Vacant Throne — 015.001

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Interlude

Oxart


Hands clasped behind her back, Oxart gazed out the large window in her office.

The window looked to the north, over the fields and to the desert beyond. Wheat glistened a golden brown in the dying light of the day. Corn stalks were high. Harvest would be soon. Over the next few weeks, the farmhands would reap the tall fields. A few weeks after that and there would be nothing left at all but scraps of straw. Rats and vermin would move in, taking their own bounty from the land. Soon after, priests would head out, blessing the land, asking Tenebrael for an even larger harvest the next year. Arcanists would follow close behind, erecting magic to keep pests away from the soon-to-be planted crops. Once the land was consecrated and prepared, the farmers would return to sow their seeds.

And the cycle would begin again.

Partially. A third of what Oxart could see would produce no usable crops this year. The wheat had been torched, trampled, and destroyed. Fields surrounded the city of Lyria, but this was still a sizable portion. The city, Oxart knew, kept some stores under stasis. Would it be enough? Doubtful. She had already heard whispers from her elder brother that the noble families were going to be required to give up a portion of their crops to Lyria. Her own family’s land might even be tapped, though she had hardly seen them since joining the city guard. She had never found much point to meeting with her family.

Most of her peers in the city guard were the same. For children of nobles who were far enough down the line, there were several common avenues one might take. Oxart chose the path of the knight, a defender of the city of Lyria. It was one of the most common professions for younger noble children. Commoners made up the majority of the city guard, of course. But anyone of any import was likely a noble of some sort. Far more dedicated individuals might renounce their nobility entirely and join the palace’s elite guard. Oxart hadn’t been willing to go quite so far. She only had the one older brother. If some tragedy befell him, she would be required to take his place as heir to the House Xelitu.

Turning away from the sight of the fields as the sun hid itself behind the rings in the sky, Oxart scowled at her desk. Papers were piling up again. When she had first considered the path of the knight, she had imagined a bit more glamor to it. Fighting! Action! Heroism! Parades! Honor! As it was, she worked through more paperwork in a single night than a proper scrivener did in a week. Which, perhaps, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Scribes were in high demand and were another common profession for nobles low on the totem pole of succession. While there were occasional commoners in knightly positions, scribes were almost solely nobles. Mostly due to the simple fact that commoners were not typically very well learned. An illiterate scribe had little worth.

Still, Oxart thought as she sank into her chair and picked up her pen, better a night of paperwork than one of action. It had taken time to learn, but Oxart found she rather liked the doldrums and monotony. Playing the part of a scrivener meant that her men weren’t fighting. Weren’t dying. Nights like tonight, where there was nothing going on, no glory to be had, meant that everyone got to relax without fear or pain or death.

Oxart was not her men, however. She still had to concern herself with such things. Three of her men had perished today. All had been injured by the goblin weapons on the night the fields burned. Two were commoners. The third had been a noble. In their death, Oxart could hardly see a difference. All three had sacrificed their lives defending the city. None were less noble than any other in her eyes.

But her eyes didn’t matter so much in the grand scheme of things. The sad fact was that the two commoners would be handed over to Tenebrael’s priests where their bodies would be dumped into some hole in the ground while the noble needed to be returned to his family. House Knole. A minor noble House, but one nonetheless. His body would likely be interred within the family mausoleum, honored in some way.

Staring at the missive to House Knole that she had started earlier, Oxart wasn’t certain where she should go from here. This wasn’t the first such missive she had written. In the past week alone, a half-dozen had needed penning. But this one… it was more difficult for some reason. Krime of House Knole hadn’t died in combat. Those were the easiest missives to write. It was easy for a family to see the honor in a death in service of others. But he had died sick and in pain, trapped within a bed for nearly a week as poisons wracked his body. Though he fought just as hard as many others, his death would be seen as a sign of weakness.

Even that hadn’t stalled her hand.

It was the girl. Alyssa, she had named herself. A girl who claimed that she could have saved Krime’s life. A girl who had claimed that Krime’s menders had been worthy of treason from their care of the sick and injured. Under other circumstances, Oxart might have dismissed her claims, assuming her to be someone distraught at seeing death in front of her. But something about her demeanor made Oxart reconsider. Alyssa had been confident and spoke with clarity. The way she looked at the body, she was no stranger to death.

The short encounter with Alyssa played over and over again in Oxart’s mind. Could she have done something to save her men? Technically, yes. There were potions out there capable of healing most any wound. Spells as well, though spells were notoriously unreliable. Despite what Alyssa had claimed of the menders’ skill, Oxart trusted them to have tried proper healing spells. But potions… they were far too expensive. The city could not afford curing everyone. Not even a few. For that matter, neither could Oxart. She had sent a missive stating Krime’s delicate health the day after the attack, but she had received no response. In the five years she had been a captain of the city guard, only once had a noble family delivered a potion to an injured guardsman.

Krime, whatever burial he received, had been tossed away just as surely as the two commoners.

Perhaps that was a callous way of thinking. House Knole’s lack of response could have as many reasons as there were stars. Perhaps they had wanted to help, but lacked the funds. Or lacked the time to accrue materials. Or the missive had never reached them. Or maybe a vial of healing potion would arrive in the morning, just a day too late.

Regardless of whether they cared, the city certainly did not. Turning slightly to the other half of her desk, Oxart picked up a piece of parchment. Names. New recruits. Fourteen of her men had died in the battle. Another twenty had passed away in the care of the menders. Eighteen were still with the menders. And this list of new recruits was enough to replace every single one of them. Mostly commoners. Only seven were nobles.

Oxart could not honestly say that she was any better. She couldn’t remember every soldier who had perished under her command. She tried. But she didn’t succeed. Of the thirty-four who had died so far, she would be hard pressed to name every single one of them and they had only died in this past week. A month from now and she might not remember Krime at all. Not out of maliciousness, but simply because new events would steal the focus of her mind and memory.

In a year, it was doubtful that any but Krime’s family and close friends would remember him. In ten years? Probably less than that. A hundred years? Krime might as well have not existed. Oxart could only hope that he found peace and joy in Tenebrael’s embrace.

Shaking the morbid thoughts from her mind, Oxart turned her attentions to another matter that had been bothering her for a while. From its place chained at her hip, Oxart pulled a card from her tome of spells. “Message. Ipo. My office as soon as it is convenient.”

Message sent, Oxart turned her attention to the list of recruits. They would be coming to her in batches of about ten, the first of which would be arriving in the morning. Their backgrounds varied. Half of tomorrow’s batch were green, fresh out of the Central Garrison’s training camps. She would have to see for herself where their skill lay and possibly sequester them for further training, though that likely wouldn’t begin until the other batches had arrived so as to avoid repeating herself. Three had prior experience working as outpost guardsmen along the roads between Lyria and Pandora. She expected no problems from any of them. Outpost guards were well trained and frequently saw real combat with a variety of monsters, the exact types depended on where the outposts were stationed.

The last two had her frowning. One was a noble from House Davenport, a family owning a large swath of land with a city of the same name. A port city along the western coast with a cushy locale segregated from the majority of monster activity throughout the land. In other words, despite her list claiming that he had seven years of knightly experience, this noble likely hadn’t ever used his sword for anything productive. Something gave her the feeling that he would be trouble. And that was likely the final name on the list. A knight from Davenport. Not a noble, but likely a retainer to the House. Possibly even a retainer to the noble, which was what Oxart feared the most. From the list alone, it smelled like this noble wanted to get away from his corner of the world to see Lyria, the Grand City and was bringing his servant along. As if it were a vacation.

Oxart tried not to have preconceived notions, but she had a feeling that this individual would need some hammering down to set him in his place. She would not allow a rich princely-wannabe to endanger the rest of her men with cowardice and arrogance.

A welcome distraction barged into her office, breathing heavily and sweating enough for his short hair to be matted down around his head. He was still wearing his armor, though his helmet was off and held under one arm. Poor guy looked like he needed a rest. So Oxart waved a hand to the chair on the opposite side of her desk. He was a commoner, but Oxart didn’t disparage him for that. Rather, if only the entirety of her guardsmen could have been made up of commoners like Ipo. A hard worker. A good fighter. He had a level head on his shoulders.

It made her smile, though only just. Having memorized the schedules of all her men, Oxart knew that her Message had reached Ipo right as he was ending his shift at the gate. Despite her saying to come when convenient, he had clearly run all the way here. Though her smile slipped slightly as a wave of déjà vu hit her. Leaning slightly to the side, she checked to see if there were any harbingers of doom following him around. Thankfully, he was alone. Though she still had to ask, “Guardsman Ipo, anything to report?”

“No ma’am,” he said with a salute before following her gesture and taking his seat. “Horizon’s quiet tonight.”

“Good. I like quiet nights.” Someone else might have made small talk. Oxart skipped past pleasantries entirely. She had questions and she wanted answers. “The girl… The woman, Alyssa, the one you brought to me the night of the attack. She stopped by the menders’ tent earlier today looking for you.”

Ipo blinked twice, likely confused at the conversation topic. “Did she?” he eventually asked.

“No. That’s what she said. I haven’t discovered why she was there, though Mender Banfry was rather upset with how much she was harassing the menders. Claimed to know better ways of healing patients, though didn’t demonstrate an ability to do so because, in her words, she is just a lumber hauler.”

“A lumber hauler?”

“Is what she said.”

“That’s odd.”

Oxart leaned forward, resting her elbows on the few clear spaces of her desk. “Odd how? What do you know about her?”

“Not much,” he said, rubbing a hand through his hair. Frowning at the sweat on his hand, he wiped it off on his surcoat. “That night was the first night I ever encountered her and I haven’t seen her since. But she claimed to be a slaver that night. Had a number of monsters all in chains and was leading them out of the city. I almost—uh… never mind.”

“What is it, guardsman?”

Ipo pinched his eyes shut, regret lining his face. After a brief mental war with himself, he took a deep breath. “The elf she had with her caught my eye. I uh… offered to buy, but she wouldn’t sell. Said she already had a buyer that she couldn’t disappoint.”

“An elf,” Oxart said, voice flat.

“Yeah. Looked pretty badly beat up. Lots of bruises. But was smiling, is all. It caught my eye. Thought she was…” He rubbed his hair again, mumbling something that sounded an awful lot like “pretty.”

“Uh huh. A smiling elf.”

“Don’t see a lot of them smiling all that often.”

“No,” Oxart said, tapping a finger on her desk. “You don’t.” A smiling elf with an abusive slaver. Abusive wasn’t the impression she had of the woman. Compassionate fit her far better given her ranting at the menders. Though it was true that people tended to act differently around monsters. She could possess a hidden sadistic streak toward inhuman beings. Or… “The elf you wanted to buy was just one of the monsters? How many and what were they, more elves?”

“Ah, no. She had a honey bee, a sheep, and a salamander with her. First time I ever seen one of them.”

Oxart lifted an eyebrow. “A salamander? That’s rare. I wasn’t aware one was in the city.” Ipo didn’t say anything in response, though she hadn’t expected him to. He just shrugged. “And she led them out of the city to sell?”

“I didn’t see the buyer, but she came rushing back a short time after. I thought the monsters had escaped at first. Started wishing the monsters had escaped once I saw the actual problem. Brought her back to you, you know what happened there, then she followed me to the guild. Asked a bunch of questions about the guild on the way. Apparently hadn’t heard of them because she wasn’t from Lyria. When I left the guild, she didn’t follow me out. Haven’t seen her since.”

Clasping her hands together, Oxart scowled in thought. The Knights Solaris were not unique to Lyria. They had branches all over the land. Every major village had a tavern full of drunks who called themselves mercenaries. To have not heard of them meant that she was from even further away.

A Juno Federation spy? Given that the troll attack had been orchestrated by the Juno Federation, it was hard to imagine that one of their own would sabotage an attack by drawing attention to it early. From across the seas then? Visitors from over the oceans were rare, but they did crop up occasionally. Alyssa didn’t quite fit with that either, both in appearance and in her actions. They tended to have uniformly black hair and uncomfortably fair skin. Alyssa’s hair was a dark brown but distinctly different from black and her skin didn’t fit right either. As far as Oxart knew, no visitor from over the seas had significantly interacted with anyone. Traders and innkeepers got the most conversation, but those conversations never strayed from their current business. They kept to themselves to an unreasonable extent.

“A sister.” Oxart looked up. “Did she have a sister with her when you saw her? They looked almost identical. Twins, perhaps.”

Ipo shook his head almost immediately. “No she didn’t. Didn’t mention one either.”

That didn’t necessarily mean anything. It wasn’t like Oxart had mentioned her brother during their short conversation. But… she would be lying if she had said that this wasn’t more frustrating now than it had been before. Ipo really didn’t know anything. Not enough to answer any questions. In fact, what he said only raised more questions.

When Alyssa had first shown up with Ipo, she hadn’t thought anything of it. She was just another citizen doing her duty by reporting monster activity. Later, when she had been delivering potions, Oxart hadn’t thought much then either. At the time, she hadn’t even remembered that Ipo introduced her as a slaver. It hadn’t been until earlier today that Oxart really started wondering. The woman was showing up with alarming regularity. Normal citizens did not do that. Not in so many different capacities. If she had been selling potions outside the city or bringing potions to the menders, that would have been another thing entirely.

Perhaps Oxart was worrying too much. The woman didn’t seem like a spy. She didn’t seem harmful either. If anything, she had been helpful. It was just… the words. Alyssa’s people could have saved the men that the menders couldn’t. That rattled around inside Oxart’s head and wouldn’t leave her alone. Regardless of the woman’s oddities, Oxart would be speaking with her. Soon. Perhaps even in the morning, after dealing with the new recruits. If she could keep her men from dying before they had a chance to make a name for themselves, it would be worth a short conversation.

Flicking her eyes over to Ipo, she smiled. “Thank you, guardsman. You’ve been very helpful. You are welcome to—”

Oxart jerked as a pressure weighed on her mind. Her back stiffened as she listened to the Message.

~Hi, this is Alyssa, we met earlier today at the hospital. Thought you ought to know that I just killed a shadow assassin outside the palace and several guards are missing. Raise the alarm and maybe get here to back me up if at all possible. I need to get inside to find Irulon, so if I’m not here, I made it inside.~

“So much for a quiet night,” Oxart said through grit teeth.

“Captain?”

Oxart lurched to her feet, knocking several papers to the floor, none of which she paid any mind. Her plans had just changed. The second she was able, she would be dragging Alyssa into an interrogation room and grilling her on just how she wound up in the middle of everything notable that had happened over the past week. Unfortunately, that would have to wait. “Ipo,” she barked. “You have riding training?”

“Yes? I—”

“Horse. Central Garrison. Now. Warn them that the guards around the palace are missing and at least one shadow assassin has been spotted and killed in the vicinity.” If the report was true. Alyssa had been helpful on the few occasions where Oxart crossed her path, but if that had all been a ruse, then this could be a distraction. A way of drawing the city guard away from the walls.

As Ipo rushed from the room with a hastily said, “Yes, ma’am!” Oxart turned to her office’s window. She stared out at the burned and whole fields, searching for any sign of another approaching army. Anything that might hint that this warning was less than genuine. Unfortunately, night had fallen. Darkness and human eyes did not get along all that well. There were no great plumes of smoke lit from the underside as there had been the week before, but that meant little in the long run. Several trolls had breached the city walls with no warning. The same could be true here.

Fists clenched, Oxart shouted over her shoulder. “Adjutant!”

It took only a moment for the door to swing back open. Instead of Ipo, a younger woman stood in the doorway. Oxart’s administrative assistant, Tenno.

“Rouse all the men. Set the barracks on full alert. In two minutes, I want half the ready guard to meet me in front of the building. Have the rest sortied, patrolling the walls.”

“Ma’am,” Tenno said, ducking out of the doorway without asking a single question.

Satisfied that she had a moment, Oxart donned her heavy coat. It had spells woven into the fabric. Highly ranked defensive magic. As a Rank Five arcanist, Oxart considered herself well ahead of most of her peers, but some of the spells that had gone into her uniform were Rank Six. Administrator Devo of the Observatorium had cast them himself. However, if a shadow assassin got close to her, the enchantments likely wouldn’t matter. She would find her head twisted off before she knew what was happening.

For that reason, it was important that she be able to see anything coming well in advance of it touching her.

Opening her tome, Oxart tore out one of the first spells. A relatively complex spell, unfortunately. There were only a handful of Rank Five arcanists in the city guard. Not everyone would be able to use it. It was an added protection for her men, but only while she was around to direct them. “Unseen Sight.”

Nothing appeared to have changed aside from the card vanishing. No red hazes hanging around any vacant spots in the room. Which was good. It meant that there was nothing to be alarmed about within her office. No invisible assassins lurking to take her head off should she stray too close. Hopefully the same could be said of the rest of the city. Clasping her hands behind her back, Oxart stalked out of her office to meet with those men she was going to bring with her to the palace.


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Vacant Throne — 014.007

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The Demon Angel Brings

Three Heads Are Better


Dragging an uncooperative person up a set of stairs was, as it turned out, unpleasant. Possible. But Alyssa had nearly fallen down more than once just trying to pick her up. After searching her for any extra weapons or cards on her person, Alyssa had tied Morgan up using ropes from the food storage room, which was just below the kitchens. She wasn’t all that well versed in keeping people immobile. However, the internet kept quite extensive notes on the art of bondage. Once certain that Morgan couldn’t move, rather than risk falling down the stairs and breaking her neck because of a squirming captive, Alyssa had thrown her into the storage room and locked the door with a key Tess had.

Hopefully that would keep her.

“You should have killed her.”

“Hmph. I agree with the monster.”

“She could have valuable information in stopping these kinds of attacks. We’ll leave it up to Irulon. If she wants to throw her off the tower, fine. But I’ve got her spells and her two knives. She’ll be harmless in there for the time being.”

“Until an assassin slips in and frees her.”

“Yes, I am aware that it isn’t a perfect plan. What else was I supposed to do?”

“Shoot her.”

“Slit her throat.”

“Break her neck.”

“Slice open her stomach.”

“Strangle her.”

“Cut—”

“Alright! Enough already.” Alyssa stomped up the stairs. A new set of stairs, one that led up to Irulon’s floor.

Her floor. She had a whole floor to herself. While the palace was pyramidal in shape and got narrower up at the top, the whole floor was still probably bigger than two side-by-side copies of Alyssa’s home. Yard included. And they had to find her somewhere on the floor. Monsters would presumably be running around, having broken onto the actual floor. Maybe what she had done already would be enough to prevent Irulon’s death—maybe Morgan was the one to have killed Irulon in Tenebrael’s books—but Alyssa wasn’t going to take chances until this whole crisis was well over with. Given that Irulon would have died without Alyssa’s present or future actions, it could be assumed that the monsters would be able to harm her.

Which might mean that she was in hiding. Probably in some safe room that would be nearly impossible to find thanks to magic or elven engineering.

On the Brechen Overlook, Bercilak had mentioned their targets. Administrator Devo, the Black Prince, and some priest who had been dismissed as a target as soon as things started going wrong. Given that Devo, Irulon, and the pharaoh were the highest ranked arcanists in the city, Irulon would presumably be given quite a high priority. Her and…

“Where is the pharaoh?” Alyssa said with a glance toward Tess. “We should probably make sure he is safe too.”

“Ha! You think something like this would have ever happened had he been around?” Tess shook her head. “No. Last time, he snapped his fingers and every heretic in the city fell over dead. But he’s been gone for a month now. Inspecting the Fortress of Pandora.”

“Last time? Are these attacks common?”

“Once a year. The Juno Federation sends an army to attack the city. Assassinations and rioting are common beforehand. Though I don’t think they’ve ever used monsters before.”

“You don’t think so? Don’t you know?”

Tess pressed her lips together before slipping up past Alyssa. “Oh look! The door. Why don’t I just open this up for us. I can sense my princess. She is definitely still on her floor.”

“Wait.” Alyssa started to grab at her wrist, but hesitated, not wanting the girl to freak out again.

But the girl didn’t heed her words, opening the door and…

Staggered back, hand over her mouth. “O-Oh Tenebrael… What—”

Pistol in hand, Alyssa stepped up in front of her and right next to Kasita, ready to shoot at whatever had startled Tess.

Only to cover her own mouth, stifling a gag.

The door opened up to a hallway. Several lights had been knocked from their holders along the walls. Enough were left unbroken that Alyssa could see everything, as much as she didn’t want to. Blood had been smeared over much of the polished floor, walls, and even the ceiling. Some blood was streaked or splattered. Other spots looked more like hand prints. Or claw prints, given the elongated fingers. A statue, of Irulon no less, had toppled onto the floor in the center of the hallway, landing right on top of… meat.

Meat. Alyssa didn’t know how else to describe it. At one point in time, it might have been a person, but the now broken marble statue had landed on it hard enough to send pieces scattering around in a circle. Like a little meaty explosion. It wasn’t Irulon. Alyssa could tell that easily enough for its head had managed to escape the statue, if only barely. The head wasn’t attached anymore, sitting upside-down just to the side of the statue, staring down the hall with milky-white eyes.

“Another servant?”

“No. One of Princess Irulon’s toys.”

“T-Toys?”

“She has a habit of collecting bodies. I’ve told her time and time again that it isn’t a very princessly thing to do,” Tess said, sounding like a concerned mother, “but she doesn’t listen… It was probably trying to protect her.”

“Wait. A dead body was trying to protect her?”

Tess glanced up, shrugged, and nodded her head. As if there was nothing wrong with that sentence. “I hope they recognize me. If any are still alive. Otherwise we might be fighting off them and whatever killed this one.”

Kasita moved a step forward, form shimmering. “It doesn’t matter if they recognize you, so long as they recognize me.” As she spoke, her voice went from Alyssa’s relatively deep voice to a much more neutral if slightly more feminine sound. Jewelry sprouted on her fingers and arms while her irises turned from brown to violet. She turned around to face Alyssa with a wide smile on her face just as a tattoo sprouted around her eye.

“Good thinking,” Alyssa said with a nod of her head. The less problems in their path, the better. Monsters, fanatics, gangs, and angels were bad enough. She didn’t need zombies added to that list.

You…” Tess said, voice stiff. Her gloved hands shook at her sides as she ground her teeth. “You monster. How dare you sully Irulon’s beauty with that horrid expression. Take that face off right now!”

Alyssa really didn’t know what Tess was talking about. The resemblance was… perfect. The appearance was expected of a mimic, but managing that smile. It wasn’t the fake one that Irulon wore around the Observatorium where other students might see. It was the far more sadistic one Alyssa had seen on occasion. Usually when something was going Irulon’s way. Surely Tess had seen that side of Irulon at least once or twice.

But Tess’ words didn’t matter. With a giggle that did not fit Irulon, Kasita walked into the hallway. “I’ll change when I feel like it. And right now, I feel like not fighting your master’s toys.”

“I agree. Stick next to me, Kasita. Point out anything that moves. And you,” Alyssa said with a glance to Tess. The girl glared, but Alyssa ignored it. She couldn’t wait until they found Irulon. The princess could deal with twelve year olds all she wanted. Alyssa really did not like kids that much. “Where is Irulon most likely to be hiding?”

Tess opened her mouth. Even before a single sound came out, it was obvious that she wasn’t going to answer. Her fists were still shaking and her eye didn’t even glance in Alyssa’s direction. All of her anger was solely leveled at Kasita.

So Alyssa interrupted her. “Think of it this way, the sooner we find Irulon, the sooner Kasita can go back to normal.”

“Ufu~ Don’t be too sure. I could get used to having the body of a princess.”

“Isn’t it all an illusion? What does it ma—” Alyssa took a breath and closed her eyes. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Let’s go. We’ve wasted enough time talking as is.”

Eyes wide and searching for anything, Alyssa moved into the hall. Without even being asked, Kasita moved right up next to her, putting one hand on her outstretched arm just in case something popped up that needed to be shot. Several of the doors had been broken down. All from the hallway side. They came across another four of the toys, all unmoving. Three of them had been pulled to pieces while the fourth had simply had its head torn off.

“That’s Irulon’s main sleeping chamber,” Tess said as they passed another of the shattered doors. It opened up into a large room with an oversized bed, a desk, books, and a balcony. Probably more that Alyssa couldn’t see from the hallway. Just seeing the balcony sent a quiver through Alyssa’s toes. Having climbed only one flight of stairs, she didn’t feel that high up… but this was definitely near the top of the palace. That balcony would be… high. Much higher than the Brechen Overlook.

Tess was just behind Alyssa, still looking furious. Honestly, now that they had found Irulon’s floor, they probably didn’t need her anymore. If it weren’t for the fact that leaving a twelve year old to fend off the monsters on her own would be absolutely reprehensible, Alyssa would have tried to find another of those hidden peephole closets to shove her inside.

But, since she was around, she could at least answer a few questions.

“Will she be inside her room?” Alyssa asked, desperately hoping that the answer wouldn’t bring her closer to that balcony.

“No. Her laboratory. I can feel her up ahead. She and I are connected enough to sense that much,” Tess said with a certain amount of pride.

“Of course Irulon has a lab,” she said without hiding her relief. “Where is it?”

“End of the hall. Big doors. It occupies most of the floor.”

“Big doors? You mean that big hole?”

“Hole!” Tess leaned around Alyssa and Kasita. As soon as she saw the two heavy wooden doors lying on the floor, she rushed forward, no longer whispering. “Princess! Princess?” Alyssa tried to grab her shoulder, not even caring that she might flip out, but the girl was too quick.

And Kasita stopped her from chasing after with two simple words. “Behind us.”

Alyssa pivoted, aiming her pistol. Kasita shifted her aim slightly to the door they had just passed. Irulon’s room. Alyssa almost fired, assuming there to be something invisible standing there.

A hand reached out, grasping the door’s frame before Alyssa could act. A hand with needle-like fingers long enough to grab Alyssa around the torso and still have room to spare. The shiny black fingers, which were sharpened to a point at their tips, looked like latex in how they moved. Stone cracked in its grip as it pulled the rest of its body out into the hall.

It was skeletally thin, covered in that black latex from its three long toes to the tip of its curved horns. If given more time, Alyssa could have counted its ribs. Even without the time, she could tell it had too many. It was humanoid, but too long at every point. Like someone had taken a person and stretched out their legs just enough to make it unnatural, then stretched out its arms, then its body. Were it standing up straight, the tips of its horns would have scraped along the ceiling. But it wasn’t, it was hunched over just enough so that its unnaturally long arms barely kept off the floor as it walked.

The worst was its face. The rest of it might have been creepy enough half-shadowed as if ripped from a horror movie… but its head was plainly visible in the full light, making Alyssa want to turn and run. Maybe even jump from the balcony to get away from it. The otherwise unbroken smooth latex that covered its entire body did not remain the same on its head.

A hundred thousand holes covered the oblong dome of its head. All were different sizes and even different shapes, pressed together so tightly that only a thin string of latex kept the tiny holes from becoming larger.

The holes were bad enough. But the holes didn’t end. They had no backs. Even with a light right in front of the creature’s face, Alyssa could see no end to the depths of its head.

Alyssa tried to speak but her throat had gone dry. “What is it?” she managed after swallowing. Her finger was on the trigger, pressing down but not enough to actually fire her pistol. Something in the back of her mind warned her off shooting. Perhaps a fear that, if she shot, it might open up another hole to that endless abyss.

She didn’t get a response. Not a verbal one, anyway. The mimic broke contact with her arm, moving backward.

It took a moment to process what had just happened.

Kasita took a step back.

Kasita took a step back! The mimic that laughed off getting a knife through her forehead took a step back.

What little moisture Alyssa had managed to gather in her mouth evaporated instantly as the thing tilted its head in her direction. A distinct unease settled in Alyssa’s gut, like it was looking through her just as much as she could see through its face. It lifted one of its lithe legs, slow and sluggish. Almost like it didn’t want to chase after anyone. But it placed the foot down, dragging itself forward ever so slightly.

“We need to leave. Now!”

Not one to argue with sound advice, Alyssa turned. Together with Kasita, she ran down the remainder of the hall to Irulon’s laboratory. “How do we stop it?!” Alyssa shouted. Being quiet didn’t seem like it would do much good anymore. Looking back over her shoulder, it was definitely aware of them and chasing them. Though it still moved slow and sluggish, it didn’t make even the slightest noise. Even with that lethargic speed, it could easily have sneaked up behind her without her ever knowing until it was too late.

Kasita didn’t respond. She stepped over the fallen doors to the lab and started looking around.

When she had heard about a laboratory, Alyssa hadn’t been sure what to expect. To her, the word meant clean white tiles, white lab coats, bottles and beakers of colored chemicals, and lots of expensive equipment. Even Hollywood renditions of fantasy science merely replaced the tile floors with rich wood and the modern equipment with more antiquated brass and steam.

Stepping into the room, Alyssa was sure that Tess had misspoken. The place was clearly a dungeon. Chains and cages hung from the ceiling. Some of which were occupied. A man without a head hung from his legs in one corner of the room. Another unfortunate person was little more than a skeleton, suspended inside a circular cage near the entrance. Alyssa didn’t have the time to glance around at every single one with that monster behind her, but there were several. Only one was still alive. A certain violet eyed blond struggled against manacles keeping her attached to a flat plank of wood.

“Hey, hey! It’s you!” she shouted, tugging against her chains. “Come to rescue my idiot sister? You won’t fool anyone with that fake. You’re too late! And my friends will free me soon enough!”

Ugh. Octavia clearly hadn’t learned a thing. Aside from that, the monster had to have been here for a while and hadn’t broken her chains. It probably wasn’t too friendly. But that was her problem. Alyssa had her own troubles to worry about at the moment.

Kasita headed in the opposite direction from Octavia, toward where Tess was pounding furiously against a blank section of wall. Since she could sense the princess, Irulon must have been behind the wall, but Alyssa couldn’t see any doors on that side of the room. Throwing one last look over her shoulder at the monster dragging its feet across the floor, Alyssa chased after the mimic. Kasita didn’t go all the way up to the wall. She paused at a tall bookcase. The only one in the room. After staring at it for only a moment, she reached up and pulled on one of the many books with both hands.

Just like a movie, the bookcase clicked and the entire thing slid to the side.

“Inside quickly,” Kasita whispered as the case opened up to a darkened passage. “Do not make a sound if you do not wish to die.” She ducked inside without waiting to see if anyone would follow her.

Alyssa grabbed Tess from where she was banging on the wall and shouting for Irulon, clamping a hand around her mouth in the process. It was a good thing she was a twelve year old girl or dragging her inside would have been troublesome. The second they crossed the threshold, Kasita threw her whole weight against a large lever. The room went perfectly dark as the bookcase slid back in front of the opening.

Tess still struggled, trying to escape from Alyssa’s grip. Alyssa had half a mind to slam her skull into the wall in the hopes that it would knock her out. But she also didn’t want to brain the poor girl if at all possible. She was worried about her princess. Perfectly understandable. At the same time, Alyssa really didn’t want that thing to find them. They were lucky enough that it wasn’t fast enough to have seen them enter the passage. Octavia being out there was bad enough. Alyssa had to hope that the monster wouldn’t be able to understand anything she said.

Thankfully, Kasita took the problem out of her hands. “Your princess is in here,” she hissed. “But if you don’t stop immediately, you will kill her by drawing the gaunt to us.”

The girl immediately stopped struggling. Alyssa couldn’t see her face in the darkness, but she let out a small sigh of relief.

“Hm. Another of us?” A familiar voice spoke from somewhere in the shadows of the room.

“She’s right.”

“Of course we are. Tess?”

“Sleep.” “Sleep.” “Sleep.”

Tess went entirely slack. She made absolutely no effort to keep herself upright as she sank out of Alyssa’s grip and hit the floor with a mild thud. For a moment, Alyssa worried that she might make even more noise now that her mouth was uncovered, but she didn’t. She just lay on the floor, half on Alyssa’s shoes, quiet and unmoving.

“But it isn’t another of us.” The voices in the darkness were barely audible. Even just swallowing drowned out the soft noises.

“No. We would have known.”

“Then what…”

“The mimic.” “The mimic.” “The mimic.”

Scowling, Alyssa pulled out her phone and activated its flashlight.

Three Irulons winced at the same time, shielding their eyes with their hands in perfectly identical manners. But they weren’t quite right. It was like looking at herself in Kasita, except backwards. Their tattoo was around the wrong eye. The snake armband that Irulon wore was usually around her left arm, now it was around her right. The part in their dark hair was on the wrong side. And all of them reached up with their left hands to cover their eyes from the light.

Irulon was right handed.

Slowly, they started to lower their hands, hesitantly at first as if letting their eyes get used to the sudden light.

Alyssa recoiled back at seeing them.

They didn’t have eyes. It wasn’t like the bottomless abyss of that monster outside. More like flat planes of glass that reflected all they looked at. Right now, they reflected the bright light of Alyssa’s flashlight, with a silhouette of herself standing near it.

Another Fractal spell. It had to be.

“Well, she’s here,” one of them whispered.

“That’s nice. I’m sure we would like some company while we die.”

“What if she can help us?”

The leftmost Irulon smiled and shook her head. “What can she possibly do that we haven’t already tried.”

“She’s from another world. It wouldn’t be wise to underestimate her.”

“And she knows the potion maker. A rejuvenation potion would likely cure our wounds before we died from them.”

“Enough,” Alyssa hissed. “I don’t even want to know what you’ve done to yourself. Just tell me what that thing out there is and how to kill it before it finds its way in here.”

Kasita was the one to answer first. “It’s a gaunt. A gaunt!” Her voice came out as barely more than a whisper, but it still carried the intensity of someone frightened for their life. “You can’t just kill gaunts. It’s going to suck us in and… and… I don’t know what after that. Probably death.”

“The mimic is correct.”

“We know of no way to destroy a gaunt.”

“It is a puzzle that we’ve been trying to solve for two hours now.”

“One puzzle. The other…”

“Do we tell her? It will damage her opinion of us.”

“If we die, her opinion will be worse.”

“But if we solve it ourselves—”

“Have we thought of a new plan?” The middle Irulon said, crossing her arms. Neither of the others said anything. Nodding her head, she looked directly at Alyssa. “We received your warning in time to begin preparing countermeasures. Unfortunately, the gaunt managed to sneak up behind us without us knowing. We were… distracted by a shadow assassin pounding on the door. Our countermeasures saved us.”

“For the moment.”

“We are injured.”

The center Irulon pointed down toward the floor. For a moment, it looked like nothing more than her legs and the stone of the floor. A crack ran through it like an eggshell. Shimmering shards of glass parted to reveal a fourth Irulon, lying perfectly still on the floor. This one had her tattoo on the right side of her face. A haze of grey hung over her, making her look even more like Tenebrael. The only color on her body was the six red streaks on the left side of her chest. Her clothes were torn… as was her skin. Alyssa couldn’t tell how deep they were. At least, she couldn’t until one of the mirror-eyed Irulons turned the greyscale copy onto her back.

The six claw marks ran all the way through her body.

“A precarious situation.”

“We are in stasis.”

“We put ourselves into stasis.”

“It saved us from the gaunt.”

“Temporarily.”

“Once the stasis wears off, we will have an exceedingly limited amount of time to fix ourself.”

Alyssa stared down at the real Irulon. Her mouth was open and frozen in a pained grimace. Her eyes were wide with shock. And she was utterly still. “How long will the stasis hold for?”

“Nine hours.”

“Exactly?”

“Eight hours, fifty-two minutes.”

“Assuming no actions taken, we estimate that our body will survive for twelve minutes after the stasis ends.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, glancing at the numbers on her phone. “I have good news for you. Relatively. You’ll actually die seventeen minutes after the stasis ends.”

“How do you know?”

“You can tell from such a small glance?”

“Your analytical skills cannot supersede ours.”

“Ah. The trinket.”

“She got it back.”

“It can analyze the health of a human.”

“We would love to examine it.”

“We would love to survive.”

“The two are not mutually exclusive.”

Alyssa held up a hand. “Stop. Please. And when we save you… never ever use this spell again. Please.” She glanced to Kasita, hoping for some support. The mimic had been uncharastically silent. Surely the situation warranted a few ufu~s. The mimic, still in Irulon’s guise, hadn’t moved a muscle since blurting out about the gaunt. She stood perfectly still save, perhaps, for minor trembling in her arms. Is the gaunt that scary? Alyssa didn’t want to be anywhere near it, true. But she also didn’t want to be near a shadow assassin. For Kasita to be acting as she was… it gave Alyssa some unpleasant vibes. “Alright,” Alyssa said, kneeling down to the real Irulon. “How do I help fix you up?”

To start with, she tried moving away the scraps of clothing to get a better look at the wound. She didn’t know what to actually do with the wound itself, but getting the normally golden clothing out of the way would be a great start.

Except she couldn’t. Pulling on a shred of cloth didn’t budge it. Even grasping it with both hands only succeeded in lifting up Irulon’s entire body.

“This particular stasis spell locks the future of our body in place.”

Alyssa frowned. “And her clothes, I see.”

“For the purposes of the spell, our clothes and body are one and the same.”

“We would explain further.”

“Fractal magic is difficult to grasp even for geniuses.”

“We would hate to drive you insane.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes.

“Our recommendation: Deal with the gaunt.”

That stopped Alyssa short. “The gaunt? While you’re looking like this?”

“It is necessary,” Left Irulon said. “It is the more pressing issue at the moment, more so than our wounds. Stasis will hold for hours, that bookcase will not.”

“We believe access to our laboratory will significantly increase our chance of survival,” the right said.

Alyssa felt like she was getting whiplash glancing between them over and over again. “But what if someone casts Desecrate Spells or Suppress Magic while you’re like that?”

“A risk, it is true.”

“A risk we must take.”

“Remaining within this store room merely waiting for the spell to run out will get us nowhere.”

“With you here, there is a chance of a certain spell working.”

“But we would prefer to save this body, if at all possible.”

“It is a spell we will only test if no solutions present themselves after we gain access to our laboratory.”

“We cannot cast spells as we are.”

“Hence your requirement.”

“A rejuvenation potion may heal our wounds, but they are rare. Only one exists within the palace.”

“Leaving to acquire it while the gaunt is out there will prove difficult.”

Alyssa took a deep breath now that the three princesses had stopped talking. Deal with the gaunt. A gaunt that apparently cannot be killed. Ugh, why couldn’t Tenebrael just show up and fix everything. “Alright. Tell me everything about gaunts.”


<– Back | Index | Next –>


Vacant Throne — 014.006

<– Back | Index | Next –>


The Demon Angel Brings

Turning the Tables


“You never told me you were a lich. I’m hurt.”

Alyssa didn’t even bother glancing in Kasita’s direction. She was far too busy trying to keep her reassuring smile on despite feeling almost certain that she had just been insulted. But the eye vanished back into the darkness before she could say anything more.

The peephole door opened fully. Alyssa had apparently misjudged Octavia’s age, but this kid had to be… a kid. No older than fourteen, surely. She stepped out of the tiny room, throwing weary glances down the hall, up at the ceiling, and over both Alyssa and Kasita. Her movements jerked to a stop when the girl spotted the lone foot not far away.

Her mouth dropped open. The faint color in her cheeks vanished, turning her pale as a ghost. For a moment, Alyssa thought she might dash back into the room to hide, but she pinched her eye shut and, when she opened it again, the fear was gone. Her sole green eye locked on to Alyssa and didn’t waver in the slightest. Though that wasn’t to say that she had only one eye. Just that her other eye was covered by a curtain of blond hair.

The real question was just what she was. Her ears were slightly pointed, but not to the point of other elves that Alyssa had seen. And her skin was pale rather than the bluish-grey elves had. Apart from the ears, she looked human. Though she was fully clothed from the neck down, a long black dress that almost looked like an apron above a white blouse. Even her hands were gloved in black cloth.

“I’m so glad I found you.” Joy filled her voice, though it was short lived. As if realizing what she had said, she pulled back and narrowed her eyes, speaking in a cold voice. “Lich.”

“You… found me?” Alyssa glanced to a shrugging Kasita. For the moment, she decided to ignore the whole lich thing. Hopefully it was just another misunderstanding. She had been mistaken as a monster a few times now. Whatever a lich was, it couldn’t be worse than anything else.

“If Princess Irulon asks, please. She told me to find you around here and I don’t want to disappoint her.”

“She knows I’m here?”

“Princess Irulon received your messages. After a careful analysis of the situation and your former location at the Observatorium, she deduced that your most likely ingress point would be one of the side chambers on the ground floor. She sent me and…” She trailed off. Her eye, which had been locked on Alyssa, drifted toward the foot only to snap back with renewed intensity. “We should hurry. Irulon isn’t safe. A… A monster was trying to break down the doors when I left.”

Kasita leaned in close, staring at the girl. “Really? Breaking in?”

The girl shrank away, almost retreating back into the alcove. It took a hand on Kasita’s shoulder and a little pulling her back to get the girl to actually answer the question. When she did, she barely looked at Kasita while answering, choosing to stare at Alyssa instead. “I could hear its fists pounding against the door and the wood start to crack.”

“Odd. Do you know what was trying to get in?”

“A—A monster. I don’t know… I don’t know monsters. I don’t like monsters.” Her eye narrowed to a thin slit. “And Irulon said that anyone with the lich would be a monster unless they were an old lady.”

“Oh hoh, a monster, am I?”

“Kasita,” Alyssa said, voice hard. She gave the mimic a tight squeeze before she could do anything foolish like turn into a scary Rizk. They needed the girl. No one else could lead them to Irulon. “Please ignore her. She can’t hurt you.”

“That’s what Irulon said. And I believe her a lot more than I believe you.” She clasped her hands behind her back and held her head high. “Come. The servants’ stairwell is just down this hall.” While talking, she turned and started walking forward.

Alyssa reached out and grabbed her arm. “Wait, it could be danger—”

The girl yelped, throwing herself out of Alyssa’s grasp. She stumbled forward a few steps, catching herself on the wall. “Don’t—” She took a deep gasp of air. “Don’t touch me lich. I am Tess, personal servant to Princess Irulon. Only she is permitted to lay a finger on me.”

Alyssa shared another glance with Kasita, but didn’t say anything for a moment so that the girl could catch her breath and get herself recomposed. It didn’t take long. She snapped her hands behind her back again and glared. Her hair, slightly disheveled from her outburst, allowed both her eyes to be seen for just a moment. And in that moment, Alyssa couldn’t help but notice how tired her glare looked. A girl of her age shouldn’t have rings under her eyes. Maybe it was just the stress of the situation, but it looked as if she hadn’t slept in weeks.

What was more, she had tattoos. Not like Irulon’s. Tess had almost the entire left half of her face covered in intricate lines, starting just above her left eyebrow and moving all the way down to her neck. It probably went further than that, but her clothes made it impossible to tell for sure.

“That’s all well and good,” Alyssa said as the girl got herself under control. “And I’m sorry, I didn’t know… but I thought you might rather have us going first. Unless you are capable of fighting off shadow assassins on your own, in which case, please go first.”

That gave her a bit of a shock. Tess’s narrowed eyes widened and her mouth opened, but no sound came out. Whether or not she would have said something was forever lost as Kasita spoke.

“Ufu~ Not just shadow assassins,” she said with a smile. “While I’m not an expert on their species, I believe that a shadow assassin would not try to break down doors. Their specialty lies in ambush. There is something else in the palace.”

“Well that’s just splendid. As if invisible monsters whose voices make me literally want to kill myself weren’t enough.”

“Fun, isn’t it. I wonder if these other monsters will be up for a conversation. Though probably not if a fairy is controlling them. Ah well, they should have thought of that before having their minds enslaved.”

Alyssa just rolled her eyes. This whole world is absolutely insane. “We will just have to deal with it when we find them. For now, let’s go rescue the princess.”

Tess huffed, turning her head just enough to knock her hair back over her one eye and hide her tattoos once again. “Irulon doesn’t need saving. But since she asked me to bring you to her, I will.” She took a step forward, then hesitated. “It’s the fourth door on the left. Since you insist on going first.” Taking one hand from behind her back, she gestured down the hall with a mocking bow.

Alyssa could only frown. Figures that Irulon’s attendant would be an overly proud and somewhat snide girl. The palace could be falling to pieces around them and she would probably still act as if she were superior to anyone else. At least, that was the impression she had from their short interaction so far. But… did serving Irulon really elevate her status that much? Wasn’t she basically a peasant who did the laundry or whatever? Or maybe she wasn’t lording her status as one human to another human.

“What’s up with this lich stuff anyhow?” Alyssa said as they ascended a narrow spiral staircase. It was a narrow and claustrophobic passage with steep steps. Kasita went first, presumably under the assumption that she would be immune to most attacks. Alyssa was second in line, moving with her pistol gripped in both hands. She was physically fit and had just walked for two weeks straight, but stairs were another beast entirely. If this climb was going to take as long as she suspected, she absolutely needed something to distract herself from her legs. “Please don’t tell me that Irulon decided I was a lich all of a sudden.”

“I can comply with your request.”

“What? Why? I even told her where I came from. What is she going on about now?”

“Princess Irulon is never wrong.”

“Yes she is. She’s more wrong about more things than anyone I know…” Although, Irulon was right about a lot of things too. Or at least came mildly close to the truth. But she was still wrong about Alyssa. “Except for those doctors. Ugh, leeches.”

“She isn’t wrong.” Tess stomped a foot as she moved up the stairs. Which just made Alyssa wince in realization: She was arguing with a teenager. A teenager with a case of serious idol worship at that. Even worse than Octavia. No matter what was said, she doubted she would be able to convince the younger girl. But Tess hadn’t finished talking. “You can’t hide the fact that you don’t have a soul from someone as well versed in Death magics as Irulon. She’s—”

“Not the best time for heated arguments, if you ask me,” Kasita said in a much quieter voice than her typical joyous tone. “I think we’ve reached the top.”

“The top,” Alyssa said, blinking as she looked around. There was a narrow door here. Servants of the palace definitely had to maintain a strict weight requirement to fit through. But the stairs stopped at the door. She tried glancing back, but didn’t see much as the spiral was too tight. “This only took us up one floor? How many more stairs do we have to climb? A hundred?”

“No. This is the servant floor at the top of the tower. The only floors above here are the private quarters of the royal family. We have to use a second set of stairs to get up there—it’s just basic security.”

“But… magic. Magic made us climb a mile into the tower?” Apparently they didn’t need elevators at all. They could just magic away the space in between.

“It normally doesn’t,” Tess said with a harrumph. “But my liege is a genius who plans for everything. You best get on your knees and lick the soles of Princess Irulon’s feet in thanks when you see her.”

Alyssa shook her head, moving up to stand right next to Kasita. It was a bit narrow of a landing and the stairs lacked any handrails. If she fell, she would probably wind up tumbling down to the bottom. But she needed Kasita next to her just in case there was something invisible on the other side of the door. First, however, Alyssa pressed her ear right up against the wood and listened.

Something was on the other side of the door. Metal rattling. Every so often a heavy thud would move somewhere in the distance. Something was definitely on the other side of the door.

“Kasita, aim for me,” Alyssa whispered. “Try to confirm that whatever is in there isn’t another servant first, if possible.”

The mimic nodded and moved behind Alyssa, placing her hand around Alyssa’s hand. “Ready when you are.”

“You two look like fools.”

“And you might want to cover your ears.”

“That’s…” Tess pressed her lips together, but ended up nodding her head and clasping her hands over her ears.

Alyssa wished she had some ear protection as well. And not just for the shadow assassin’s death wails. Firing her gun inside a stone corridor this tiny would have her ears ringing for a week straight. Unfortunately, there was nothing to do about it now. With everyone ready, Alyssa pressed open the door. Slowly at first, keeping her pistol aimed at the crack. Not feeling any pressure from Kasita, she pushed open the door further.

It was a kitchen. Counters, pots, pans, food… It almost looked modern given the high quality equipment. Obviously there weren’t any electric ranges or conventional ovens. Definitely no microwaves. But there was a pot above a small fire right next to the door, boiling over as it rattled the lid.

That explained one noise. As for the other…

Kasita leaned into Alyssa, pressing her hand right and down. She held the pistol there, not giving any cue to fire just yet. So Alyssa didn’t. Waiting with held breath, she stared into the kitchen, trying to spot any movement.

There! An unnatural curling of the steam coming off the boiling pot! Alyssa’s hands moved, but Kasita pulled her back to where she had been.

“It’s a trick,” Kasita said, voice barely reaching Alyssa’s ear despite standing close enough that her whole body was pressed up against Alyssa’s back. “There’s nothing there.”

“We can’t just sit here. They know where we are now. Another one will be coming up the stairs behind us.”

“Ufu~” Her giggle brushed against the hairs on Alyssa’s neck, making her twitch. “Send the girl in. She’s annoying enough to draw it out.”

“Kasita…”

“Fine. I guess we’re putting ourselves into danger in place of some worthless human.”

“Being annoying isn’t grounds for execution.”

Alyssa stepped into the room, keeping her pistol aimed just over the top of an island-type counter. The boiling pot was rattling behind her back as she started walking around the island. Every step she took was smaller than the last. By the time she reached the edge of the island counters, she was barely shimmying along. And she couldn’t stop scowling as she stared at the floor.

“It’s dead.”

“Shoot it, just in case.”

Another of the shadow assassins was on the floor, dark skin and spiral tattoos making it unmistakable. If it had a face, it would have been face-down. The only way she could actually tell which side was front and which was back were the way the legs and arms bent. Black oil spread out from its body, pooling around the still corpse. Alyssa hesitated. The noise of her gunshot could draw more. If it was dead and had been before they had opened the door, then the controller might not know where they were. At the same time, how many movies had she seen where the monster pretended to be dead just to get the drop on the plucky protagonist. With that in mind, it was much easier to give the trigger a light squeeze.

A crack rang out as the body jerked ever so slightly with the impact.

And that was it. No other sounds. No screeching that made her want to shoot herself. Just a mild ringing in her ears.

“Dead. It must have been Irulon?”

Scowling, Kasita took a step forward, kicking at the body. It barely moved under her foot. “Something was moving in here. I’m sure of it. But…” She looked up and slowly turned to look around the room. “I don’t know where it went.”

“Then we should move on quick. Before something ambushes us.” Alyssa turned back to the door they had come through. Tess had poked her head through, probably wondering if it was safe.

“There is something on the floor there,” Kasita said, pointing toward Tess at the same time as Alyssa heard it. A slight glimmering noise coming from where Kasita was pointing.

A bubble burst next to the boiling pot. A cloaked figure appeared in the midst. Alyssa raised her pistol, but a gust of wind from the bubble popping made her take a step back, squinting her eyes. That moment of distraction was enough. The figure slipped around behind Tess, grabbing her by the throat. A crooked blade found itself pressed right up against Tess’ chin, pressing into the skin but not quite breaking it.

“Let her go,” Alyssa said, aiming her pistol. She didn’t fire. The person—for it was a human or human enough that she couldn’t tell the difference with that cloak on—had stooped down, keeping most of their body behind Tess. Alyssa didn’t trust her aim half enough to fire without hitting the girl.

“You again,” a vaguely familiar voice snarled from behind the wide-eyed Tess. “Liadri knew you would be here, but why? What relation do you have to the royal family?”

“Morgan? Is that you?” That was the familiar voice. Morgan. From the Brechen Overlook. She wore the same elegant robe that the person had worn down on the streets. Which meant that she had gotten all the way up here from down there. Teleportation? Recall again? Or something else. If it was a free teleport, Alyssa really wanted that spell, but it wasn’t like she could just ask her for it. Not while she was holding children hostage.

What to do? What to do? Alyssa couldn’t see Kasita in her peripheral vision. She might have gotten knocked down from that wind… or she had just run off again. Which meant that she couldn’t be relied on at the moment. Hopefully there wasn’t a shadow assassin creeping up on Alyssa’s back.

“Bercilak will be happy to know you survived the other night,” Alyssa said, just trying to think of something that would get the knife away from Tess’ throat.

Tess didn’t struggle as Morgan dragged her a step back to the door, now using it as more of a shield than Tess’ short body. The younger girl shot Alyssa a glare, as if it were all her fault that she had wound up a hostage. Which, if Alyssa were being honest, was probably a whole lot better than how she would have handled it at Tess’ age.

“Bercilak will be happy when he is free of the dungeons, your pharaoh and his whole family are dead, and Tenebrael’s name is scoured from this world.”

“I really doubt she would let that happen.”

“She won’t have a choice. With her most powerful followers dead, the armies of Juno will be free to destroy blasphemous temples and texts.”

“Yeah, but that’s just the human side of things. I don’t think Tenebrael will allow her name to be sullied. Though maybe she will, I don’t know. I don’t really understand the rules she operates under. Like she has this little black book that tells the future—it’s why I’m here, since it predicted a friend’s death—and apparently she can’t change that future. Like, she saved the monsters when they should all have been destroyed, or something like that—kept them around past their expiration date. Apparently, that has messed up her world enough to get all the other angels in a tizzy, but it is still following and was apparently preordained by that book. So what are the other angels mad about? I’d ask her, but she has this habit of disappearing the moment I take my eyes off her. Usually after telling me something annoying, like my friends are going to die.”

That was something she had wanted to get off her chest for a while now. Iosefael had popped up to start whining about how this world shouldn’t have monsters and claimed that Tenebrael had done something wrong. Tenebrael apparently couldn’t deviate from what was written in the book no matter how hard she tried. Was the book not the plan that they had mentioned? Even if it wasn’t, Iosefael was getting mad at Tenebrael for something the latter had no control over.

It was enough to make her sigh in exasperation. But at least it was an honest frustration that might help build a bit of rapport with Morgan. That’s what they did during hostage situations in movies, anyway. Hollywood was really all Alyssa had to fall back on in situations like this. She hadn’t ever experienced a real hostage situation.

Both Tess and Morgan were staring. Tess with wide eyes and Morgan with her golden eyes narrowed, barely gleaming out from under her hood.

“You speak as if you talk with Tenebrael regularly.”

“Yeah, well, anytime someone dies, Tenebrael pops up. Since I can see her, she sometimes talks to me. I’ll be honest, she’s a right bitch. I can understand why you hate her. But that doesn’t mean that you can just go threaten and kill twelve year olds indiscriminately.”

“Twelve?!” Tess shouted. She started to step forward only to wince as the blade bit into her chin. “I am not twel—”

“Quiet. The adults are talking.” Alyssa gave Tess a glare before looking up to Morgan. “Why don’t you let the girl go so that we can have a nice civil conversation. You might not believe me, but I really am interested in knowing why you hate Tenebrael so much given how everyone here worships the ground she floats over. Or at least the ground they think she floats over.”

For just a moment, Alyssa thought her ploy had worked. Morgan’s fingers loosened ever so slightly from Tess’ neck. But only for a moment. Her grip doubled over, fingers burrowing into the skin as Tess finally started struggling. The girl’s hands tried to pry off Morgan’s gloved fingers. She even started stomping her foot, trying to break loose.

Morgan didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Her eyes stared hard at Alyssa. “You think I’m an idiot? I know how your artifacts work. You won’t use them while I have her between us.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together. It had almost worked. Almost. Had she said something wrong? Or was Morgan just suspicious enough that it never would have worked? Wracking her mind, Alyssa tried to figure out what to do. Should she take the chance and try shooting at what little of Morgan wasn’t behind the smaller girl? There wouldn’t be much time. Morgan was well and truly strangling Tess now.

She just about dropped her pistol in the hopes that doing so might appease Morgan, even momentarily. But before she could, she heard her own voice coming from behind the open door.

“No. But I can use them from here.”

Morgan snapped her head to the side. Immediately, she ducked, releasing her grip on Tess in the process.

Tess realized that she was free. She thrashed and kicked as she started struggling instead of putting distance between herself and the woman as was sensible. An elbow wound up right in the darkness of the ducked Morgan’s hood. A muffled grunt came from the depths that would have been almost comical under other circumstances.

Not willing to waste the opportunity, Alyssa rushed forward, using one hand to grasp Tess by the shoulder and throw her away from Morgan. Kasita stood to the side, holding a pistol out in Morgan’s direction. Not a real pistol, obviously. The mimic was many things—literally—but she couldn’t be in two places at once and Alyssa had all her pistols on her. One of which found its butt smacking into Morgan’s stomach. The woman doubled over with a cough from the force, but Alyssa didn’t care. She threw her shoulder into the woman, knocking her to the floor.

With Morgan on the ground, Alyssa stomped down on the knife still in her hand. Even knowing what she was doing, the audible snaps made Alyssa wince. Morgan’s groan through her clenched teeth didn’t help matters. “Move even the slightest and you’ll have a brand new hole in your head,” Alyssa said, leveling her pistol at Morgan’s head.

Morgan didn’t listen. Her hand that hadn’t been crushed slid ever so slightly closer to her pocket.

Alyssa turned and stomped as hard as she could on Morgan’s other hand.

“That was your one warning,” Alyssa said, ignoring the moans. “Tess, search her. She has spell cards somewhere on her. Find them and take them away.”

Kasita stepped forward, false gun vanishing into nothingness. “You should just shoot her.”

“Your monster is right,” Tess said, rubbing at her chin. “Kill her.”

“Tess,” Alyssa commanded. “Search her. She stays alive for now—if she doesn’t make too much trouble—because she can order around the shadow assassins, get them to drown themselves in the river.”

“You fool,” Morgan said with a half-laugh. “You think I would be here if I were in charge of this operation? Kill me. I have failed in my task and deserve nothing less.” The tension in her body lapsed. Her head turned to the side to stare at the boiling pot. And she sat there on the ground, unmoving save for light breaths.

“Huh. Bercilak said something similar. I’ll tell you the same thing I told him: Tenebrael will show up when you die regardless of what you believe. She will pull out your soul, shove it down her mouth, and eat you. And if I’m nearby, maybe I’ll try to convince her to torture you a little first, just for holding a kid hostage. Besides that, you are trying to start a war and kill thousands of people just because they think, wrongly, that Tenebrael is some sort of god. For that, I think I’ll hand you over to the Black Prince. He can get all the information he can out of you.”

Blinking, Alyssa flicked her eyes to where Tess was pulling a deck of cards from Morgan’s pocket. The girl tried to slip it into the pocket of her own apron-like dress, but Alyssa snatched it out of her fingers before it could disappear. “Thank you, Tess.”

The girl glared, but didn’t say anything as she scurried off to the side. Rather, it was Morgan who began speaking again, this time with a smile.

“You’re too late. The first, second, and third princes are dead. The rest will be joining them by morning.”

Darth Vader dead? Alyssa wasn’t sure she believed that. He had seemed so implacable the night of the attack… the first attack. Then again, they had been planning on using shadow assassins against him then, so maybe the creatures were his weakness. “But Irulon is still alive. She threatened to take me apart once. I’m sure she would be happy to do the same to you.

“And she’s our next destination.”


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Vacant Throne — 014.005

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The Demon Angel Brings

Breaking and Entering


“I’m not crazy right? There should be guards out here?”

“We’ve already seen one shadow assassin. They rarely operate alone. I would guess that there are three to five of them somewhere in the city. Possibly more if they are being controlled by fairies again.”

Alyssa shuddered. She did not like the sound of that. One had been bad enough, thank you very much. If there were two of them in any given area, she might just die of despair. And that wasn’t even including the fact that they were invisible and could sneak up on her without her knowing. Edging just a little closer to Kasita, the only one who could detect the monsters, they passed through the wide-open gates of the palace wall.

“But wouldn’t there be bodies lying about?”

Kasita shrugged her shoulders. “Shadow assassins are good at what they do. They wouldn’t have such a blatant name otherwise.” She paused and walked off to the side of the path. Alyssa stuck right by her side as she knelt down. “Bloodstains. They were dragged off, probably shoved in some corner where people aren’t likely to stumble across them and run off to the garrisons to raise the alarm.”

“That’s a good idea. We should… I don’t actually know where the main garrison is. Presumably close to the palace, right?”

“Don’t know. I try to avoid anywhere where people might check for mimics on the regular. The military is prime among those.”

Alyssa clicked her tongue in annoyance. Having any kind of backup would be appreciated. There could be more humans running around, infiltrating the city. Or there could be far more shadow assassins than Kasita was guessing. Or there could be whole other monsters that she had yet to hear of. Or any number of other things. If only… “Message spell,” she said, snapping her fingers. As she spoke, she started pulling supplies from Aziz’s pouch. “I know the names of city guardsmen. I can send a message to them. And the damn prince too. Why didn’t I think of this before?”

“Maybe because you were thinking solely about Irulon and what kind of danger she might be in rather than everybody being endangered with the entire palace assailed by assassins.”

“Still stupid of me,” Alyssa mumbled as she started writing out the spell cards. It was a good thing that Message was only a Rank One spell. It was annoying to write out every time, but it could have looked like Fractal Mirror and caused a migraine anytime she looked at it. In short order, she had three cards written out. It took maybe ten minutes. Kasita kept a watch out the entire time, something Alyssa found greatly reassuring given her ability to penetrate most illusion techniques.

Standing up, Alyssa held one card out. “Message. Brakkt. Hi, this is the person you gave a commendation to the other day. There are shadow assassins in the palace. Several guards dead. I killed one shadow assassin. I have reason to believe that they are targeting Irulon. Just thought you ought to know.”

The second she finished, she immediately pulled out the second card. “Message. Oxart. Hi, this is Alyssa, we met earlier today at the hospital. Thought you ought to know that I just killed a shadow assassin outside the palace and several guards are missing. Raise the alarm and maybe get here to back me up if at all possible. I need to get inside to find Irulon, so if I’m not here, I made it inside.”

The final card was slightly more personal, though still somewhat important. “Message. Tzheitza. Hi. Sorry for not checking in earlier. Got caught up in events… killed a shadow assassin outside the palace. There are probably more inside. I have reason to believe Irulon is in danger and am heading in to see if I can help.”

There. Three messages out to a variety of people. Hopefully at least one of them got through. She honestly couldn’t remember if she had introduced herself to Brakkt during her rambling recount of the events that led up to the Brechen Overlook. Since the Message spell required a name, he wouldn’t be able to message her back. She should have thought of that during the message itself, but too late now. Both Oxart and Tzheitza knew her name, however. At least so long as Oxart remembered. Hopefully one of them would at least acknowledge that they had heard her.

The drawback was that only Brakkt would be in immediate position to do anything. Assuming he was actually at the palace. Oxart was all the way up at the north wall and Tzheitza wasn’t far from there… unless she had run down to the markets with some guards to inspect that plague quarantine breach. But even that was on the opposite side of the Observatorium. She shouldn’t expect anyone to show up within at least a half hour if not more. Perhaps Oxart would send a horse or Message to a closer barracks or garrison, but Alyssa wasn’t going to be counting on the calvary anytime soon.

For now, Alyssa packed up her writing tools and slung Aziz’s pouch over her shoulder. “Into the palace?”

“Right through the front door?”

“A place like this is probably filled with secret passages.” That fit with pretty much every movie she had ever seen. Normally, Alyssa would dismiss something like secret passages as being an unrealistic Hollywoodism that would never happen in real life. Except she had been to the Waters Street dungeons. They had a whole secret tunnel hidden with ‘elvish engineering’ from some ‘abandoned’ house to the main whorehouse. If some gang could put in passages, surely the biggest building in the city had managed one or two. “But I wouldn’t know where to start looking for them. So unless you have a better idea…”

“If I were in control of a group of shadow assassins, I would definitely station one right above the main palace entryway. It could drop down on anyone that wanders inside looking for the guards.”

“So what then? Try to kill it? We killed that other one, but it was across the courtyard. This one would be right on top of us far too quick. In fact I’d rather avoid them indoors if at all possible. The quarters are too cramped. Leave them to mercenaries, the Black Prince, or some other specialist.”

“I agree. Which is why we should enter through the windows.”

“The windows? Can they even open?” Alyssa said with a frown. The palace did have windows. Quite large ones at that, with a definite seam right down the middle where the two sides might open. And the glass was clear for the most part. Even the high quality glass at Tzheitza’s shop looked warped. As if whoever had made the glass had done so poorly or carelessly. And her windows were better than most buildings had… if they had windows at all. But the windows of the palace were nearly indistinguishable from modern glass. “But that won’t work. It’s the palace. The royal palace. They have to have some magical protection against breaking or being opened by random people outside.”

“Ufu~ You’re probably right.” Kasita put on a wide smile. The same one that she used whenever she was making fun of someone. Rather than explain what she found so amusing, she walked right up to the palace’s nearest window. Its bottom was around shoulder-height, but Kasita didn’t care at all. She climbed up onto the narrow ledge—having a body without much mass had to come in handy for situations like that—and put her hand right between the panes of glass. “Oh good!”

Kasita’s hand squeezed in on itself, becoming nothing more than a thin line. Which she then pressed through the glass. Alyssa couldn’t bother with even the slightest modicum of surprise as the rest of the mimic followed her hand through the glass. Enough strange things had happened since arriving at this world that a known shapeshifter slipping through a thin crack didn’t even register as being at all odd.

As soon as she was through, Kasita turned and waved through the glass. Flipping up the latch took her a bit of effort. She had to use both hands. But she managed in the end. Again using both hands, she pressed one side of the glass outward.

“Ufu~ Doesn’t look like they had anything stopping someone from opening the windows from the inside.”

“Yeah, yeah. Aren’t you a genius.” Hoisting herself up on a shoulder-high ledge wasn’t the easiest task in the world. However, Alyssa wasn’t a weak woman. And she had the practice of climbing up the Brechen Overlook under her belt. Once she swung her leg up on the ledge, it became quite a simple matter to flip herself up and over, into the sitting room within the palace. Though she didn’t land half as gracefully as Kasita had managed to climb inside.

“Yes, let’s all laugh at the poor human whose body actually has weight,” Alyssa grumbled as she picked herself up off the floor. Ignoring Kasita’s ufufu~s, Alyssa drew her pistol and took a quick look around the sitting room they had found themselves in. Given Kasita’s lack of agitation, there probably wasn’t anything dangerous, but Alyssa preferred to see things with her own eyes.

It was a larger room. Probably the size of Tzheitza’s shop floor and back room combined. The walls were stone, but sanded and polished to a smooth and almost shiny surface. Several portraits were set about, the most prominent of which sat just above the wide couch, featuring a distinguished older man. He had short black hair and a goatee with just a touch of grey like he belonged on some men’s hair care product advertisement. Needless to say, Alyssa didn’t recognize him. Maybe the pharaoh. Maybe a previous pharaoh. It could even be one of Irulon’s siblings. She had never seen Brakkt without his helmet on after all.

Turning away, satisfied that the room was empty, Alyssa let out a soft sigh. “Irulon once told me that she lived up at the top of the palace. I don’t suppose they have an elevator, do you?”

“Possibly. If the original builders coerced an elf to build it for them.”

“Huh. Really? I wasn’t expecting you to know what I meant.”

“Elves are master craftsmen, as I have mentioned before.”

“Yeah, but elevators are… Never mind. Let’s just try to find one, shall we?”

“Let’s not.”

Alyssa blinked. A nearly weightless body probably wouldn’t have an issue climbing up a hundred flights of stairs, but Alyssa would hardly be in any kind of shape to help Irulon after manually scaling the palace. “Why not?”

“Same reason why we avoided the main entrance. Any main stairwell or elevator would be a prime ambush location for the shadow assassins. There are sure to be side stairs used by servants to keep them out of sight and out of mind.”

“That is a good reason…” Right, she had to keep ambush locations in mind while prowling through the palace. Depending on how spaced out any assassins might be within the structure, even if they encountered and killed one, the shrieks or gunshots could call every last one to their location. The halls could be troublesome as well, though if Kasita was right in her half-dozen estimation, the assassins couldn’t afford to patrol around every single hall. It didn’t matter much anyway. Unless they found a possibly nonexistent secret passage, they would have to brave the halls. “So we’re looking for servant-frequented areas to find stairs. Kitchens, sleeping quarters, storage rooms…”

“While avoiding shadow assassins. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?”

“How easy is it to hide from one of them? Do they have special abilities for detecting people? Thermal vision?”

“Not that I know of. I don’t know if they have regular vision at all. They listen to their surroundings.”

“Oh. That’s… kind of a relief, maybe?” Alyssa really didn’t want to be chased around by a Predator. They already had invisibility and some kind of despair-inducing voice. Though if she were being picky, Alyssa definitely preferred being chased by a Predator rather than an Alien—both would kill her but the latter would would turn her into a living incubation chamber until the baby woke up and ate her from the inside out as it burst from her chest. A concept that would hopefully never be relevant in this world.

Alyssa moved up to the door and strained her ears trying to hear anything on the other side. “Alright,” she said after a moment. “No footsteps or breathing or anything. Unless you can see through walls with your ability, we might as well start looking for a kitchen.”

“Sorry. I could slip out into the hall if you wanted.”

“I’d rather we didn’t even take the chance at being separated.” Alyssa might not have a full mental library of every spell possible, but she did have a decently sized background in watching movies and television. There were hundreds of scenes where one person walked through a door and either couldn’t get back through or the door wound up connecting to a different room for each person who walked through. With all the craziness Fractal spells were capable of, Alyssa didn’t doubt for a moment that there could be some Party Separation spells or some other nonsense like that. “Stay close to me. I’ll shoot at anything you point out without hesitation, but please try to avoid making me shoot people, accidentally or not.”

“Ufu~ Accidents are accidents. I can’t help them.”

“Kasita…” Alyssa shot the mimic a glare and got a shrug in return. But Kasita did move up right next to Alyssa, so close that her arms were brushing against Alyssa’s. Trying to keep her nerves down, Alyssa pushed open the door.

She stepped out into a long hallway. Tiled floor and a curved roof with period arches. At every arch, marble statues stood on either side of the hallway, holding out jars of light on outstretched hands. Dozens of doors lined either side between the arches, though windows occasionally lined the wall that shared the room Alyssa had just left. One end of the hall was so far off that she could barely see it. The other was much closer, blocked off by a heavy-looking door made of wood that was as tall as the hallway roof.

“That way leads toward the main entrance. I suggest we avoid it.”

“Yeah, but…” Alyssa looked down the long stretch. “How are we going to find anything in this place? What could they possibly need all this space for?”

“Ufu~ Humans, right?”

“We just have to think logically. The Pharaohs would want to greet their guests in the fancy sitting rooms with large windows that looked out over the gardens. Kitchens would be placed more to the center of the building then, where servants could reach all areas quickly, or in the areas furthest from the main entrance. In fact, there is probably a back entrance for delivering food and other goods that will be sequestered away from the fancier halls. But…”

Alyssa looked upward at the ceiling. The height of the arches was about twice the average ceiling height of any modern building she had been inside. But modern buildings typically had drop ceilings that hid pipes, wires, and air ducts. This place likely wouldn’t have anything like that. The top of this ceiling could easily be the bottom of the next floor up. It was as much of a skyscraper as it looked from the outside.

Looking down at the floor, she couldn’t help but wonder: Was there a basement as well? Dungeons would be underground, probably. Irulon had kept mentioning an oubliette and while Alyssa wasn’t one hundred percent sure on the definition of the word, it was definitely a dungeon-like structure. Unless the dungeons were held off-site.

The floors, she noticed, were clean. Almost shiny enough to see herself in the polished stone. Frowning, she walked over to one of the statues, bumping into Kasita with every step. “I don’t know that you need to stay that close,” Alyssa said… not that it mattered much to her. She barely felt the bumps. It was the mimic who had to readjust her gait with every step. At the statue, Alyssa ran her finger over the back of its neck. It was a bit larger than life, a man standing a head and shoulders above Alyssa with a large hat on his head, so she had to get up on the tips of her toes. When she pulled her finger away, it was clean. “No dust. Unless there is magic for that—” Which wouldn’t surprise Alyssa in the slightest. “—this place must be filled with servants. So where are they all?”

“Dead. Or maybe hiding,” Kasita said, brushing a hand against Alyssa’s arm.

Turning, Alyssa found one of the doors ajar just a little.

And a foot sticking out.

Pistol gripped in both hands, Alyssa cautiously approached and pushed the door fully open.

She clamped her jaw shut, staring down at the floor.

The foot wasn’t attached to anything. It ended in a bloody stump where the knee should have been. A streak of red led off down a perpendicular hall, though this one lacked the extravagant statues and artistic archways.

“Ah. Forgot to mention,” Kasita said as if she were discussing nothing more interesting than the weather. “Those teeth shadow assassins possess are not just for show.”

“Th—They ate him?”

“Most of him,” Kasita said, kneeling and prodding a finger at the foot. “Wonder why it left just this much behind.”

“Maybe it wanted to leave room for a wafer thin mint,” Alyssa grumbled, eyes searching over the hallway. Kasita wasn’t worried, but that did little to calm her nerves. “Quit playing with it. We are on a time limit.”

“We’re going to follow the blood streaks that almost certainly lead to the thing that killed this man?”

“This hallway isn’t meant for showing off wealth. There aren’t any statues and the quality is far worse. This foot almost certainly belonged to a servant. We lucked out. One of the doors here has to lead somewhere useful.”

“Why not just ask a living servant, they can lead us around.”

“If we find one, that’s perfectly fine. A great idea, even.”

“Well, look over here.” Kasita stood and walked over to a section of the wall. “I may not be able to see through walls, but I can see the walls themselves. And this one is a bit different than the rest. More importantly, it moved when we walked in.” She leaned close, pressing her ear to the stone as she knocked a few times. Her knuckles made hardly a sound.

“Hello?” Alyssa said, moving up and knocking louder so that someone might hear. “Is there anybody in there? We’re not here to hurt you.” Unless you’re a monster. “We’re here to help.”

After a moment of no movement, Alyssa turned to Kasita, about to ask if she was sure about what she had seen. But the moment she did, the stone moved. The entire wall pulled inward and slid to one side, just enough to see a crack into the tiny room within.

It really wasn’t a room at all. Maybe a closet. Alyssa couldn’t understand the purpose of it at all until she noticed the two holes in the opposite wall, spaced just enough apart for someone to peep through. A room designed specifically for spying on whatever lay on the other side of the wall.

A bright green eye, tinged with tears, moved to fill in the narrow crack. “You’re human.”

“Yes,” Alyssa said softly. Kasita didn’t say anything, but she was standing off just a bit out of view. “We’re not going to hurt you,” she said again.

“You’re her. Oh thank Tenebrael! You’re her. The lich!”

Alyssa blinked… staring at the eye in the narrow strip. “The… The what?”


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Vacant Throne — 014.004

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The Demon Angel Brings

Shadows in the Dark


Alyssa hammered her fists against the Observatorium’s closed doors. To no avail. The Observatorium had officially closed for the night. No amount of knocking or pushing against the doors got them to open. Even if they had magically opened for her, the likelihood that Irulon was still inside would have been next to nothing. Still, she had hoped that someone would be around, if only to confirm that Irulon was gone. Maybe one of those administrators could have explained whether or not Alyssa had done something wrong in her spell casting.

Realizing that she still had Aziz’s pouch and his notebook with her, Alyssa had scrawled out a quick Message spell, just as she had practiced with Irulon the other day. It truly was a wretched spell. She had no way of knowing whether or not she had succeeded in warning Irulon about a threat to her life. Alyssa had received no messages back and Irulon wasn’t waiting at the Observatorium, where she had said she would be headed.

What happened to a message spell if the recipient was asleep? Had it gone through but Irulon had simply been unconscious? What if she was unconscious for another reason? Irulon could already be in trouble, knocked out or simply captured by whoever wished her harm.

“So, to the palace then?”

Alyssa glanced over to Kasita. The mimic looked far more relaxed than she should be—than Alyssa felt. It weirded Alyssa out a bit, feeling like her stomach was turning but seeing a near copy of herself lean against the marble pillars outside the Observatorium with a smile on her face. For whatever reason, her own amusement most likely, Kasita was still disguised as Alyssa’s sister. But honestly, her amusement was likely to be expected. Even with her comment about paying back what she owed Irulon, Kasita probably didn’t really care if Irulon died or not. Alyssa wasn’t sure that she rated all that highly on Kasita’s empathy meter. As much as she would like to think that she meant a little more than the average person, there really wasn’t anything special about her except for the fact that she had come from another world.

And that she talked with angels on a daily basis.

In fact, Kasita looked far more amused than she had before if anything. That amusement came from finding out that Tenebrael not only didn’t care in the least about someone who ran around with a flattering tattoo on their face but had actually turned said someone’s life into what was essentially a contest. Would fate win or would Alyssa overcome all odds! Tune in next time, same Angel-time, same Angel-channel!

Maybe I’m projecting a little.

“Yeah. To the palace. We’ll send her another Message first. I don’t want her to come all the way out here, potentially putting herself into danger, and miss us as we head toward the palace.” As she spoke, she pulled out writing tools from Aziz’s pouch. The Observatorium had lights set about the place, so Alyssa sat down on the step to draw out another spell.

“I still don’t know what you think you’re going to do. If someone like the Taker gets the drop on her and you’re nearby, you’re just going to get killed too.”

“Honestly, if we can just get her locked into a side room of the palace for the next eleven hours, that would work well enough for me.”

“What if the threat is that the palace is going to collapse?”

Alyssa looked up. The top of the palace peeked over the buildings around, stretching high enough to pierce the moon. Not literally, but it sure looked like it from this angle. “If that’s the case, then a good half of the city will be in danger. Probably more than that depending on what actually caused the collapse.”

“All the more reason to just walk away. Maybe head out of the city entirely, as your mercenary human suggested.”

“Unless plans have changed, he isn’t leaving until tomorrow. Whatever is happening with Irulon will happen in half a day.” Alyssa paused her drawing to look up. “Besides, I thought you wanted to save her?”

“That was before I learned that this Monster Lord can predict deaths accurately enough to give you a clock that counts backwards to the time. Not to mention all the other… unsettling sensations Tenebrael causes. I can’t believe humans actually pray to this thing. Why not pray to me instead? At least I don’t eat their souls when they die.”

“Because they don’t know.”

“Then we should tell them!”

“I’d really rather not get exiled to the First City. Or worse.”

“Humph. It isn’t that bad.” Kasita crossed her arms, narrowing her eyes as she watched Alyssa put the finishing touches on the Message spell. “Are you sure we should even try to save Irulon? By all empirical evidence, Tenebrael has her thumb on this whole death business. What with her knowing exactly when everyone everywhere dies.”

“Her predictions are not infallible,” Alyssa said, voice firm. She took a deep breath, holding the Message spell up to the light to check her work. But she couldn’t concentrate on it. Instead, she turned to Kasita and spoke in a softer tone. “If they were, I wouldn’t be here.”

The mimic raised an eyebrow. She didn’t hum, she didn’t ufu~. She just looked and asked a silent question.

Alyssa answered. “Before I came here, before Tenebrael brought me here, my home was invaded. Simple burglars, nothing more. I killed one of the thieves. Tenebrael appeared and told me that the other was going to kill me. Thirty-seven stab wounds, none of which would have been enough to finish me off. Instead, I would have bled out. The way she described my impending death was… disturbing. She was looking forward to it. Getting ready to relish my soul like it was a fine wine.”

“But you didn’t die.”

“Obviously,” Alyssa said with a wan smile. “That angel told me how and where I would die. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have died even if she hadn’t appeared, but I easily could have. Because she did tell me, I moved locations and prepared to defend myself. Really quite anticlimactic in retrospect. But the point is that just because she says that Irulon is going to die doesn’t mean that she actually is. It does, however, mean that there is almost guaranteed to be some danger around that could lead to her death if we aren’t careful.”

“And ours.”

Alyssa opened her mouth, but hesitated. She didn’t actually have a good refutation for that. Instead of trying to downplay the notion, she nodded her head and conceded the point. Holding the completed Message spell between two fingers, Alyssa spoke. “Message. Irulon.” She wasn’t sure if she actually needed to speak. None of the other spells required it. But this is what had worked back when Irulon had shown her how to create spells, so she wasn’t going to experiment while on a time limit. “Hi, Irulon. It’s me, Alyssa. I’m at the Observatorium, but the doors are locked tight and you aren’t anywhere to be seen. Heading to the palace. Don’t know what I’m going to do when I get there so please message me back!”

Phones were so much better than the Message spell. Not even smart phones, just regular dumb phone could do the whole Message function two-way without having to scribble out a card for every sentence. Not only that, but a phone had feedback. If no one answered, then the caller knew because it went to an answering machine or voice mail. With Message, Alyssa had no idea if the spell had even worked. The only feedback she got was the card disappearing from her fingertips and that had been as soon as she said the spell’s name, before saying the actual message.

Nothing to do about it though. Nothing but find Irulon and hope that she wasn’t chained up in her own oubliette.

“Alright. The palace is only a few streets over.” Alyssa practically sprinted down the long steps of the Observatorium. Kasita followed after her. Aside from the two of them, no one else was around. Night had fallen. People generally didn’t wander the streets after dark and that held true in the wealthier sections of the city. Even the excess of street lighting couldn’t get all that many people out.

The lack of people suited her just fine. While more people around might appear safer, it wouldn’t be hard for an assailant walking in the crowd to bump into her with a sword. Without people around, she could keep an eye on the few people who were out. Kasita, with her sense of everything around her, should be able to warn Alyssa if anyone approached from behind as well.

Which was why Alyssa’s hand drifted to the hilt of her pistol when she saw someone at the end of the street, watching them. She didn’t recognize the figure; a vast majority of people in the city were complete strangers, but a vast majority of people didn’t wear concealing cloaks. The person actually looked like Bercilak, except their cloak was of a slightly different style. Bercilak had worn bath robes with hoods. It had no designs or emblems on and no flairs either, purely meant for the utility of hiding the wearer’s identity from anyone who might have seen him.

This one was clearly designed to be far more stylish. It had a hood, but the chest was more like an open vest without sleeves, relying on some underclothing to cover the skin. A silver chain crisscrossed to keep the vest from flying open from movement or a light breeze. Morgan, Bercilak’s minion who had escaped, might have worn something similar. Alyssa really had only paid significant attention to the main man, however, so she wasn’t positive.

It could have just been some noble or a merchant out for an evening walk, but Alyssa got bad vibes. Probably because that hood, pulled forward just enough to keep the face completely in the shadows, was aimed directly at her. The figure wasn’t even moving down the street anymore. And, as Alyssa walked, that hood followed her precisely.

“How well do you remember what people look like? Or feel like, or whatever it is you do? And from how far?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Just a bad feeling from that person up there. Was wondering if it was someone we knew.”

“Oh? Hum.” Kasita didn’t turn fully to face the person, but she did start frowning. “Ufu~ I can barely pick you out of a crowd of humans. There is magic surrounding her, however.”

“Well that’s just great.” Alyssa unlatched her holster, pulled her pistol out, and flicked the safety off. She kept it firmly at her side, not aiming it anywhere. Her finger wasn’t even on the trigger, resting just to the side. But she didn’t want to take any chances. “Can you tell what kind of magic? Is it that same reflective spell that the Taker had on him before I appeared in the room?” If so, Alyssa might have to run. She had no spells. A combat knife might work even with the projectile defense spell, but that would require her to get up close.

“Don’t know. She isn’t using illusion magic. I know that much. The rest of you humans’ magic is a bit difficult to tell the difference between one thing and another.”

“Get ready to keep up,” Alyssa said. They took three more steps before she grabbed Kasita by the arm. “Now,” she said, pushing Kasita between two buildings.

The moment they deviated from their path, the robed woman started sprinting toward them.

That was enough evidence for Alyssa. This person was not a friend. Whether or not it was related to Irulon’s situation, she didn’t know. It could just be another of the Taker’s minions who didn’t care in the slightest about the princess. Either way, she was a complication.

“If we can get to the palace,” Alyssa said, running between the buildings with Kasita hot on her heels, “the guards there will help us.”

“Unless they decided to check for mimics.”

“No one has yet.”

“Doesn’t mean they won’t.”

Alyssa ground her teeth. This wasn’t the place to argue. Nor the time. An iron fence blocked off the path up ahead. But Alyssa didn’t stop moving. It only came up to her shoulders. Gripping the top crossbar, Alyssa vaulted over. She landed among soft grass, though far taller and more unkempt than any modern lawn.

Looking back, Kasita had stopped on the other side of the fence. She didn’t reach up and climb over as Alyssa did. Staring straight ahead, she simply walked forward. The bars passed through her body with barely the slightest resistance. Her form molded around the metal until she was fully formed on the other side.

“Alright Terminator, let’s—”

“Spectral Chains!”

Links of ghostly metal wrapped themselves around Kasita, who had the audacity to smirk. As with the bars, she simply walked out of them. The chains fell away and disappeared before touching the ground.

Alyssa grabbed Kasita’s wrist and dragged her off to the side, out of view of the alley they had just run up. Just in time to avoid a ball of flames crashing into the iron fence. The metal bent outward with a screech, twisting into a spiked bramble while the grass around it withered and started smoldering. Alyssa did not take the time to stop and gawk. Kasita still in hand, she ran. The ruined fence might keep their pursuer from following this way, but she would surely take a side path around.

The fence separated a rather large yard and an even larger building from the rest of the city. A mansion. Probably belonging to one of the nobles she had heard so much about. Feet pounding against the ground, Alyssa took a sharp turn around the side of the home. For a moment, she considered running up to the door. Surely a mansion like this had guards that could help fight off their pursuer. But none of the windows had any lights in them—not a strange sight out in the western homes on the opposite side of the city, but given the wealth here, there would surely be at least one light on so soon after dark if it were occupied.

So she headed toward the iron gate. It had an ornate emblem, silver with a purple stone the size of her head embedded in the center. Familiar, but Alyssa couldn’t place where she had seen it before at the moment. She focused on the latch keeping the gate shut. It was a simple metal pin holding the two sides of the gate together with no lock, making it a simple matter to throw it open.

Many of the streets in the eastern and northern sections of the city had clearly not been designed for carriages and carts. The wealthy preferred their space, making almost every road wide enough for two carts to pass by in opposite directions. But this… This wasn’t so much a street as it was a town square. A wide pavilion opened up. Several buildings lined the brick road—more houses, probably of nobles given the mansion-like size, the large yards, and the heavy iron gates separating them from the rest of the world. Each gate was adorned with an emblem of some type, usually metal with one or several colored stones decorating it.

Beyond the pavilion, the palace stood tall directly ahead with a wall even larger than the one around the city keeping it isolated. It was still quite a run away. The houses around this pavilion were huge. The one she had run around had taken a good minute. And she had run right up alongside the brick building. Every mansion had plenty of yard space between it and the next.

“She’ll catch up to us easily,” Kasita said. “And this courtyard doesn’t offer much in the way of protection from her spells.”

“Yeah. Some of those other mansions have lights on. Think we could get help there?”

“There are certain to be guards around the palace. The ones there may be more obligated to help citizens as well.”

If there were guards in the nobles’ homes, they might be far more concerned with getting their charges to safety than Alyssa. If there weren’t guards, she could get herself and the occupants killed. “Palace it is,” she said. “Whatever happens, keep running. Find a—”

Kasita pressed a hand over Alyssa’s mouth and then pressed her whole body right up against hers. It took Alyssa a moment to realize that she was trying to push her against the stone pillars that surrounded the iron gate. The light pressure the mimic was capable of exerting just wasn’t enough. Once Alyssa did realize, she put her back to the wall, eyes wide as she scanned the pavilion in an attempt to figure out what had spooked Kasita.

As far as she could tell, the pavilion was entirely empty. Not a soul wandered around. There were no guards standing outside any of the gates. Now that she was thinking about it, wasn’t that strange? Each gate had a little alcove next to it that might have been a guard post. Shouldn’t at least one of them be occupied? Straining her ears, she couldn’t hear anything but her own heart beating. There wasn’t even any crunching of the grass that might be the woman coming up behind them.

But Kasita put a finger over her lips. Once Alyssa nodded her head, she removed her hands to grab at Alyssa’s gun. Alyssa put up a minor resistance before deciding to trust the mimic. If Kasita truly wanted to kill her, all she had to do was dump some of Tzheitza’s potions into the drinking water. Or uncork something dangerous while Alyssa was sleeping. Or any number of other options.

Kasita didn’t take the gun. She moved Alyssa’s arm up and over toward the pavilion. Alyssa provided most of the support—if it truly came down to it, a light shove would get the mimic off her—while Kasita moved it just a little left, slightly up, then back toward the right. There she paused, aiming toward one of the other mansions, right at the empty guard post. She held up three fingers.

And lowered one.

And another.

She held the last one up for just a moment longer before dropping it with a nod of her head.

Alyssa took a breath and squeezed the trigger.

A sharp crack echoed through the night, quickly followed by a squealing. A cry of pain, high pitched and terrifying. Each cry lasted only a second, but it repeated over and over and over and over—

“Come,” Kasita said. She pulled on Alyssa’s arm as much as she was able to, but didn’t stop when she met resistance. She ran across the pavilion toward where the squeals were coming from. It took a moment, but Alyssa followed after her. Kasita reached the middle of the pavilion first. She knelt down, pointing a finger toward a black stain on the ground. “Here. Shoot again.”

“W-What is it?” The screeching was louder here. It sounded like a baby having its legs torn off. Alyssa wanted to clap her hands over her ears. To run away, far away. To hide under her bed and never come out again.

“Ignore it,” Kasita shouted. “Whatever you’re feeling will only worsen. The only way to stop it is to shoot. Right here!”

Teeth clattering together, Alyssa raised her arm. The gun wavered back and forth. It would stop if she fired. It would stop if she fired. It would stop if she fired. Her finger felt cold and sweaty against the metal trigger. The pressure increased. She started to squeeze.

Kasita used both hands to pull the gun away from Alyssa’s head.

The gun went off, sending another shockwave through the air.

Kasita stumbled back, falling to the ground from the force of the bullet hitting her.

Alyssa blinked. What… A small trail of smoke wafted from the barrel of her gun. Cold sweat dripped from the palms of her hands as she stared down at it. What the hell

“Shoot it,” Kasita said—shouted. “Shoot the shadow assassin!”

That word triggered something in Alyssa. A sudden clarity. She had almost shot herself! Anger burned under her skin, boiling her blood. Raising her gun—this time, not to her temple—Alyssa glared at the black oil on the ground. She fired.

And fired again.

And again.

The squealing finally ceased. Once again, the night went silent.

All the tension in Alyssa’s body flooded out. She tried to keep standing, but wobbled and fell to her knees. Every breath was a struggle to fill her lungs. Even breathing as much as she could didn’t feel like it was enough. It took a great deal of concentration just to flick the safety back into place before any more accidents could almost happen.

Kasita was already back on her feet. Even a gunshot didn’t leave a single mark on her illusory body. But Alyssa’s eyes were focused on the monster between them.

Its skin was smooth and black. Not black like a person, like human, but black as the abyss between the stars. Faint grey tattoos spiraled around its body, arms, and legs. Its arms could reach twice its body length, though its legs were half that of Alyssa’s, giving it a grotesquely distorted appearance. As far as she could tell, it didn’t have a head. Just a maw of teeth between its shoulders. Four gunshot wounds were planted around its chest.

And it wasn’t moving.

“Shadow assassins,” Kasita said, voice far calmer than it had been a moment ago. “Best to kill them without letting them make a noise, if possible.”

Alyssa shuddered just thinking about the noise. Her heart pounded against her ribs despite her trying to calm herself down with deep breaths.

“Your princess might be in a spot of trouble if one of these climbed up the palace walls. We should probably hurry if you want to save her. At the very least, we should leave before that woman finds her way around here.”

“Right,” Alyssa said, heaving out a heavy breath. “Right. You’re right.” But she didn’t move. She wanted to. Her legs just wouldn’t cooperate.

“It’s alright,” Kasita said, voice nothing more than a whisper. “Their illusions mean nothing to me. I’ll keep an eye out for any others. But we have to move. That woman might still be behind us and there might be more up in the palace. Unless you want Irulon to die.”

Alyssa clenched her fists tight. “Right,” she said again. Kasita tried to help her to her feet. Her efforts were physically nothing more than a gentle breeze. But mentally was another story entirely. Alyssa found the willpower to plant one foot flat against the ground and lift herself up. Standing again, she felt much better. Much more steady. The screams of that monster still echoed in her ears, but she put it out of her mind. Her eyes focused on the tall tower of the palace. “Sorry. I’m ready.”

“Ufu~ Good. You had me worried.”

Rather than respond, Alyssa concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Then the first in front of the second. Faster and faster until she was in an all out sprint. Irulon needed her help. Tenebrael’s timer was proof of that. She didn’t have the time to despair.


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Vacant Throne — 014.003

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The Demon Angel Brings

A Deal with an Angel


Touching Tenebrael caught the demonic angel’s attention. Her pure white eyes met Alyssa’s. “My my, Alyssa Meadows! What are you doing here?”

Alyssa didn’t answer. Not here. The angel didn’t stop time and she didn’t want to look insane in front of the captain of the guard if at all possible. Just grabbing hold of Tenebrael was bad enough. To anyone else, it might look like she was cupping her hand, but Alyssa could feel the radiance underneath her fingertips as she tightened her hold.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Captain Oxart. And I’m sorry for intruding on your hospital. Let’s leave them in peace, Kasita.”

While Alyssa had been speaking, Tenebrael had been eating. She wouldn’t have felt very guilty about dragging the angel away even had she not, but Tenebrael was less likely to complain now. In fact, she didn’t say a single word, merely content to allow herself to be pulled past Oxart and out of the hospital.

“Wait.”

Alyssa paused, but she didn’t turn even when Oxart walked up inside Tenebrael. Of course, the captain didn’t notice. She kept her hands to herself, but leaned in close. “Could your people have saved that man?”

“Today? I doubt it. A week ago? As I said, my profession was lumber hauling. But I’d like to think he would have had a chance.” Alyssa waited, but the captain didn’t say anything else. “If you would like to speak more, I am staying with Tzheitza. Just ask her if Alyssa is around. Though again, I was not a medical professional. I don’t know how much help I could truly be.”

When Oxart didn’t say anything more, Alyssa started moving. She half expected to be stopped again. But she wasn’t. Oxart turned back to the hospital and disappeared inside.

Hand still around Tenebrael’s wrist and with Kasita at her side, Alyssa headed directly away from the barracks. She tried to look unrushed, like she wasn’t fleeing from the hospital, to anyone who might have been watching her. At the same time, she wanted to get to privacy as soon as possible before Tenebrael stopped humoring her antics.

Something that happened far sooner than Alyssa had expected. She did make it a distance away from the barracks, but Tenebrael stopped moving right in the middle of a street. Alyssa had been about to head down between two homes. But Tenebrael didn’t budge.

“Taking me down a dark alley? Not sure I’m comfortable with that, Alyssa. Bad things happen in alleys. Haven’t you learned that yet?”

The street Tenebrael had stopped in wasn’t extremely busy. It wasn’t a market street. There weren’t any shops at all. The buildings were all residential. Probably homes of the guards that didn’t live in the barracks. Several people were out on the street. One man sat on a chair just outside his front door, plucking at the strings of some kind of harp-lute-hybrid instrument. A woman hung up garments on a clothesline a little further down. A small group loitered not far away, talking quietly. Not everyone looked like they were soldiers, but at least half of the people on the street had the right build. And some of them were looking down at Alyssa and Kasita, probably wondering why they had stopped right in the middle of the road.

“Can you please stop time? Or just take us someplace where we won’t be overheard?” With Kasita here, Alyssa would at least not be talking to herself. People might think it strange that she stopped in the middle of the road to talk to someone who wasn’t doing all that much talking back. If they actually heard what Alyssa wanted to say, things could get far more dicey.

Irulon’s little Alternate Visage spell would have been handy right about now.

Us? You mean the two of us? Or are you including this relic?”

Alyssa frowned as she glanced at Kasita. Relic? It didn’t matter. “She knows who I’m talking to. Take that as you will.”

The black feathers behind Tenebrael’s back ruffled. “You told her who I am?”

“Was I not supposed to? Maybe you could have stopped by and mentioned that instead of disappearing completely for a week. I tried to contact you, you know? I tried the Message spell. I tried calling out to you. I tried—” Alyssa clamped her mouth shut, pinching her eyes closed. “I tried praying to you. And just admitting that tastes like ash in my mouth.”

“I try not to answer too many prayers. It breeds dependency. Besides, I believe I told you, if you—”

“—ever want to chat, just shoot someone?” Alyssa scoffed. “Are you planning on rescuing me from the palace dungeons every time I want to tell you something?”

“Don’t get caught. Or pick targets that won’t get you locked up.”

Alyssa ground her teeth together. “I tried that. Didn’t take. Apparently they have magic here that makes my bullets bounce back and hit me.”

The angel shrugged, looking bored. Although her eyes were essentially all one color, glowing white, it was still plainly obvious when she rolled them. She clapped her free hand right on Alyssa’s wounded shoulder, eliciting a wince. “Alyssa Meadows. You aren’t going to be a very effective reaper if you don’t broaden your methods of inflicting death.”

Opening her mouth to shout at the stupid angel didn’t last long. Alyssa clamped her jaw shut hard enough to rattle her teeth, wincing in a grimace as Tenebrael gave her shoulder a light squeeze. For a moment, she just stared into those glowing eyes, not trusting any words to come out of her mouth at a reasonable volume. To the side, Kasita shifted, staring at the spot where Tenebrael was. But Alyssa didn’t focus on the mimic. Even with her hand around Tenebrael’s wrist, she worried that the angel would disappear the moment she slipped out of sight.

Which meant that she should focus on other matters first. Taking in a calming breath, Alyssa said, “Can you please return my phone? Preferably with the upgrades I requested when we met last week?”

Tenebrael removed her hand from Alyssa’s shoulder and reached behind her back. The moment her fingers burrowed into the tufts of feathers, Kasita jerked. The mimic’s head twitched like she was having a seizure of her own. It only lasted a second, but the violence of her twitch made it all the more notable. Not that Tenebrael appeared to notice. Her fingers came back holding the glossy glass surface of Alyssa’s phone.

“It cannot be destroyed through normal means, both mundane and magical. Calling to it will draw it to your hand should you lose it. Its functions will work anywhere, not just in proximity to your home. And, to keep it from being useless in a day, it will maintain its charge for the next two hundred ninety-two billion, two hundred seventy-seven million, twenty-six thousand, five hundred ninety-six years. Give or take.”

“That… sounds like an awfully arbitrary number.”

“Should my plan succeed, I’ll make it last longer. Should my plan fail, I doubt it will matter much longer than that.”

“Uh huh. Well, I can’t say that I was planning on using it for even a hundred years, so I think that is more than enough.” Unable to reach forward with her broken arm, Alyssa had to release Tenebrael’s wrist. She did. And she snapped her hand up as fast as she could to snatch the phone.

But Tenebrael was faster. She pulled the phone back without moving the rest of her, waving it back and forth with a smile on her face. “I will only give you this phone if you do one little, tiny, itty-bitty favor for me.”

“A deal with the devil,” Alyssa said, pressing her lips into a thin line.

“Please. No need to be so melodramatic. I don’t know why you hate me so, it’s really upsetting. And after all I’ve done for you. Saving your life the least among my many graces.”

Alyssa just scoffed at the angel’s pouting face.

“Besides, my elder brother would have offered it up for free with a smile on his face. You would have accepted it with an equally large smile, completely unaware about the absurdly complex chain of events accepting it would have set into motion that, in the slight chance that his plan succeeds, would probably lead to your utter ruination. Or everyone else’s.” Her face turned serious for a brief moment. “If you don’t trust anything else I’ve said, trust this: Don’t make deals with demons. It won’t turn out well for you or for anyone around you.”

“He’s real too then? I guess I’m not surprised. Then the plague?”

“His doing. Because this world is technically still in the Age of Legends, he has more power here than what you might be familiar with. Like me, he has rules he has to follow. Unlike me, he has had the entirety of existence to discover loopholes and workarounds. Like I said, don’t trifle with demons.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Well, it seemed as if Tzheitza was right. Humans hated demons. Monsters hated demons too, according to Kasita. And even Tenebrael didn’t like them. Any one of them on their own and Alyssa would have taken their advice with a grain of salt. Especially the latter of the three. But all of them agreeing meant that demons were bad news.

And the devil himself was real. Alyssa didn’t know what to think about that at all. It wasn’t surprising, not after having encountered Tenebrael and Iosefael, but confirmation was almost a little unnerving. Except… Tzheitza had called the leader of the demons, one of the original Monster Lords, Her. Just how did that figure into the story?

Alyssa opened her mouth to ask, but hesitated. Tenebrael still held her phone between two fingers, letting it swing lightly in the air. The longer she got distracted, the more likely some cruel twist of the universe would keep that phone out of her hands. Either someone would walk up wondering why twins were loitering around and Tenebrael would slip away during the distraction or maybe some other angel would appear to attack Tenebrael, sending her off on another city-destroying romp.

“What is this favor?” If there was time for questions after she got her phone back, she could ask about Her, the First City, and whatever else came to mind. For now, she had a goal and she needed to not get distracted until she had that goal in hand.

“It’s an experiment of sorts. We know your autonomous actions defy the predictions of my book. We know that you asking me questions and then acting on the knowledge mildly alters the predictions. Now, I want to know if ordering you to do something contrary to the book will succeed or whether the book has taken into account me ordering you around.”

“I’m not going to go shoot some random person who isn’t even dying.”

“Yes, I am well aware of your disinclinations. I am not here to torment you, regardless of your feelings on me—You know, I’ve done nothing but help you. I don’t know why—”

Alyssa could not help the scoff. “You mean aside from giving the thief divine inspiration to kill me?”

“That was before we got to know each other, you can hardly hold that against me.”

“I can and I do. But please, I want my phone back so try to keep focused.”

Tenebrael’s eyes flicked over to the phone. A black fingernail ran across the smooth glass, bringing it to life. An image appeared on the front screen of someone. A familiar someone. She had darker skin, straight black hair, violet eyes, and a tattoo around one of them matching the markings around Tenebrael’s eyes.

“I believe you are acquainted with the princess of this city, Irulon.”

“I am absolutely not killing her. I don’t think I could even if I wanted to.” Although it had been a while, those attempts on Irulon’s life during Fractal Mirror were still burned into Alyssa’s mind.

Tenebrael’s black fingernail swiped across the phone’s surface again. Irulon’s face stayed where it was, but a clock appeared over top.

12:48:03

Not a clock. The numbers were counting down.

12:47:55

Alyssa’s eyes widened, feeling a wave of nausea as her stomach dropped out from under her. “What… is this? Is it what I think it is?”

In response, Tenebrael reached behind her again and pulled out her book. Once again, Kasita shuddered, but Alyssa’s eyes were locked on the little black notebook. Tenebrael flipped it open and held it out for Alyssa to see. The words were the nonsense runes that adorned money and spell cards. Nothing Alyssa could understand.

“In twelve and a half-ish hours, I am to collect Irulon’s soul and deliver it to the Throne for processing. Obviously, I am not delivering anything to the Throne regardless of the outcome here. More relevant to you: Save her life. Or try to, anyway.”

Alyssa didn’t know what to say. It was true. It had to be. There would be no point in telling her to protect the life of someone who wasn’t going to die. Of all the people in this world, Alyssa doubted that anyone was more qualified to tell when people were going to die than Tenebrael. But the more she thought about it, the more she found her blood boiling. “What were you going to do if I hadn’t come to find you? Were you going to show up later tonight? Why didn’t you tell me last week!”

The angel just shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care if this particular mortal survives or perishes. Her impending death is merely a convenient happenstance for this test. Of course, failing this test is not conclusive. Even if you try your best, accidents can still happen. But if you succeed…”

With ground teeth, Alyssa snatched her phone from the angel’s fingers. Tenebrael let her grab it this time. She looked down, just staring at the timer counting the seconds to Irulon’s death. “How? Where? Why? Tell me everything.”

“Let me think… No.”

“What do you mean by that? Do you want me to save her or not?”

“We already know that you asking me for information can be used to alter established events. This experiment is to determine whether me telling you information allows you to take actions needed, or if the book has already considered my actions beforehand, as it usually does, and has taken them into account in its predictions. All you need to know is that this is a preventable death, not something like an aneurysm rupturing in her brain.” Tenebrael smiled and took a step back before Alyssa could even process what she had said. “Good luck! I suppose we’ll speak again in twelve hours.”

Feathers exploded outward, rushing over Alyssa. She flinched back, covering her face to keep them from getting in her eyes. Though it didn’t matter. None of the feathers even hit her hand. When the last of the feathers disappeared, Tenebrael was nowhere to be seen. Only Kasita was left, standing just to the side of where the angel had been. Her face was twisted into a grimace of pain, looking like she had just slammed her toe into the corner of a coffee table.

Alyssa almost started sprinting off, intending to tell Kasita what had happened as she moved, but hesitated. During the conversation with Tenebrael, Kasita had been almost unnaturally silent. She hadn’t giggled, she hadn’t said a word, she had barely moved. The only movements she had made were more like seizures than intentional or subconscious shifting of her weight. “Are you alright?”

Kasita didn’t answer right away. Her eyes weren’t focused on Alyssa, but rather the empty spot where Tenebrael had stood only a few moments before. “Mimics don’t see things the way I understand other races do. While in a form with eyes, I can see. At least, I think I can. But that isn’t how I usually perceive the world around me. We have an innate sense of everything around us. People, teacups, dirt. I could stand on a beach and tell you how many grains of sand there are. But… Tenebrael, if it truly was her, is different. It’s more like… there’s a shadow there. Like… you can determine that something exists without seeing it because you can see the shadow it casts… except nothing casts a shadow to my normal senses. It’s a very unnerving sensation.”

“You were fine the night of the attack.”

“It was unnerving then too. But something happened this time that didn’t happen back then.” Her eyes flicked down to the phone in Alyssa’s hand. “That thing. I don’t know what it is, but it is incredibly complex. Its walls are thin enough that I can get a vague glimpse of its insides. Many, many tiny little pieces all put together, clearly designed to do something. I can’t tell what. Even with all its complexity on the interior and its unknown function, it’s nothing I can’t wrap my head around. The way it appeared… I don’t know that I could describe it as painful, but things don’t just appear out of nothing. Even the other day, when you followed me into those dungeons, I could feel you shifting around outside before you appeared in the cell room. It’s hard to describe, but I could tell you were going to appear just before you appeared because I knew where you were… if that makes any kind of sense at all.”

Not really, Alyssa thought, but didn’t interrupt. The way Kasita spoke was not her usual talking voice. It was almost like she was in some sort of daze, describing her experience without really experiencing it. She didn’t carry any conviction or emotion in her words.

“I don’t know how that thing exists. One moment, there was nothing there but the shadow of Tenebrael. Then it appeared, but it was a shadow like her until you grabbed it. Once it became a shadow, it wasn’t too strange. Almost like you in the dungeons. Then she did it again, appearing a book, I think it was, out of her shadows.”

“It was a book. A little black notebook that apparently tells the future.” Alyssa pressed her lips together and reached out, resting her hand on Kasita’s shoulder in some attempt to comfort her. She winced in preparation, expecting the burns on her hand to at least itch, but she didn’t feel anything at all. Actually looking at her hand, there wasn’t a sign of the burns. Glancing down at her shoulder, she didn’t feel much there either, though it was covered by her shirt. As a test, she tried stretching out her broken arm for the first time in two days.

Everything felt completely normal.

“What a bitch,” she whispered under her breath.

“Ufu~ Something wrong?”

Alyssa blinked. Right. Kasita. “Sorry. Not you. I just realized that Tenebrael healed me.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“If it were anyone else, maybe. But that stupid angel… Ugh. If she had meant it as a kind gesture, maybe. But I doubt that. She wants me grateful to her. She probably didn’t even think of me while healing me, just what it would mean for her.” Alyssa shook her head, trying not to grind her teeth together. It was a habit she needed to break. There weren’t proper dentists here in this world. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get moving.”

Kasita’s eyes widened before stepping back, out of Alyssa’s reach. “Oh. Of course we do.” A smile replaced an… expression on her face. “Your determination is what I like about you.”

Alyssa didn’t move. She stayed right where she was, staring at the mimic. “Kasita,” she said, voice softer. “I’m sorry. It isn’t that I don’t want to talk about what just happened with you. I’ll explain everything, my conversation with Tenebrael, what this does,” she said, gesturing to the phone. “But that little black book that predicts the future I mentioned? It predicted Irulon’s death. I have roughly twelve hours to stop whatever is going to happen to her.”

“It’s almost dark. Are you sure you want to be out? Tzheitza will yell at you for rushing off without thinking again.”

“Twelve hours. If I wait until daybreak, there will be hardly any time left. It’s going to take almost an hour just to get to the Observatorium from here.” With it almost dark, would Irulon still be there? If not, the palace wasn’t far. But would she be allowed in? Probably not. Especially not if she were ranting and raving about how the princess was in danger. “And I’m not not thinking. We’re just on a time limit. We can talk while we move… if you want to come, that is. I completely understand if you don’t. Last time I dragged you into something, you wound up all messed up.”

“I may not like humans in general, but I pay back my dues. Especially to the those who help me.”

“Irulon will surely be appreciative. I am. Let’s go and I’ll tell you what Tenebrael said as we move.”


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Author’s Note: Hey everyone, hope you’re enjoying so far. As usual, I’d appreciate a quick click over at Top Web Fiction. Enjoy the holiday if you’re in that section of the world! If you’re not, enjoy this soon to be extremely dated message anyway!

Vacant Throne — 014.002

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The Demon Angel Brings

Doctors of Death


“Stop stop stop! What are you doing?” Alyssa tugged at her hair, feeling like she was going insane. “You just changed his bandages! He has a festering, pus-filled wound! You didn’t even rinse off your hands before going to tend to the next poor man.”

Everything about this place reeked of the start of an epidemic. Figuratively and just possibly literally. The field hospital, which definitely was not worthy of the name, was little more than a single-room building with a dirt floor. Honestly, it looked like they had taken over some stables and hadn’t bothered cleaning before kicking the horses out. The floor was dirt and half the injured were lying on beds of straw that looked more like feeding troughs. The other half were lying straight on the floor. Apparently there were not enough beds to go around.

Not hygienic in the slightest. Though honestly, the beds were far from the worst part about the hospital. Neither was the fetid stench. She didn’t know how these people, doctors or patients, could stand to stay in the room. It did not have enough ventilation.

First of all, the injured men outnumbered the makeshift beds. Maybe thirty of the hay-stuffed troughs were spaced around the room. There was about a person and a half for each. Roughly forty to fifty people lay in varying states of health on the dirt floor. Many, especially those on the floor, had ragged blankets wrapped around them. Being right in the middle of the day, Alyssa didn’t know how they could stand that. The wooden building did little to keep out the heat of the sun. Once it turned night, the walls probably wouldn’t do much to keep in the heat.

From what she could tell, there was an average of three limbs per person in this room. And that included herself, Kasita, and the doctors in the average.

One man who had some wrappings tied around his bare chest turned on his side and spewed out brownish red liquid from his mouth, filling the room with a vile odor. It splashed onto a spot on the floor that clearly had seen such an occurrence before. Another man on the floor, already significantly closer to the next bed over, pressed himself up against the wooden sides of another bed to get as far away from the vomiting man as possible. As for the vomiting man, Alyssa didn’t know what was wrong with him. He had a thick layer of sweat covering every bit of exposed skin. The bandages around his waist and chest had clearly been white at one point in time, but were now encrusted with an orange color with whatever bodily fluids had seeped into them. His arms were withered almost to the point of being nothing more than skin and bones. Given that he had presumably been a soldier just a week ago, he had atrophied far too fast to be normal. The red in his vomit was probably a sign of some kind of internal bleeding, but Alyssa only knew some basic first aid, not in depth medicine. Even had she been an experienced doctor, she might still not know what was wrong with him given the simple fact that magic existed. For all she knew, this was the effect of the goblin poison Oz had mentioned.

There were… Alyssa wasn’t sure if they were nurses, doctors, or just random people from off the streets. Whatever their profession, they were men and women just trying to make the injured men more comfortable. Alyssa couldn’t tell if they had no medical training at all or if medical training in this world was just that abysmal. Three, including the older man she had just been shouting at, ran off to deal with the vomit in what was clearly a routine. None wore gloves. Which shocked Alyssa at first, but given the lack of latex in this world, fluids and bacteria would probably just cling to anything they wore more than their bare skin. Of course, the point was moot when none of them bothered to wash their hands.

Alyssa marched on over as well, though she was sure to keep a slight distance between herself and everything else. Tzheitza had been concerned about her catching some demonic plague, but here, she was bound to catch a mundane one. One of the three doctors had grabbed a bucket and was in the process of shoveling the detritus off the floor. The other two were trying to steady the man who vomited. A tremor in his body shook his shoulders violently enough that it took both people to hold him down. Some kind of seizure?

“You,” she said to the man shoveling vomit. “What is wrong with him?” She wasn’t talking about the seizure patient. He was probably going to die soon. Hopefully, even. Not to be morbid or self-centered, but having his soul eaten by Tenebrael would almost certainly be a mercy compared to what he was going through. That she would benefit from his death at the same time was hardly a consideration.

No, Alyssa gestured to the man on the floor. He looked well. Good even. His skin wasn’t pale or sickly. His muscles were still quite intact. If not for him missing one leg below the knee, she would have wondered why he wasn’t standing guard outside.

The doctor glanced down then back up to Alyssa, looking at her like she was an idiot. “His whole foot’s off.”

“Yes. I can see that. My eyes are entirely functional. Is he sick? Does he have a high fever? Is his amputation festering with infection?”

“It isn’t.” The doctor didn’t answer. The soldier did. “I feel fine, all things considered.”

Alyssa looked down to him. “Are you in pain?”

He pressed his lips together, eyes hard.

Pride? Ugh. “It’s fine if you’re in pain. Your leg is off. It would be strange if you weren’t in pain. How about this question then: When your bandages are changed, is there yellowish or greenish pus? Inflammation?”

He shook his head.

“And are they giving you anything for the pain? Something that couldn’t be delivered to the barracks next door?” For her second question, Alyssa turned to the doctor. The moment she saw them about to answer in the negatives, she just about lost her mind. “Then why is he still here? Why wasn’t he moved the first time you had to shovel vomit off the floor? Even if you needed him nearby, even if he couldn’t move his littlest finger, you should have shoved him off in some corner. If his leg—”

“We are trying to work here. You said you were looking for someone, but all you’ve done is disturb the patients.”

Alyssa. Wanted. To. Scream. “I’ve disturbed the patients? You’ve—”

A hand clamped down over Alyssa’s mouth, cutting off her raised voice. “I’m sorry,” Alyssa’s voice said from behind her. “I’m afraid my sister has become distraught at seeing so many injured hu— people. Please, carry on. I’ll talk to her.”

The older doctor glared, but he didn’t say a word as Kasita dragged Alyssa a few steps away.

“Do I need to remind you, sister, why we are here?” she hissed once they were a safe distance away. “Do you want to get kicked out?”

“I don’t understand what led these doctors to believe that their efforts are doing any kind of good. Why is that man even still here?”

“Maybe one of the others is a friend of his. He’s giving them support. Not our business nor our problem.”

“Then he would be better off giving his support from afar. All they’re doing is risking infection, crowding up an already crowded room, and putting other patients at risk.”

Kasita frowned, leaning against the wall next to the door out of the field hospital. The face she wore at the moment was nearly identical to Alyssa’s. Darker skin, brown hair, brown eyes, and a much more reasonable chest size compared to her usual. It was still larger than Alyssa’s, but not as big as her usual form. Kasita and Alyssa weren’t exactly the same—they were sisters, not clones—but someone passing by would see an obvious familial resemblance in an instant. Alyssa wasn’t sure why the mimic had chosen to go out like this. Kasita could appear as just about anything. It would have been a trivial matter to turn into a bracelet or even just a friend rather than a family member.

Alyssa hadn’t complained more than the token comment about how creepy it was to look at herself walking around. According to Kasita, a family member displaying obvious familiarity with another would be less likely to be checked for mimics than a random person showing up. Which didn’t make much sense to Alyssa. She was a random person who had shown up and no one had accused her of being a mimic.

“Risk is good,” Kasita said after a moment of silence. Her voice was a quiet whisper, not loud enough to be heard more than a step away. None of the doctors nor their patients would be able to understand a thing. “If these humans are killing their patients, then we just need to sit around and wait. We’re here for the dying, after all.”

“We’re here for one dying person. Not all of them.” Alyssa pointedly gazed at the man who had just vomited. The two who had been holding him down weren’t anymore. His seizures had stopped for the moment. They occupied their time just dabbing at the sweat covering his face. “It probably won’t be long for that one.” It was a wild guess. Not being a medical professional, Alyssa really couldn’t tell for sure. But he did not look good in the slightest. His seizure must have torn open his wounds again. Where his bandages had been crusty and orange, dark, almost black blood was spreading over the once white cloth. And still the two attending him just stood around wiping at his sweat. Had they given up completely?

The bucket man walked past them, opening the door and leaving the hospital with his bucket in tow. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t even give them the mildest of glances.

“Is this typical after a battle?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t participated in many human conflicts. Even if I wanted to, I’m not any use.”

“Nonsense. You’re probably more valuable than any single soldier. All you would need to do is slip behind enemy lines and report on troop movements, plans, leader positions, and equipment. And if you wind up sabotaging supplies, that could be huge. Even just impersonating an officer for a moment and sending some of the enemies off into an ambush could mean the difference between victory and defeat.”

“Yes, well, that relies on them not checking for mimics or other monsters. Something that I understand is quite common for exactly the reasons you’re proposing.”

So Kasita kept claiming. But Alyssa hadn’t seen any evidence of anyone checking. Not at the Observatorium. Not inside the Northgate Barracks or here. That wasn’t to say that Kasita was lying. Surely magic could check for mimics. It was just that she doubted it was as common as Kasita believed. Of course, if all it took was one time, the paranoia might be justified.

“What about monsters? Do elves have hospitals? Either permanent ones or something temporary like this?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t spent much time among the sick and dying. Human or monster. As much as I enjoy human suffering,” she paused to wrinkle her nose, “the smell is disagreeable.”

As she spoke, Alyssa’s scowl deepened. Not at Kasita’s words. She barely heard the mimic. It was the two doctors, leaving their seizure patient that prompted her frown. They barely wiped their hands on their aprons before moving to another patient. One of them glanced in her direction while wiping her hands only to snap her head forward the second she met Alyssa’s eyes. Which just made her scowl more. It felt… suspicious. Wrong.

Hanlon’s Razor. Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. It certainly fit in this situation. People of this world were geniuses sometimes, but utter idiots other times. They built these great towers and the giant palace. But they couldn’t start a fire without magic. Given how abysmal medical knowledge had been on Earth until the twentieth century, a society like this couldn’t be expected to have anything resembling good practices.

But there was a corollary to Hanlon’s Razor. Namely, but don’t rule out malice. The city had just been attacked by a few shadowy operatives who sought to take out key targets in order to weaken the city enough to actually march an army down here to conquer it all. Who was to say that they didn’t have other shadowy operatives running around deliberately sabotaging recovery efforts.

Granted, it seemed a bit foolish to kill off injured soldiers who were almost certainly out of commission permanently. Unless, of course, they were going to get their limbs regrown or replaced. That seemed a bit of a stretch though. Even for Tzheitza’s blue potion. But there was just something about the way the one doctor glanced in her direction. It was like she knew she was doing something wrong.

“Kasita?” Alyssa said in a voice even softer than their earlier whispers. The mimic actually had to lean forward. Her volume wasn’t helped by the way Alyssa turned her head to stare at the seizure patient. “What are the symptoms of the plague?”

As it turned out, monsters were just as concerned with the plague as humans, though it didn’t seem to affect most monsters. Elves, mostly. Which might mean their physiology was more than superficially similar to that of humans. It also meant that demons were almost certainly bad news for everyone, not just humans.

“He doesn’t have the plague,” Kasita said, matching Alyssa’s tone. “His eyes are blue. That’s the first thing to change whether he survives and changes or dies.”

“Could it—”

The door hit the wall with a thud. It made Kasita jump slightly… or maybe she jumped knowing that if she had been leaning against the wall on the other side of the doorway, she would have been smashed. It wouldn’t have hurt her, of course, but it would have been a bit difficult to explain.

Especially to the person marching into the room.

Captain Oxart strode in like she owned the place—she probably came closest to owning it out of anyone. And she did not look happy. Her gaze swept around the room before coming to a stop on Alyssa. Behind her, the doctor who had left with the bucket only moments ago leaned forward and whispered something in her ear. That something made the captain’s lips press together.

“You again,” she said, tone much more akin to when Alyssa and Ipo had interrupted her paperwork than the pleasant conversational tone during Alyssa’s occasional potion deliveries. “If Tzheitza sent you, you should have come to me. None here are authorized to accept potions. You certainly shouldn’t be disturbing my men.” Her eyes flicked over to Kasita. “And who is this?”

“My sister, Kasita.” The answer came surprisingly automatically. It was also the easier point to address. Alyssa’s eyes flicked to the doctor over Oxart’s shoulder. She really didn’t like the way he was just standing there, right behind the captain, watching with his sunken eyes. “Can we speak privately for a moment?”

Oxart narrowed her eyes, but nodded. She didn’t even need to say a word. Turning her head slightly toward the doctor was enough to send him moving around her to resume seeing to the patients, though Alyssa did note that he kept his eyes on them more than the injured. “What is it?”

“We came here looking for Ipo.”

“We heard he was here,” Kasita added in.

“Guardsman Ipo was not injured in the attack. He was never here. Or, if he was, it was only to visit another of my men.”

“Right. And we would have left once we saw him not here… but…” Alyssa licked her lips and resumed the soft whisper she had been using with Kasita. “How well do you know the… attendants here?”

Once again, Oxart looked around the room. This time, she paused ever so slightly on each of the doctors. When she locked eye contact with Alyssa, she looked more confused than angry. “I don’t see anything suspicious. What are you trying to tell me?”

“Well, it’s just that… They’re…” Alyssa took a deep breath, glancing to Kasita for support.

The mimic just smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

So much for that.

“When we first met, I told you I was a traveler. That is true, but what I didn’t say was that I am not a willing traveler. I arrived here through magical accident and have been searching for a way home, a place called America. Nobody else has heard of it, so I will be surprised if you have. But that’s not the point. The point is that we are extremely magic deprived. We don’t even have potions. At least, not like you know them. We’ve had to make do with more mundane methods of survival.

“Because of this, we have extensively researched the human body and everything that can cause harm to us. From simple cuts and scrapes, general illnesses, all the way to the most vicious diseases and even which parts of the brain do what. More importantly, we’ve devised methods to treat and cure just about everything that can possibly go wrong.” Alyssa looked over to where one of the doctors had started changing bandages. He took off the old ones and dropped them into a bucket before pulling new ones from a basket. All without washing his hands between, of course. “Frankly, every single person here would have been fired for gross incompetence, barred from working in any medical capacity for the rest of their lives, and, because of the military nature of the situation, likely investigated under suspicions of deliberate sabotage and possibly treason.”

“Treason,” Oxart said, voice hard as stone and just as cold. “These are good people. I’ve known Banfry for years.” She nodded ever so slightly toward one of the doctors. Which exactly, Alyssa didn’t bother trying to figure out.

“Yes.” Alyssa ran her fingers through her hair. “I am sure they mean well if you know them… but that doesn’t change the fact that they are doing more harm than good. They are potentially killing your men, Captain Oxart.”

She sucked in a sharp breath. “You think you can do better?”

“No. No I don’t. I was a… lumber hauler. But I know enough to know that, at the very least, they need to be washing their hands before and after… everything. Every single thing. There are little… monsters that live in all of us. They can’t think, so maybe they don’t count as monsters. My people called them bacteria. But anyway, they’re small enough that you can’t see them without special equipment and they can hurt us. Most of the time, our bodies fight them off naturally, but when we’re injured, they can make us very sick. And they can spread. If that doctor over there touches a patient’s injuries and then just wipes his hands on his shirt before moving on to the next, the second patient can get the bacteria passed on to them when they might otherwise not have it.

“And it’s more than just washing hands. If possible, everyone should be given private rooms. If not, they at least need to be separated from each other enough so that when that guy,” Alyssa paused to point, “throws up, it doesn’t get all over the poor guy on the floor between him and the next bed. That can transfer bacteria as well.”

Alyssa took a deep breath, feeling something like an idiot. She knew what she was saying was right, if heavily dumbed down, but the look she was getting from Oxart, a woman undoubtedly more worldly experienced than Alyssa—especially regarding this world—was not an encouraging one.

“Monsters,” she said, tone flat. “Living inside us.”

“Yes—No…” Alyssa slapped her forehead with a groan. “They’re single celled—which probably doesn’t mean anything to you. But we’re made up of millions—”

“Captain.” Kasita cut in, actually stepping forward to partially block Alyssa and Oxart off from each other. “I don’t know you, but you’re well decorated,” she said with a gesture toward the almost trench-coat-like uniform that Oxart wore and the few shiny bits of metal attached to her chest. “Presumably knowledgeable about many monsters as well, right?”

“Your point?”

“Then you should be well aware that monsters come in many shapes and sizes. Not all of which have been cataloged with the guild, though maybe your books are different than those our people had. Still, who is to say that an unknown monster can’t be hiding right under everyone’s nose?” She smiled a bright, almost too-wide smile.

“Thank you sister!” Alyssa said in a hurry, putting an arm on Kasita’s shoulder and slightly pulling her back before she could give herself away. “Forgive Kasita, she is a little overeager. But she isn’t exactly wrong. Like I said, they aren’t quite monsters. But like she said, there are millions of creatures that most people haven’t even discovered yet. Even my people, well versed in all this, were discovering new—”

One of the doctors shouted out, garnering the attention of the others. All three of them rushed over to the poor man who had just been vomiting. He shook again. Another seizure. But where his movements had been quite violent earlier, now they were weak, barely shaking tremors. Two held him down again. The third came over and mostly just looked at him. As if he didn’t know what to do.

To be fair, Alyssa didn’t know what to do either. Except that he should be turned on his side to prevent him from drowning on his own vomit. Although, at this point, that might be more of a mercy than anything else.

The third doctor leaned back and moved to a corner of the room where a number of supplies were stored. Fresh linen and such. He took a small jar off a shelf. It had something in it. Something small, black, and a bit shiny. Whatever it was moved as well. Not just because he shook the jar taking it off the shelf, but under its own power. It was alive.

He pulled the cork off the jar and slammed the opening down right on the patient’s arm. Which gave Alyssa a clear view of just what was inside.

“A leech,” Alyssa said in disbelief. An actual leech. It latched on to the man’s arm and started undulating. No wonder the man was so emaciated. “If I’m ever injured, please do not take me to a place like this,” she whispered to Kasita. At this moment, she felt so grateful to have made contact with Tzheitza. The potioneer might have backwards theories on medicine, but at least she also had magical potions that actually worked.

Though, she did remember reading a thread on the internet recently that mentioned some modern medicinal uses for leeches. What those uses actually were slipped her mind. Regardless, she didn’t think seizure treatment was among them. And it had been on the internet, making its validity suspect.

Whatever the doctor had been hoping the leech would accomplish obviously did not pan out for him. The seizure did subside, but so did the rise and fall of the patient’s chest with each labored breath.

The female doctor looked across to her colleague and shook her head slightly as she released the patient’s shoulders. Two of her fingers were pressed firmly against the patient’s neck. Checking for a pulse? At least they had that going for them. Alyssa still wouldn’t want to be under their care.

Alyssa found herself with a renewed interest in medical magics. And to figure out how much it would actually cost to get Tzheitza to make her a vial of that blue healing potion. Anything she could do to take care of herself over being subjected to barbaric practices. Once she had her phone back, she might spend a little time looking into homemade medicines. Penicillin was just bread mold, right? Surely a guide existed on the internet of how to refine it into something useful.

As for her phone… Alyssa moved a few steps closer to the body. Tenebrael hadn’t ever appeared the instant someone died, but Alyssa wanted to be ready. If needed, she would be tackling the angel to the ground to keep her from running off.

“Ufu~”

Alyssa’s eyes widened at that giggle. She just about rushed over to clamp her own hand over the mimic’s mouth. But she didn’t want to move further away from the corpse. Instead, she just ground her teeth and clenched her fists, hoping that Kasita wasn’t about to do something that would give her away.

“Even if you don’t believe in tiny monsters, keeping your men together like this can only harm morale when one inevitably succumbs to the void.”

“Thank you, Kasita. But perhaps not the time.” How long had it been before Tenebrael had shown at the other deaths? Less than a minute for the first burglar back on Earth, but she had said that she had been running late. Svotty had been long enough for her to kill the guard and order Bacco and Cid around a bit. Probably a minute or two at the least. The troll? More than that, but it had been an extremely busy night, presumably.

It took a full minute, but she spotted it. There! A black feather! Two. Three. A dozen of them.

Tenebrael appeared in the room just at the foot of the patient’s bed, scattering more feathers everywhere with her appearance. They disappeared the second they came into contact with anything solid, save for Alyssa, but Alyssa didn’t have eyes for any one of them. Her focus was on the angel’s back. The black feathered wings were already diving toward the corpse. Like with the festival, she didn’t even seem aware that Alyssa was standing a step away.

So Alyssa took another step forward and gripped the angel’s wrist like a vice.


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