transportation to the Throne.”
Looking from Iosefael down to the mist in her arms, Alyssa stared.
The Throne. Some place off in the aether. Supposedly, all souls ended up there. Or most of them. Those Tenebrael consumed didn’t. Neither did those that were corrupted. Infected by demons or… whatever Irulon’s Toymaker spell did to them. No angel or demon had shown up for those.
Alyssa had never been all that religious. She had grown up with her mother, of course. Their household had been somewhat religious, but she herself hadn’t. Now, she might even be less religious than ever. Angels existed, sure. So did demons and souls. But anything beyond that? It was all up for grabs. The concept of Heaven chief among them. The Throne didn’t sound like any Heaven that she had heard of. And angels weren’t like they were in anything she had read before. They were more like computer programs, given tasks to follow that they couldn’t deviate from. And if they did deviate from them, it was more likely to be a bug than anything else.
Could she really just hand over Izsha to such an unknown fate? The soul wasn’t in the body anymore. From what she knew, it shouldn’t be in pain anymore from being inside a decaying corpse. But Iosefael wasn’t likely to see it that way. Iosefael, as a Principality, had a duty to collect the souls of the deceased. She wouldn’t just let a soul remain free floating.
There had to be something.
And there was.
The idea popped into her head.
Something must have shown on her face.
Iosefael’s eyes widened as she looked at Alyssa. Her wings spread wide. “Wait! Don’t—”
Too late. Alyssa ignored the angel, pulling her arms to her chest. The mist-like soul flooded into her body.
Irulon had once talked about the ritual that had saved the dragon that now resided in her body. It hadn’t been a quick thing. From inception to execution, the ritual had taken well over six months to complete. Most of which had been research and development, not even actual magic. The ritual had been completely specific to both Irulon and the dragon, the time of year and their respective ages, the health of both, and even the weather around where the ritual had been conducted. Should Irulon want to perform the same ritual again on a different target, almost everything of the original ritual would have to be tossed in the trash.
It had been a long and involved project. The only reason it had worked in the first place was thanks to the dragon’s longevity even while dying of some illness. Had Brakkt wanted her to save any other creature, it probably wouldn’t have worked simply because of the time investment.
Perhaps now, with the dragon helping her to think and calculate things much faster, Irulon could have used a similar ritual on some other being in a fraction of the time. Hopefully. But even that was probably a stretch.
Regardless, Irulon hadn’t gone ahead with the ritual until she had been absolutely positive that it was going to work.
Alyssa had no idea what she was doing.
The moment Izsha’s soul was inside her body, she felt it. The warmth that she had experienced while handling Izsha’s soul using the miracle spread across her entire body, filling up every last nook and cranny. Even after filling her body to the brim, it didn’t stop there. With nowhere else to spread to, the temperature started going up. Alyssa started to feel like she was back on the plains of the dead.
She stumbled back, feeling the sweat bead over every inch of her skin.
“Okay. Don’t panic,” Iosefael said, mouth moving at a hundred miles an hour. “We can still fix this!”
“I’m not panicking,” Alyssa bit out.
“You’re not? Okay. That’s good. I’m not either.” She fidgeted, jumping from one side of Alyssa to the other, looking her up and down. “Okay. Okay. So, this is fixable. I’m sure it is. I just need a minute to think.”
“Go away,” Alyssa said, slowly standing upright. Her fingers felt like she was holding them right next to a campfire, but… it wasn’t too bad. At least they weren’t in the metaphorical campfire. “Go find some other souls to ferry off. Izsha is staying with me.”
“Alyssa. We talked about this with your friend… You can’t… It’s just not… Your body—”
“It’s a temporary measure,” she said, voice getting a little steadier. The heat was dying down now. Slowly, but definitely. “Just until I can talk to Irulon. And maybe Tenebrael.”
“I know you want the soul. I know you can’t help me. It’s your programming as a Principality, I don’t blame you for it. But just go.” Alyssa took in a deep breath. “I’ll deal with this myself.”
“You don’t even know what this is.”
“I’ll be fine. And if I’m not, then at least I’ll have tried.” Alyssa closed her eyes and concentrated. She still had to find Kasita. And then they had to escape before the Astral Authority finished off the demons. Or vice versa. Tenebrael seemed to think that their fight would continue for some time. Long enough for her to do whatever she needed to do.
Alyssa didn’t want to take the chance that she was wrong.
So she scanned, looking among the myriad of souls, searching for just one that wasn’t tainted by the demonic corruption.
“Your other relic is over this way.”
Blinking her eyes open, Alyssa found Iosefael still standing in front of her. Except, instead of looking panicked, she now simply looked resigned as she pointed a finger away from the pit. Turning in the direction Iosefael was pointing, Alyssa closed her eyes again and finally noticed what had to be Kasita.
She must have been flung even further away than Izsha.
“Thank you,” Alyssa said after eying Iosefael. The angel didn’t look like she was about to try something, so she just shook her head.
Which ended up with her staring at the flopped-over body of Izsha. It was still alive. Still breathing. But…
Another Lighten Load and a Levitate had it moving along with Alyssa as she trudged up the riverbank’s slope. Iosefael followed along, gently flapping her wings every so often to keep her feet off the ground. Alyssa wasn’t sure why Iosefael was following her…
Actually, she knew why. She knew exactly why. She just didn’t care. Her head hurt. Her legs hurt. Her side hurt. The Astral Authority and the demons were still in the area, still posing a danger, even if they were preoccupied with each other.
“Adrael’s staff is missing,” Alyssa said. The thought came to her suddenly, and she decided to use it to maybe get rid of Iosefael. At least for a time. Surely she wouldn’t keep following her around forever. There were bound to be other deaths across the world sooner rather than later. “I have no idea where it might be, but it was attached to Izsha when that Justice’s sword hit the ground.”
Another sudden worry sparked in Alyssa’s mind. She quickly tossed a glance over her shoulder at the largest member of the Astral Authority that she had seen so far.
Ropes were tied all up and down its arm. The other ends of the ropes were in the hands of dozens of infected. A real Gulliver situation. Unless it got loose, it seemed like that sword would stay unused for the time being.
“Adrael’s staff?” At first, Iosefael seemed confused. Then she made a squeaking noise, one that forced Alyssa to turn back to find growing horror on her face. “Oh no. We can’t let that fall into the hands of the demons.”
Without another word, she disappeared, taking to the skies.
Which suited Alyssa just fine. She trudged forward, putting one foot in front of the other like it was all she could focus on.
Kasita was up ahead. Alyssa could see her now—she was in her human form. A shout got her attention.
“Alyssa! I’m so… Izsha?” Her eyes widened as she looked over the floating form of the draken. “Is… Is it?”
“I’ll explain later,” Alyssa said, not stopping even as Kasita ran up to her. “Let’s just get away from here for now.”