Vacant Throne — 033.013

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War And Peace

Help From Above


Iosefael hovered in the air high above the group of mortals. She stared down with piercing eyes, just as unblinking as Irulon’s. Both of them were focused on Izsha’s body. Or rather, both were focused on Izsha. Irulon couldn’t see souls and Alyssa doubted that Iosefael cared much about bodies.

She had not returned empty-handed. One of Iosefael’s hands was wrapped up in that golden glove that stretched halfway up her arm. Her other hand held a familiar staff. Adrael’s golden staff matched Iosefael’s armor well, but it clearly had not come away unscathed from being knocked away from Izsha. The ruby head of the staff had a long crack running through it. Gold around the opposite end of the staff had deep gouges lining the gold. Almost like a clawed hand had been trying to grasp it. Looking closer, the gold of Iosefael’s armor also had been scuffed up and… Was that blood drying on one of her boots?

Maybe being knocked away hadn’t harmed it at all.

The angel slowly drifted lower to the ground. Alyssa kept an eye on her, making sure that she wasn’t about to try to take Izsha’s soul. But, if anything, she almost appeared afraid of Izsha. Her movement carried her away from the draken until she settled to a stop near the ground just behind Alyssa.

“What did you do?” she hissed after a moment, still without blinking or looking away from the body.

“It wasn’t me this time. Irulon did it.”

Irulon turned her head, eyes flicking to Alyssa for just a moment before a look of understanding crossed her features. As she looked back to Izsha, she spoke. “An attempt at restoring soul-body resonance, Miss Angel. How does it look? I think it’s going quite well, but I suppose you would be an expert in these matters.”

“How does it look? How does it look?” Iosefael covered her mouth with her golden-gloved hand, rubbing at her cheeks before throwing the hand up in the air. “How… How did you do this?”

Alyssa looked back to Irulon, staring for a moment. But the princess made no sign that she was going to answer. She just stared at the now still but still breathing form of Izsha with her hands clasped behind her back.

It took an embarrassingly long moment to realize that Irulon wasn’t simply ignoring the angel. Irulon couldn’t see or hear anything the angel did.

“Just answer the question, Iosefael. How does it look? How is Izsha? Is it… right? Is the soul back to normal?”

“Normal? There’s nothing normal about any of this!” Iosefael tried to take a step closer, but Alyssa clapped a hand on her shoulder, stopping her. The angel finally took her eyes off Izsha to frown at Alyssa. “I’m not… I don’t even think I could take the soul right now. It’s not perfectly synchronized, but it is synchronized enough that, if I didn’t already know what happened, I would have thought that the relic was just having a bad day.”

“That’s… good. Right?”

“I don’t know! This has never happened before. Ever.” Her cross-shaped pupils flicked over to Irulon. “Well, except for that abomination. But that isn’t really that similar at all. Two souls occupying—”

“We’re aware of that problem. Focus on Izsha now, please.”

Iosefael fell silent, staring for a long moment. Again, she tried to get closer. This time, Alyssa allowed her to move forward a few steps, but she kept right up against her, ready to stop her if she tried to take the soul away. “The synchronization is off,” she said eventually. “Like a… Oh! You humans say that your hearts skipped a beat? It’s like that. Every other beat is in time, but the off beats are staggered erroneously.”

“Alright. How do we fix it?”

“I assume destroying the relic again is out of the question?”

“Obviously.”

Iosefael let out a short harrumph. “Then I don’t know. I don’t have any experience with this. Maybe it will fix itself. Maybe it will fall further out of sync until I can take the soul back like normal.”

“Some help you are,” Alyssa grumbled, rolling her eyes. Though, to be perfectly honest, she didn’t know what she had expected of Iosefael. It was apparently one thing to help by discussing the Astral Authority and miracles. It was another entirely when souls were concerned.

Irulon turned away from Izsha, looking to Alyssa. “What did she say?”

“The synchronization is off. It might fix itself. It might break itself again. Iosefael doesn’t know, nor does she have any suggestions.”

“Does she have a timeframe for either option?”

Not needing to translate from Irulon to Iosefael, Alyssa simply looked toward the angel.

Iosefael just shrugged.

“No. She’s worthless.”

“Hey!”

“Well, I might be able to fix it,” Irulon said, looking back to Izsha. “But let’s wait and observe a bit before we do anything.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, but nodded her head. Irulon was the expert, after all. Apparently even more so than Iosefael. “Can Izsha be moved? We’re still deep within enemy territory. Even if the demons and the Astral Authority are busy with each other, I’d rather not have a stray being get flung from the battle and find us out here.”

“Levitation shouldn’t hurt anything. Just don’t drop Izsha. That probably wouldn’t do the poor draken any favors.”

“Right.” Alyssa looked over to Iosefael and the staff in her hands. “And what about you? Are you going to follow us around like some kind of banshee?”

“There are other people dying. I had to collect a few before coming back here. I have to go collect others shortly. But I’ll probably be back. Something is still off about this soul. And if it does deteriorate, I would hate to not notice because of the strangeness of its situation, leaving it rotting inside the body.”

“If it comes to that, I’ll handle it.”

“Like you handled it last time?” Iosefael snapped. “Would you even notice if something went wrong?”

Alyssa opened her mouth to argue, but hesitated. She honestly wouldn’t notice if something went wrong. That was the whole reason she had asked Iosefael to look at Izsha just a moment ago despite knowing that the angel wanted to take the soul. Looking back to Izsha, Alyssa closed her eyes and just watched for a moment. Iosefael said that the synchronization was off. But, no matter how long she stared, she couldn’t figure out how the angel discovered that. Unless Iosefael was using some other sensory ability that Alyssa either couldn’t access or didn’t know she had, it might just be something innate to angels. Or it came from centuries of practice.

Either way, even if she figured out exactly what to look for regarding the synchronization, there could still be a plethora of things she might miss simply because she was not an angel nor experienced with souls.

When she opened her eyes again, Iosefael was gone. The only evidence of her presence were a few feathers drifting through the air. The staff was nowhere to be seen either. She must have taken it with her.

“She’s gone,” Alyssa said for the benefit of Irulon. “And had nothing useful to offer aside from what I already mentioned.”

“That could be helpful enough for our needs. But you were right earlier. We should leave as soon as possible. I’ll speak with my brother and let him know of the changed situation. Do you need additional Levitation spells?”

“No. I have enough for now.”

“Very well. Keep an eye on Izsha for a few moments,” Irulon said as she started walking off to where Brakkt, Fela, and the draken had set up watch.

Alyssa sighed as she looked down to Izsha. She should have felt some relief. Although the synchronization was skipping a beat, Izsha’s body and soul were in tune enough that Iosefael wasn’t going to try to ferry her off to the Throne. That was a victory all on its own. But Alyssa still had that gnawing feeling in the back of her mind where she worried over just what she was doing. Of whether the was destroying Izsha on a far deeper level than simple death. Then again, even with all she knew now, she still didn’t really know what happened to souls that the angels collected. The non-Tenebrael angels, anyway.

A hand dropped down on her shoulder. Looking back, Alyssa found Kasita offering a comforting smile. For a long moment, neither spoke. Kasita hadn’t said much of anything during the few hours it took to reach Irulon and Brakkt. She alternated between concerned looks, comforting smiles, and having her teeth grit as she stared at nothing at all.

“It’s my fault,” Kasita finally said, voice a mere whisper.

“What? No, if anything—”

“I should have stuck with Izsha instead of being blown away. Maybe I could have cast a spell. Projectile Reflection would have stopped all those flying chunks of earth and rock. Or maybe if I had been able to get those infected off our tail, we could have met up with you. Or if I had been stronger, I could have stopped you from falling in the first place.”

“Kasita… All those apply just as much to me as they do to you.”

“But I can’t control what you do. Only what I do.”

“That’s… true. In a technical sense. But we all could have done things differently that would have affected each other.” Alyssa just shook her head. “It will be fine,” she said, not quite believing her own words. “Izsha is… injured. Nothing more at this point. We’ve got to look on the bright side of things. We got in, accomplished what we came to do, and got out. It was for Tenebrael, but with the demons occupied with the Astral Authority, it should help everyone around the area too. Illuna hopefully won’t have to worry about infected wandering up to their town, killing people and livestock. Maybe the Astral Authority will even beat back that sense of foreboding. Or perhaps Tenebrael’s emblem will hang in the sky for a long time, keeping that feeling from coming back.”

“Oh I doubt that will be the case.”

Alyssa jumped, jerking slightly as she turned to find a certain monochrome angel standing near Izsha’s tail.

Gritting her teeth, she glared at the angel. “Do you have to always appear behind me?”

“I think you said something like that before.”

“And yet you’re still appearing behind me.”

Tenebrael shrugged, turning her gaze to Izsha’s body. “Sorry about your friend.”

“Is there anything you can do? Or anything you can tell me that Iosefael didn’t?”

“Well, no to the first question. The body is already healed. I can’t do anything about the soul unless the body dies, and you wouldn’t like what I would do if that were the case. As for Iosefael, I don’t know what she said, but the body and soul are not quite—”

“In sync, I know. The soul is skipping a beat, or something. Irulon thinks she can fix it, but…”

“Hmm. That girl is truly worthy of emulating my appearance,” Tenebrael said with a small smile.

“Can she actually do it?”

“If she got this far, I don’t see why not.”

“Any insight you can offer? Any tips to point her in the right direction?”

Tenebrael rubbed a finger across her chin as she turned to where Irulon and Brakkt were talking. With his armor on, Alyssa couldn’t see his expression. He had been… silent when Alyssa told him what had happened. Only after she finished had he offered a small nod, thanking her for trying her best. After that, his helmet turned to Irulon and hadn’t left until she said that she was going to look into it.

Now, Irulon gesticulated, waving her hand over and over again. Not in any particular direction, merely moving it as she spoke, perhaps waving her own way on to the next segment of the topic. She wasn’t smiling, but she was much more animated than earlier, maybe trying to be encouraging for her brother.

“Perhaps,” Tenebrael said slowly. “Perhaps there is something I can do. Nothing big, mind you. Don’t expect this to solve all your problems. She already knows a great deal about souls. Perhaps even more than any mortal that has ever existed. But it isn’t everything. I might be able to give her a little flash of Divine Inspiration. Just a little insight into the inner workings of a soul. That might help her out. It might do nothing. I’m really not sure.”

“You can do that?”

“Just who do you think I am?” Tenebrael said, affronted.

“I mean, you’re not going to get into more trouble if you start giving hints to mortals? Or your programming isn’t going to kick in and force you to say something wrong, if you say anything at all?”

“I have a feeling that there aren’t many more people that I could get into trouble with. The Astral Authority is already here.”

“Archangels won’t care?”

Tenebrael shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not too worried about them. Without being assigned to this world, they won’t care that much. Look at Kenziel. She showed up wanting to fix the place but switched her story to wanting to help me at the first sign of resistance.”

“What happens if a few dozen of them show up instead of one lone angel?”

“Then they will understand just what difference in power a Dominion can exert over that of an Archangel.”

Alyssa frowned. It wasn’t that she was trying to talk Tenebrael out of giving Irulon knowledge that might help. Rather, it sounded excellent. Almost too good to be true. Or maybe it was too good to be true and that was where her hesitation was coming from.

A horde of Archangels still didn’t sound like that great of a thing to show up. Considering how long Adrael had operated without even being known about and then how little Tenebrael had done after that point, Alyssa didn’t like the odds of her succeeding against several of them. Besides that, they still had the Astral Authority to worry about. They might be occupied with the demons now, but if Tenebrael started throwing around magic with her name on it, some of them would surely come to take her out.

“And your programming?”

“Will have to be worked around. Already I can feel the mental blocks trying to stop me. But I can see a way. Tell Irulon to pay attention to her dreams tonight.”

“Really?” Alyssa said, giving the angel a flat stare. “Dream inspiration? Isn’t that a bit cliche? Can’t you just tell me and I’ll tell her? Or better yet, just write it all down in a nice easy-to-read tome so that things don’t get lost and forgotten with sleep haze.”

“It’s the easiest way, I think. I can’t tell you. I just tried, but I can’t even imagine myself saying words when I do. Writing it down would be similar. But a dream is a small bit different. Many revelations come through in dreams, partially because elements will be forgotten or changed upon awaking.”

“I hate angels.”

“I’m sure.”

“What about the Astral Authority?”

Tenebrael smiled, looking far more relaxed as she placed a hand on Alyssa’s shoulder. “You did well. Just leave everything else to me.”

Alyssa let out a small sigh, glad she didn’t have to do anything more on that front. She had, over the last few weeks, had enough of those things chasing her down every time they spotted her. Though that did raise a question. “Is it safe to use our connection to manifest miracles? Is the Astral Authority sufficiently distracted?”

“I suppose that depends.”

“Would they come after me if I made just a little temporary portal to Illuna?”

“Possibly. If you got away from the portal fast enough, it might be safe enough. I imagine they are in a bit of disarray so soon after discovering the pit, so it might be that no one at all will show up.”

“That would be nice.”

“I would avoid relying on it too much in the coming weeks, however. Only during emergencies and only when you can escape their pursuit easily.”

“So nothing has changed then.”

“Perhaps on your end, but I am now free to begin removing the Astral Authority from my world on a more permanent basis. Something I’m off to do right now.” Taking her hand off Alyssa’s shoulder, she took two steps back, waving all the while.

“Wait. Can you make the portal?”

Tenebrael tilted her head to one side. “You’ve created a few just fine on your own.”

“Yeah, but I would prefer to be absolutely certain that nothing will go wrong. Not with Izsha like this.”

“Hmmm.”

Besides that, Alyssa thought to herself, maybe the Astral Authority will chase you around instead if they do take notice. Skipping out on that headache would make just about any compromise worth it.

“I would like to do something to thank you for accomplishing my mission, but I am not sure I can manifest such a miracle without proper authorization. Soon. Soon I should be able to ignore many instances of such irritation, but not yet. Is there anything else you would like to ask of me?”

Yes, Alyssa almost said. She was sure that she had other things to talk about. But with most of her mind concerned over Izsha and the rest drained from the adventure, she was drawing a blank. So, after a moment of silence, she simply shook her head. “I suppose all I’d like is for you to answer the phone once in a while.”

“Believe it or not, but that requires quite an expenditure of my power. Enough that the Astral Authority would likely come knocking on both our doors. After they are gone, I promise.”

“I see. In that case, I don’t think I have anything immediately pressing. Just get your information to Irulon, I suppose.”

“Can do. I’ll check in soon. I’d like to know what Irulon does with the information I’m lending her. I’ll prepare it and then begin my operation against the Astral Authority. And any other divine elements that feel like challenging me. Ta-ta for now.”

In a burst of black feathers, Tenebrael vanished. Sighing, Alyssa turned to look at Kasita. The mimic hadn’t said anything during the entire exchange. She usually didn’t when Tenebrael was around, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise. Still, it would be nice for someone, not just Kasita, to be able to turn one-on-one conversations into more of a group discussion. Irulon could do that to an extent. And if she had pulled out her phone, anyone could have seen Tenebrael though the camera, though not with audio.

“I have to make a portal,” Alyssa said after a moment of silence. “Could you let Irulon know that she should be expecting Tenebrael to show up in her dreams tonight?”

“Ufu~ What an honor. She’ll be thrilled.”


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Vacant Throne — 033.012

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War And Peace

Where It Belongs


Alyssa paced back and forth, hands nervously rubbing against each other as she watched Irulon take notes in a large book. Brakkt stood to one side, fully armored up as he, Fela, Ensou, Musca, and Dasca all kept watch for any hostile threats that might approach. They were still deep in the demon’s territory. None were around as far as Alyssa could see, but she had seen several likely feral infected making their way toward the pit as if called there. Any further out might pass through their little camp on the way.

And they probably wouldn’t be too friendly.

With Izsha’s body lying on the forest floor, they weren’t all that mobile if something did happen.

Alyssa clenched her fists as she stared at the body. It was still alive. Carrying it with a Levitation spell for nearly ten hours hadn’t changed that. Given the lack of change, it would probably remain alive until it starved to death as Iosefael had said, which might very well be a few weeks out. Even that might be avoided by shoving food down its throat. Muscle would atrophy, but they could theoretically keep the body alive as long as necessary to work on it.

Izsha’s body was effectively a coma patient. In the modern world, comatose patients could be kept alive through feeding tubes and intravenous liquids. It might not be as easy here in Nod with the lack of proper medical equipment and knowledge, but something could be worked out.

Whether or not anything could be done regarding Izsha’s soul was the real concern.

Alyssa had tried calling Tenebrael. The angel hadn’t answered. Alyssa really hadn’t expected her to do so. Not while they were only a quick walk from the pit, the Astral Authority, and the demons. She had shown up in Lyria while they were a lot closer, but there hadn’t been the gigantic Justice there.

She really hoped that she wasn’t going to be ignored until the next time Tenebrael needed something. Alyssa hadn’t gotten that vibe from their conversation in Lyria, but there was still doubt eating away at the back of her mind. If they got to Illuna and Tenebrael was still ignoring her, she might have to try some angelic magic to get Tenebrael down here. Alyssa thought she was getting the hang of using it more and more, so she might be able to do something where she hadn’t been able to before.

Then again, she hadn’t been able to fix Izsha.

But maybe relying on Tenebrael for that had been the wrong way to go about things. As Iosefael said, Tenebrael wasn’t able to fix death. It stood to reason that Alyssa wouldn’t be able to do so either. At least not while using Tenebrael’s magic and expecting her to do most of the work.

Alyssa stopped her pacing, pausing near Irulon.

She might actually be the best bet. At the very least, Irulon wasn’t tied down by the programming of the angels. Nor did she have their fatalistic outlook on souls and death.

So when Irulon put her pen down in the crack of the book, Alyssa looked to her with a modicum of hope.

“There might be something we can do,” Irulon said after a long moment of silence.

It was the first time anyone had spoken since Alyssa had explained what happened. And it was good news. Though Irulon’s tone of voice wasn’t exactly the most reassuring thing. Her face was set in stone, a grim glower as she stared at Izsha’s body with her draconic eyes.

“You said you have Izsha’s soul, right?”

“Yeah. It’s definitely inside me,” Alyssa said as she closed her eyes. “I can’t see myself still, but I can see Izsha.”

“You’re sure it is Izsha and not yourself? How do you tell the difference?”

“I was never able to see myself. I think… It’s kind of like how I can’t see my own eyes. I’m using my own soul to see so I can’t see it? If that analogy works. I haven’t been able to talk to Izsha though, not like you seem to be able to do with the dragon.”

“That doesn’t surprise me too much given what you said. I believe I ran across that synchronization issue you mentioned during my own ritual with the dragon. I didn’t call it that. I referred to it as our resonance. Part of the process in salvaging the dragon’s soul was aligning its resonance with my own. If you didn’t do that, communication would be impossible. In fact… I’m a little worried about the degradation of the soul that occurs if left in a corpse. You aren’t a corpse, but it is probably the broken resonance—the broken synchronization that actually causes the problem the angels mentioned.”

Ice flowed through Alyssa’s veins. “It’s been… almost half a day!”

“I’m sure it is better than being in a rotting corpse, but we shouldn’t leave Izsha there for too long. You can extract the soul, correct?”

“I think so. I mean, yes. I’m sure I can. Though it might attract the Astral Authority.” The mystic circles that had allowed manipulation of Izsha’s soul had long since dissipated. But Alyssa was fairly sure that she could reactivate them without too much trouble. Maybe even with a much shorter request.

She wondered if it said something that the one truly sincere… prayer—as much as she hated to use that word—had ended up failing. Though, perhaps she couldn’t say that it failed completely. It had allowed her to keep the soul out of Iosefael’s hands at least. But if it was hurting Izsha…

“Tenebrael,” Alyssa said, closing her eyes. “I need help. Again. The same thing as last time. A way to extract souls from their containers and manipulate them.”

Even with her eyes closed, she could see the mystic circles drawing themselves out in front of her. As expected, they popped up without much effort or work on her part. In fact, she could probably have just asked for a repeat of the previous miracle without any additional pomp and circumstance. As if knowing Alyssa’s intentions, the circles were right up next to her body. Stretching her arms out, Alyssa was able to reach inside herself.

As far as she could tell from a simple glance, Izsha’s soul wasn’t actually fighting with her soul. In Irulon, the dual souls were constantly warring with each other, grabbing pieces from the other and absorbing them only to have the same done in turn moments later. In comparison, Izsha’s soul was fairly inert. There was some motion. Every once in a while, it would do the normal interaction with something that Alyssa couldn’t see. Presumably her own soul. Even rarer, it would do it to someone else, sending off or receiving a small piece of someone else’s soul.

Having heard what Irulon just said, that lack of fighting was probably because they weren’t synchronized or resonating with each other. Izsha’s soul, at this moment, was just hitching a ride around. And hopefully not undergoing pain in the process. Or maybe pain was the wrong word—Alyssa still wasn’t perfectly clear on what happened to souls that went uncollected in their deceased bodies. She wasn’t sure that she could really understand what happened to them without learning a whole lot more about souls in general. Maybe Irulon might be able to figure it out, but the knowledge was far too specialized at this point.

This time, Alyssa didn’t get a surge of warmth from brushing her fingers against Izsha’s soul. Rather, drawing it outside her body had the opposite effect. A chill set in. A cold winter breeze knocked snow off the branches of an overhead tree right down the back of her shirt. The icy snow slowly melted to a cold water that soaked into her shirt, spreading over her entire backside. It was a… distinctly unpleasant sensation.

And it must have shown on her face.

“Is something wrong?”

“No. I don’t think so. Izsha’s soul is right here. It was just a bit discomforting to pull out.”

“You didn’t accidentally pull your own soul out, did you?”

Alyssa blinked and promptly shuddered a shudder completely unrelated to the cold sensation. “I hadn’t even considered that to be a possibility until just now. But I’m pretty sure I would have died if I had done so, so I don’t think so. Izsha’s soul is entirely here as well. No part of it looks like it’s left inside me. At least as far as I can tell.”

“You would know better than anyone, I suppose.” Irulon, eyes still black and white, stared at where Alyssa held out her hands.

But, Alyssa could tell, Irulon wasn’t actually tracking the soul. With it out of her body, she could see it without needing to close her eyes and start concentrating. It was just there, gently flowing around like a scaled candle flame. If that made any kind of sense.

“Can you see it?”

“No,” Irulon said, slight disappointment apparent in the tone of her clipped response. “That ability would have been exceedingly handy in my own ritual. The vast majority of the problem was figuring out how to extract the dragon’s soul and transfer it to my body without killing either of us.”

“If there is one thing angels are good at, it’s interacting with souls.”

“Hm.”

“Do you want the soul back in Izsha’s body now?”

“Hold it for a moment,” she said, picking up her pen once again.

Irulon started sketching. She started with a wide circle, filling in geometric lines and shapes, even smaller circles connected to the inside edge of the larger one. But after a minute of drawing, she paused, shook her head, and flipped to the next page in her notebook. This time, she started with a circle again, but the patterns of lines differed on the interior. Some segments even extended outside the circle.

And again, she hesitated mid-stroke, flipped the page, and started over again.

For twenty minutes, she continued sketching out spells. For twenty minutes, she flipped pages after dismissing pattern after pattern. Her eyes remained black and white the entire time. The little white lines were rotating around as fast as Alyssa had ever seen them. Half the notebook went by before Irulon finally seemed satisfied with a pattern.

Then she pulled out a second notebook. Holding both in front of her, she started tracing the pattern that she had ended up with onto the proper spell card paper.

And then she went back to the first notebook and started a new page. Words, now. Or rather, Enochian. Line after line of various Enochian characters covered the page. As with the patterns, she discarded large swaths of the characters. She would dip her pen in the vial of ink attached to her hip and drag it across entire lines. But she seemed to make progress. Some characters were left out of her deletions. Some would get a small dot in one corner rather than the line through the center.

After another twenty minutes, she had managed to pull out a few dozen characters from several pages of the notebook. Then, she went back to the spell notebook and started filling them in, creating a recognizable spell card. One far more complex, both in pattern geometry and the Enochian characters, than anything Alyssa had ever seen. Before this, Accelero had been the most painstaking to draw out, and she had been tracing it off the picture she had taken of the actual card. Just that had taken her as many attempts as all of the Spectral Chains cards she had created ever.

Irulon free-handed everything.

“Is that how spell creation works? Did I just watch you create a spell?”

“In reverse order, yes and no. This is a variant on what I used to get the dragon’s soul resonating properly. Heavily modified, of course. Normal spell creation would be a far more involved and complex process. I’ve already done something like this before and…” Irulon raised her pen to tap at her temple. Her eyes flickered between their normal violet and the black and white of the dragon. “My peers would say that I cheat, if they knew. The original took me nearly three weeks of work and experimentation. My companion allows me to skip a lot of trial and error.”

“There aren’t going to be errors… are there?”

“I admit, I would have preferred a longer testing period. Unfortunately, we lack both time and test subjects. I don’t believe this will fully work, but it should act as a temporary measure while I do some proper research. Place the soul in the proper body, please.”

Alyssa hesitated. She had confidence in Irulon. At least, as much confidence as was possible to have with her admitting that she wanted more time. At the very least, she didn’t think that Irulon would deliberately try to sabotage anything. She wouldn’t try to hurt Izsha.

Still, she hesitated. Iosefael had been right. Alyssa really didn’t know what she was messing with. And if her meddling did something irreparable to Izsha…

She wished Tenebrael were here. Unlike Iosefael, Tenebrael would likely try to help, although she might have mental blocks preventing her from doing too much. At the very least, she would be able to identify any problems with Izsha after Irulon’s spell did whatever it was supposed to do…

“What does the spell do?”

“A soul is a surprisingly malleable thing. I’ve learned how to make small modifications to it. That’s what I did to my companion. It is also one of the principles under which my Toymaker spells work, though that is significantly less precise and quite destructive to the soul. Still, they all served as valuable test subjects for this task today.”

That probably explained why no angels—or demons, for that matter—showed up to take the goblin souls back at the desert outpost. The souls were destroyed beyond the point of being salvageable. That… was probably not a good thing no matter what ended up happening. Later, she might try to convince Irulon to not use more of those Toymaker spells.

“As for exactly what it does, it should fluctuate the resonance of the soul until it matches that of the body. I think. As I said, it will require further tuning, but it should be better for the soul than leaving it in your body. And lessens the risk to you in the process. A concern I have given what you said about me and my companion.”

The companion that she didn’t want to separate from. Though, Alyssa wasn’t sure that she could blame Irulon. Not when the dragon let her craft a complex spell in only a few hours. But… “I don’t mind the risk. Not as long as it helps Izsha. And I’d rather risk myself than accidentally hurt Izsha. Maybe we should wait and just make sure that your spell is the best it can be.”

“You don’t just risk yourself, but Izsha as well. Regardless, I don’t believe that there is a good solution here. No matter what, there is going to be risks. My method eliminates risk for you, which is a drastic step up over keeping Izsha’s soul in your body on a semi-permanent basis.”

“That’s…”

“And if you’re still hesitant, consider this: If something happens to you, who else around could possibly put souls back in their proper places?”

“You?”

“Ah, but I can’t fight off Iosefael if she comes back for Izsha’s soul. Or yours, for that matter.”

Alyssa nodded slowly at that. Irulon had a point there. Of everyone present, only Kasita could detect angels. Even then, it was a fairly vague detection. And one that only worked if she was paying absolute attention.

Taking a breath, she looked down at the soul in her arms. It gently wafted one way then the other during Irulon’s endeavors, but now, it was sitting still, maybe even perked up. If Alyssa hadn’t known better, she would have thought that it was paying attention.

Actually, she didn’t know better. Her assumption might very well be correct.

“Alright,” she said, stepping up to Izsha’s body. “Alright. I’ll put it back. It’s probably how things should go anyway Izsha belongs in its own body.”

“Hm.”

Leaning down, Alyssa stretched out her arms. Watching with her eyes open was a strange thing. The soul, her hands, and even arms up to her elbows just sank into the body. If she wasn’t so worried about Izsha, she might have tried waving a hand around a bit, even going so far as to play in it like the body was a pool of water. It had a similar texture and feel, surprisingly.

But, as it was, Alyssa closed her eyes and watched as the soul spread out to fill most of the chest before spreading up to the head. With it in place, she withdrew her arms.

As she did, even more of that warmth left her body. She didn’t know why Izsha’s soul was so warm. Those others that she had handled, the ones she had turned into their crystallized forms, hadn’t felt so warm. Perhaps it was something to do with her being a monster. Or maybe, because she was connected to Tenebrael now, she could feel something that she hadn’t before. That, thinking about it for a moment more, was most likely the reason. She could see souls in bodies, so she could feel them too.

Irulon watched her intently as she stepped away. “Peculiar,” she said. How do your hands pass through the flesh like that?”

Alyssa looked down at her own hands, still coated with the stretched out, glove-like mystic circles. All she could do was shake her head. “I don’t have any idea.”

“It was a rhetorical question,” Irulon said, pulling a small dagger out of a pouch at her hip. With the notebook open on Izsha’s side, she dragged the dagger down one edge, neatly slicing the piece of papyrus from the rest of the notebook. The sheet was much larger than standard spell cards. Maybe as large as a three-by-three grid of them.

After slipping the dagger back where it came from, she held the giant spell card out in front of her like it was any other card. “Resonation,” she intoned, voice low.

The card vanished in a puff of smoke.

Immediately, Izsha’s form started twitching.

Alyssa took a step forward again, but Irulon held out a hand, blocking her way forward. The princess stared down at Izsha with unblinking draconic eyes. Her face was entirely impassive, showing no emotion, no sign of whether or not the spell was working or killing the draken.

Though given that Izsha had already died once…

Shaking her head, Alyssa closed her eyes and watched the soul itself.

In a normal person, even normal draken, the soul normally just sat about, drifting slightly within the confines of the body. The giving and taking of parts notwithstanding. It didn’t fill every corner of the body. They weren’t person-shaped. But they did occupy the majority of the body’s chest and all of the head area. In line with Tenebrael’s terrible analogy of how the body was a game console and the soul the game itself, perhaps the brain was the wireless receptor. Or the controller? Or maybe she should stop thinking about that terrible analogy altogether.

Izsha’s soul was not drifting naturally. It twitched and shuddered, jerking and thrashing.

It kept going.

Ten minutes.

Twenty minutes.

No one said anything. Brakkt remained on watch. Irulon didn’t blink once. Alyssa alternated between watching the body twitch and watching the soul thrash.

Roughly an hour after Irulon started the spell, the spasming died down. Izsha’s body stilled, though it kept breathing.

Alyssa bit her lip.

And a few golden-white feathers started drifting through the air around her.


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Vacant Throne — 033.011

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War And Peace

Last Ditch Attempt


“Does anything hurt? Does anything feel strange? Are you… alright?”

Izsha stood upright and it stood under its own power. There was a bit of a wobble, but considering that Izsha had just died, that might be expected.

However, Izsha didn’t respond. Not in any significant fashion. Alyssa didn’t expect the draken to turn around and start talking, but she did expect something. Anything. A nod. A shake of the head. A noise. But Izsha didn’t move. Alyssa had thought that standing upright was a sign of good things, but now…

Aside from Alyssa’s voice, there were plenty of other outside stimuli that Alyssa would have expected a reaction from. The Astral Authority was flying around en masse. Infected, both feral and of the weapon-wielding intelligent type that the Taker seemed to have become, were doing their best to take down any that strayed too close. The Patiences didn’t seem to have the intelligence—or perhaps patience—to sit back and let their longer-ranged allies handle things. As soon as one would pop out of a portal, it would immediately dive down toward the nearest infected. Which only seemed to work out for a quarter of them. They would immediately find themselves pounced upon and torn apart, often without even managing to spear their target. There were just too many infected.

More and more were pulling themselves up from the edges of the pit with every passing second.

Another portal opened near Alyssa. The golden edges of the Astral Authority’s preferred mode of transportation were bright enough that she could tell they were appearing even when out of her direct line of sight. Her hands were still inside Izsha, but she had found that she could pull one out long enough to draw a pistol without disrupting anything.

So she did.

Pistol in hand, Alyssa aimed over the top of Izsha toward the opening. Although nothing had come from it yet, the opening was roughly the size of a person. Larger would have meant a Diligence or even an Equanimity, but person-sized indicated a Patience or Kindness.

Sure enough, a silver spear emerged first. A porcelain mask attached to a silver filigree body stepped out. It took one look around before settling its blank visage on Alyssa.

“Tenebrael,” Alyssa said, finger already squeezing down on the trigger.

But she didn’t get a chance to finish.

An arrow slammed into the Patience’s face, splitting the mask clean in two. The silver around the protruding arrow began tarnishing, turning a foggy yellow-brown color. The spear fell to the ground, sliding down a small slope on the riverbank until it landed in the water with a light plop.

Alyssa pivoted as the portal closed, swinging her pistol around to aim at the attacker.

It was a demon. Or an infected. She honestly wasn’t sure if there was a difference between the two. It was a man, just a bit taller than the Taker, with burning embers for eyes. He had another arrow out, nocked, and the string drawn back to his shoulder.

There was a brief moment where Alyssa met his eyes. Her finger remained still tight around the trigger.

But he aimed upward, piercing the wings of a Diligence. As it spiraled into the river, he turned again, nocking another arrow as he found a new target.

Letting out a small sigh, Alyssa reholstered her pistol as she focused back on her current problem.

Izsha hadn’t reacted in the slightest to any of the goings on around them. Not even an errant twitch of its head. If a demon, feral or otherwise, started attacking, Alyssa had a sinking feeling that even then, Izsha wouldn’t do anything.

“One of those demons took a swipe at me,” a familiar voice complained over Alyssa’s shoulder. “How uncouth. Have they no manners? I can’t even believe what Tenebrael is… What are you doing?”

“Iosefael,” Alyssa said slowly as she looked back. Had it only been ten minutes? It felt longer. A lot longer. Iosefael should have been back a long time ago. And yet, at the same time, it felt like it was all too soon. Alyssa had thought that she had been making progress. Between the soul reacting and interacting, Izsha looking right at her, and the body standing upright, everything seemed like it should have worked. She had to be close. Just a bit more… massaging.

But…

What if all she was doing was hurting Izsha? It had to be possible. It just had to. If Irulon had swapped positions with Alyssa, she surely would have figured it out. But every moment that passed without Izsha recovering just gnawed at her once ironclad confidence. Even with all the help from Tenebrael and with Iosefael agreeing to wait before death’s coach could ferry the soul away, had she failed. Had it been doomed from the start?

“I… I don’t know what I’m doing,” Alyssa admitted, feeling the last vestiges of her determination crumble.

A warm hand rested on Alyssa’s shoulder, though it was quite cool in comparison to Izsha’s soul. It was probably supposed to comfort her, but it had the opposite effect. “I’m sorry. I tried to tell you…”

“Why? Why isn’t it working? What am I doing wrong? I thought I understood what Tenebrael wanted me to do, but…”

“Tenebrael wouldn’t know what to do. I doubt any angel could tell you.”

Alyssa’s eyes strayed away from Iosefael’s face, looking past the angel’s golden-white wings to where the Justice and the true demon were still battling each other. Even though she had been using Tenebrael’s magic for who knew how long, the Justice hadn’t tried attacking her. Its face was lined with cuts and scars from the true demon’s scythe. It didn’t bleed, but the marks were there. One corner of its angled jawline had been cut clean off, revealing nothing in the way of flesh or muscles. It was just more of whatever made up its pure white skin.

It had only been a few minutes since the demon had spoken to Alyssa. An ally of life, she had said. Would she know what was wrong? Could she give even a small hint toward what Alyssa was doing wrong? Even though she had gone to the demon when Tenebrael had been missing, Alyssa hadn’t made any kind of deal. It had been a mistake, introducing those embers to the world, but she had gone in already knowing that she wasn’t going to give up anything for information. Tenebrael just wasn’t important enough.

Izsha, on the other hand…

“They couldn’t help you either,” Iosefael said quickly, not even needing to follow Alyssa’s gaze. “That one would tell you that she could help, but would end up corrupting and perverting your friend into one of her minions. The relic might continue existing in a way that you could interact with, but nobody would be happy with the situation except for that one. And that’s the best case scenario.”

Alyssa grit her teeth. She didn’t want to believe that. But at the same time, she knew that Iosefael was telling the truth. Even had she not known that angels were not supposed to lie, there was evidence for her claim. Seeing the Taker again, watching how he showed up in defense of the true demon and then went on to call her his lady… Izsha would wind up the same.

A slave to the demons, used in a war against the Astral Authority like all the rest.

If it was even possible in the first place. As far as Alyssa knew, there were no cases of monsters becoming infected. That didn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t contract the plague. If the true demon was going to make an exception for anyone, it would be for Izsha at Alyssa’s behest, if only because she wanted to get her hooks into another human.

But Alyssa couldn’t do that to Izsha.

There had to be another way.

She needed more information. Irulon. Even Tenebrael would likely try to help if Alyssa asked her while she was around. Even if she just had a little more practice or time, Alyssa could probably figure it out herself. She thought that she was so close with the way Izsha’s body was up, but…

But there was no more time. Iosefael was here to take Izsha’s soul now. Even though Izsha counted as a relic in their eyes, the angels weren’t going to just let the soul go.

Clenching her teeth together, Alyssa sunk both hands back into the mystic circles.

“Alyssa, it’s too—”

“I said I would let you remove Izsha’s soul. I wasn’t lying about that. But I’m going to remove the soul myself.”

Iosefael fell silent. She didn’t float forward or make any other movement to stop Alyssa.

Alyssa took that as a go ahead.

A scythe would remove it instantly. But, given that it was a weapon developed by humans, Alyssa wasn’t sure if it would hurt Izsha or not. It was probably designed around the same principals as their wings, but Alyssa couldn’t be sure. Regardless, gently pulling it out with her hands seemed far more caring than swiping a blade through Izsha’s body.

Like with the scythe on non-infected, the soul came out without any force required. It didn’t even take a light tug. The moment it passed beyond Izsha’s scales, the body wobbled. But it didn’t fall over. There wasn’t any part of the soul left inside. Alyssa even closed her eyes and checked. All of Izsha was a wispy mist in Alyssa’s arms.

“Since I healed the body,” Iosefael said when Alyssa looked to her, “it is in a strange state of being. It is technically alive, but there is no will behind anything it does. The body will stay here until it starves to death. But, without a soul, it won’t actually be dying? What a complicated situation you’ve created here. But I think I can probably kill it. First, the soul.” Iosefael held out a hand, looking morose. “No offense intended, but I’ve seen those abominations that you’ve made of souls. It would be best for someone more experienced to compress it for transportation to the Throne.”

Looking from Iosefael down to the mist in her arms, Alyssa stared.

The Throne. Some place off in the aether. Supposedly, all souls ended up there. Or most of them. Those Tenebrael consumed didn’t. Neither did those that were corrupted. Infected by demons or… whatever Irulon’s Toymaker spell did to them. No angel or demon had shown up for those.

Alyssa had never been religious all that much. She had grown up with her mother, of course. Their household had been somewhat religious, but she herself hadn’t. Now, she might even be less religious than ever. Angels existed, sure. So did demons and souls. But anything beyond that? It was all up for grabs. The concept of Heaven chief among them. The Throne didn’t sound like any Heaven that she had heard of. And angels weren’t like they were in anything she had read before. They were more like computer programs, given tasks to follow that they couldn’t deviate from. And if they did deviate from them, it was more likely to be a bug than anything else.

Could she really just hand over Izsha to such an unknown fate? The soul wasn’t in the body anymore. From what she knew, it shouldn’t be in pain anymore from being inside a decaying corpse. But Iosefael wasn’t likely to see it that way. Iosefael, as a Principality, had a duty to collect the souls of the deceased. She wouldn’t just let a soul remain free floating.

There had to be something.

And there was.

The idea popped into her head.

Something must have shown on her face.

Iosefael’s eyes widened as she looked at Alyssa. Her wings spread wide. “Wait! Don’t—”

Too late. Alyssa ignored the angel, pulling her arms to her chest. The mist-like soul flooded into her body.

Irulon had once talked about the ritual that had saved the dragon that now resided in her body. It hadn’t been a quick thing. From inception to execution, the ritual had taken well over six months to complete. Most of which had been research and development, not even actual magic. The ritual had been completely specific to both Irulon and the dragon, the time of year and their respective ages, the health of both, and even the weather around where the ritual had been conducted. If Irulon wanted to perform the same ritual again on a different target, almost everything of the original ritual would have to have been tossed in the trash.

It had been a long and involved project. The only reason it had worked in the first place was thanks to the dragon’s longevity even while dying of some illness. Had Brakkt wanted her to save any other creature, it probably wouldn’t have worked simply because of the time investment.

Perhaps now, with the dragon helping her to think and calculate things much faster, Irulon could have used a similar ritual on some other being in a fraction of the time. Hopefully. But even that was probably a stretch.

Regardless, Irulon hadn’t gone ahead with the ritual until she had been absolutely positive that it was going to work.

Alyssa had no idea what she was doing.

The moment Izsha’s soul was inside her body, she felt it. The warmth that she had experienced while handling Izsha’s soul using the miracle spread across her entire body, filling up every last nook and cranny. Even after filling her body to the brim, it didn’t stop there. With nowhere else to spread to, the temperature started going up. Alyssa started to feel like she was back on the plains of the dead.

She stumbled back, feeling the sweat bead over every inch of her skin.

“Okay. Don’t panic,” Iosefael said, mouth moving at a hundred miles an hour. “We can still fix this!”

“I’m not panicking,” Alyssa bit out.

“You’re not? Okay. That’s good. I’m not either.” She fidgeted, jumping from one side of Alyssa to the other, looking her up and down. “Okay. Okay. So, this is fixable. I’m sure it is. I just need a minute to think.”

“Go away,” Alyssa said, slowly standing upright. Her fingers felt like she was holding them right next to a campfire, but… it wasn’t too bad. At least they weren’t in the metaphorical campfire. “Go find some other souls to ferry off. Izsha is staying with me.”

“Alyssa. We talked about this with your friend… You can’t… It’s just not… Your body—”

“It’s a temporary measure,” she said, voice getting a little steadier. The heat was dying down now. Slowly, but definitely. “Just until I can talk to Irulon. And maybe Tenebrael.”

“But—”

“I know you want the soul. I know you can’t help me. It’s your programming as a Principality, I don’t blame you for it. But just go.” Alyssa took in a deep breath. “I’ll deal with this myself.”

“You don’t even know what this is.”

“I’ll be fine. And if I’m not, then at least I’ll have tried.” Alyssa closed her eyes and concentrated. She still had to find Kasita. And then they had to escape before the Astral Authority finished off the demons. Or vice versa. Tenebrael seemed to think that their fight would continue for some time. Long enough for her to do whatever she needed to do.

Alyssa didn’t want to take the chance that she was wrong.

So she scanned, looking among the myriad of souls, searching for just one that wasn’t tainted by the demonic corruption.

“Your other relic is over this way.”

Blinking her eyes open, Alyssa found Iosefael still standing in front of her. Except, instead of looking panicked, she now simply looked resigned as she pointed a finger away from the pit. Turning in the direction Iosefael was pointing, Alyssa closed her eyes again and finally noticed what had to be Kasita.

She must have been flung even further away than Izsha.

“Thank you,” Alyssa said after eying Iosefael. The angel didn’t look like she was about to try something, so she just shook her head.

Which ended up with her staring at the flopped-over body of Izsha. It was still alive. Still breathing. But…

Another Lighten Load and a Levitate had it moving along with Alyssa as she trudged up the riverbank’s slope. Iosefael followed along, gently flapping her wings every so often to keep her feet off the ground. Alyssa wasn’t sure why Iosefael was following her…

Actually, she knew why. She knew exactly why. She just didn’t care. Her head hurt. Her legs hurt. Her side hurt. The Astral Authority and the demons were still in the area, still posing a danger, even if they were preoccupied with each other.

“Adrael’s staff is missing,” Alyssa said. The thought came to her suddenly, and she decided to use it to maybe get rid of Iosefael. At least for a time. Surely she wouldn’t keep following her around forever. There were bound to be other deaths across the world sooner rather than later. “I have no idea where it might be, but it was attached to Izsha when that Justice’s sword hit the ground.”

Another sudden worry sparked in Alyssa’s mind. She quickly tossed a glance over her shoulder at the largest member of the Astral Authority that she had seen so far.

Ropes were tied all up and down its arm. The other ends of the ropes were in the hands of dozens of infected. A real Gulliver situation. Unless it got loose, it seemed like that sword would stay unused for the time being.

“Adrael’s staff?” At first, Iosefael seemed confused. Then she made a squeaking noise, one that forced Alyssa to turn back to find growing horror on her face. “Oh no. We can’t let that fall into the hands of the demons.”

Without another word, she disappeared, taking to the skies.

Which suited Alyssa just fine. She trudged forward, putting one foot in front of the other like it was all she could focus on.

Kasita was up ahead. Alyssa could see her now—she was in her human form. A shout got her attention.

“Alyssa! I’m so… Izsha?” Her eyes widened as she looked over the floating form of the draken. “Is… Is it?”

“I’ll explain later,” Alyssa said, not stopping even as Kasita ran up to her. “Let’s just get away from here for now.”


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Vacant Throne — 033.010

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War And Peace

Open Soul Massage


Izsha and Kasita. Gone.

The feral demons that had been chasing them were gone as well.

Between her heart stopping from shock and motion from the Justice startling her, it took Alyssa a few moments to comprehend just what happened.

Looking around, it was obvious. The remains of Owlcroft, skeletal as they were, had been torn up and partially buried. Formerly upright posts and columns of cobblestone were lying on their side. Chunks of earth ranging from the size of dust to beach balls pockmarked the land. The funnel of dirt created by the demon crashing into the earth and the small bubble where Alyssa had been with her Projectile Reflection were the only two completely untouched areas, though it was debatable whether or not the funnel counted as untouched.

Alyssa followed the trail of the blast. The clods of earth were clearly splattered against the ground in a specific pattern leading directly away from where the Justice’s sword had slammed into the earth on the opposite side of the pit. She started wandering, moving, searching. The blast couldn’t have vaporized them. She wasn’t even sure if Kasita could be vaporized. Regardless, she, despite the thickness of the air, hadn’t been blown away.

Then again, she had fallen flat against the ground. That might have saved her from being picked up and carried off by the wind of the blast. Kasita had no weight to her. She would have fluttered off like a kite. Izsha, on the other hand, was much denser, but would also have had a difficult time getting low to the ground, even if the earthquake had knocked it to the ground.

There!

A hundred feet from where they had been, Izsha was frozen in the middle of the air. It was hard to tell whether or not there was any rotation in the dinosaur’s form with the slow rate of movement. If Izsha continued without rotating, its back would slam down into the ground, probably skidding as it did so.

Izsha was high in the air, Alyssa found as she got closer. Too high to reach by jumping. And, now closer, Alyssa couldn’t spot Kasita anywhere. Being a mimic, Alyssa probably should have expected that. Kasita probably instinctively switched forms to something small and protected. Alyssa had seen it happen more than once.

So she burned a spell card. Unseen Sight. Which would normally make a red haze over any hidden or invisible monsters. Shadow assassins appeared as a red blob and Kasita, when in a small form, usually appeared like a rock outlined with red smoke.

Alyssa couldn’t see anything nearby. Up, down, back where Izsha’s trajectory came from, or anywhere else…

A Message might work. But probably not while Accelero was active.

Before that, Alyssa had to figure out a way to get Izsha down safely. There weren’t any obvious wounds. But that blast had to have been moving at a high speed for her to have felt it with Accelero. Unless there was some odd divine interference that was making Accelero act abnormally. Or possibly Alyssa doing something that made Accelero strange, something like what happened with Annihilator. There were too many possibilities for strangeness with the Astral Authority, demons, infected, the staff, and Alyssa herself.

Though the staff was missing. The strings that had kept it attached to Izsha’s saddle were dangling, snapped. Alyssa didn’t know when it had gone missing. Maybe even when she had fallen from Izsha’s back. Whenever it was, the staff was gone now.

Which was bad. If the staff was still around, it might have helped to protect Izsha. And Izsha needed that protection.

Even with no obvious wounds, someone didn’t go flying through the air like Izsha was without getting hurt.

She started with some simple spells. Lighten Load. Then a Levitate in the hopes that the upward force would at least somewhat counteract the downward fall. Neither actually had an effect as far as Alyssa could see, but that was probably because of Accelero.

She would have to end the spell to try to get Izsha down and to contact Kasita.

Before she could try, another gust of wind, much lighter than any others, pushed her hair back over her head.

The Justice moved again. The demon managed to beat it down to an almost perfectly horizontal position. Its size was great enough to stretch clear over the opening of the pit. The back of its head was buried in part of the scar that Alyssa had created with some Annihilators—the molten earth was a dead giveaway, though she couldn’t remember which blast actually caused the crater on the far side of the pit.

But the Justice had apparently had enough. It still held the sword with one hand, still embedded in the ground. Its other hand still gripped the scales. But, in that strange way it had managed to grab the side of the portal as it emerged, it had one of its hands around the body of the demon.

The size difference was staggering. Its hand fully wrapped around the demon’s body. The scythe was poking out between two of its fingers. That and the tip of a black-leather boot sticking out the bottom was the only evidence of the demon.

And yet, the demon was fighting back. The demon hadn’t been crushed. Even at this distance, she could see the fist slowly being pried open.

As long as neither was focused on her…

Taking a breath, Alyssa moved to position herself far outside Izsha’s landing path. The thought to try to catch a Lightened Load draken had crossed her mind, but she couldn’t be sure that Lighten Load would lighten it to that extent. And if Alyssa wound up plastered against the ground, it wouldn’t help either of them. Besides that, with Projectile Reflection active, she might end up sending Izsha bounding right back where she had come from. The sudden vector switch would probably not be comfortable for any living being.

After making sure that she wasn’t going to be hit by any other large pieces of debris—of which there were many still in the air, thankfully mostly around the sword—Alyssa ended Accelero.

The sound hit her first. A rumbling thunderous explosion echoed from everywhere all at once. Rushing wind that had been almost perfectly still a moment ago just about lifted her off her feet.

Izsha practically disappeared with how fast the draken flew off.

Managing to keep her balance long enough to get used to the wind, Alyssa started sprinting to Izsha, watching as the draken slowly fell toward the ground while still moving at a high speed. It was slowing. Lighten Load was probably to thank for that. Less weight meant that the wind could push Izsha around a lot more. Unfortunately, much of that wind was pushing in the wrong direction.

If it was speeding Izsha up more than otherwise…

Izsha finally hit the ground just before the river. It didn’t stay on the ground, but rather just bumped against it before bouncing back up. Izsha came down a second time in the river itself. Water geysered into the air, but the draken still didn’t stop, skipping off the water like a stone. It did significantly slow the draken down, however. Izsha crashed into the bank of the river. High enough that there wasn’t a chance for drowning, but on the opposite side from Alyssa.

Dirt, rocks, and other debris slammed into the area around Izsha. Even right into its side.

Alyssa cast a Lighten Load on herself and jumped. With the wind at her back, she cleared the river in a single bound. She actually went too far, clearing Izsha with ease. Canceling Lighten Load early made her drop like a rock for ten feet, but she was ready for it and doing so saved her from fifty feet of running back.

As soon as she reached Izsha, Alyssa stopped short. She had expected Izsha to get back to its feet, shake itself off, and be generally alright. Draken were strong. Their scales were better than Brakkt’s armor. A little tumble through the air was nothing to them.

Izsha hadn’t moved.

Scales were pelted with dirt, bent and broken in some places. Missing in others. Blood, thick and red, dribbled down from those holes and merged with mud and dirt caking Izsha’s body. Both legs and Izsha’s tail were bending at angles that they clearly weren’t supposed to bend at. The saddle was gone. Lost somewhere, probably at that first bounce.

It didn’t look good. Was Izsha even breathing? Alyssa couldn’t tell. The draken was lying on its side, utterly unmoving. Including at the mouth and chest.

But Tenebrael had fixed worse.

Alyssa, taking a breath, held out her hands, resting them on Izsha’s side. At one point in time, she had been vehemently against asking Tenebrael for boons or favors. Relying on the angel had seemed like the absolute worst idea. But now… Now… With Izsha lying in a crumpled mess, Alyssa couldn’t help but hope that the true demon had been wrong about Tenebrael toying with her.

“Tenebrael! I beseech you to save my companion.”

A white feather drifted through the air in front of Alyssa’s face.

She stood instantly. Izsha was big enough that she could keep one hand on Izsha while half-turning to her side. Her pistol was in her hand in an instant. She didn’t even consciously draw it, but it was out and aimed at Iosefael’s head.

Those cross-shaped pupils looked mournful, sympathetic, and yet cold at the same time. The angel was here to carry out her duty. Nothing more.

“Don’t touch Izsha.”

“Alyssa…” The angel had the gall to give her a wan smile.

“Don’t you dare.”

“It will only cause the poor relic more pain at this point.”

“Its body isn’t that badly hurt. Izsha can’t be dead yet. Tenebrael has healed worse.”

“You’re wrong about that. And not even Tenebrael can fix death.”

“Then I will fix it!” Alyssa roared.

Iosefael pressed her lips together. In a flutter of feathers, she moved forward, dodging the gun, and wrapped her arms around Alyssa. “I know how you feel. I mean. I don’t know how you feel, but I have watched a lot of humans over the years. Given my job, a lot of those watchings were around times of death. So I have a pretty good idea of things. And you have a pretty good idea of things too. You have enough insight to know that leaving a soul in a body is… unpleasant.”

“It’s only been a few moments,” Alyssa said. “We just have to straighten Izsha’s spine. Maybe put some air in those lungs and get things moving again.”

“If only it were that simple. The body and the soul are inexorably linked. Until death. Upon death, the body and soul fall out of synchronization. They stop resonating. Even if you put the physical body back together, that synchronization is still broken. I cannot fix it. Tenebrael can’t fix it. You can’t fix it. You’ve seen what happens when a soul is placed into a body that it has no synchronization with. I know you have.”

The bodies on Earth. Jason, Chris, and her own mother. Or their body doubles, anyway. Without fail, all three had started screaming and panicking. They had been in obvious pain in their brief moments as other people.

“You have to let go eventually,” Iosefael said, sagely.

But… would that have held true even if they had been put into their own bodies? At the time, she had thought that the pain and despair had come either from experiencing death itself or from waking up in a body not their own. Either one sounded like deeply traumatizing experiences, but…

“Death is a part of life.”

“Why?”

“What?”

“Why does death have to be a part of life?”

“Alyssa…”

Iosefael was lying. Or ignorant. Or something. There was proof on this very world that her statement wasn’t true. And that proof was Irulon and the dragon. They shared a body. Irulon spoke with the dragon. They both existed in one body. Sure, their souls kept tearing each other apart, but they both were still clearly and obviously alive. At least for the moment. Perhaps it was only temporary. Perhaps one would subsume the other.

What would happen then? Could the dragon subsume Irulon? Would, at that point, Irulon’s body become that of the dragon’s? The last time Alyssa had looked, the two souls looked roughly even in their endless fight. Over a month, that hadn’t changed much. At least not in a way that she could notice. Perhaps a proper angel would be able to tell the difference.

While she could see the problem with one body sharing two souls, a single body having one soul shouldn’t be a problem at all.

Desynchronization? What did that even mean? When a human heart fell out of rhythm, a defibrillator shocked it back into rhythm. So all she needed was a divine defibrillator. If she managed to synchronize the body and the soul, whatever that meant…

“Fix the body.”

“Alyssa, you’re only—”

“That wasn’t a request,” Alyssa said, eyes blazing as she locked eyes with Iosefael. “Fix the body. I know you can do it. You’ll probably do it much better than I can. Do it and I won’t kill you.”

“You can’t. I’m a divine—”

“Do you really want to take that gamble? I do a lot of strange things. I don’t know why I do them, but neither do you. Nor does Tenebrael. So who is to say that a bullet from my gun won’t hurt a divine being?”

“But…”

“Just do it. And if this doesn’t work… I won’t stand in the way of you removing Izsha’s soul.”

Iosefael let out a long sigh. “If it will make you feel better…”

Alyssa watched Iosefael’s wings carefully as the angel moved to stand over Izsha’s body. Every time an angel had shown up to relieve corpses of their souls, they had used their wings to extract those souls. If Iosefael’s wings even twitched in Izsha’s direction… Well, her finger was on the trigger for a reason.

But the angel didn’t do anything of the sort. Iosefael simply extended a hand, much the same as Alyssa had just done before being interrupted, and hummed to herself. There were no words or mystic circles popping up, but Tenebrael never used any either. As Alyssa watched, Izsha’s body mended together. The twisted tail and legs snapped back into position. The sound made Alyssa shudder, but she didn’t close her eyes. Blood vanished from the scales and the scales bent back to be in line with all the others. Both Izsha’s back and neck apparently required some straightening as well. After that, Alyssa didn’t see any further changes, but Iosefael kept her hand on Izsha’s side for another minute.

Izsha started breathing again. There was a clear rise and fall in its chest. It gave Alyssa a momentary hope, but closing her eyes and concentrating revealed a completely inert soul.

When Iosefael did take a step back, she looked to Alyssa with another wan smile. “See. Everything is back to normal, but the body and soul are still not in synchronization.”

“Then it’s my turn to try something,” Alyssa said as she moved back to where she had been standing before Iosefael appeared. “Just go find some other souls to collect or whatever,” she added with a wave of her hand to the rest of the battlefield.

“The Astral Authority do not possess souls.” Iosefael’s voice carried a haughty note that Alyssa couldn’t remember hearing from her as she continued. “And the demons aren’t my job.”

Shaking her head, Alyssa shrugged. “Then just don’t do… anything. Actually, if you could go find Kasita and just let me know that she is still alive, I would appreciate it. I can’t imagine her illusory body took any damage, but I don’t know where she is and it is worrying me.”

“Ten minutes,” Iosefael said after a short pause. “I’ll go look around, but I will be back in ten minutes. If whatever you’re doing hasn’t worked by then… Trust me when I say that it is better for the relic to do things the proper way.”

Iosefael spread her wings far and wide, keeping them away from Izsha. In a moment, she was gone. She didn’t vanish, she merely took flight.

As long as she wasn’t going to try anything, Alyssa didn’t really care. She focused on Izsha. “Tenebrael. I need help. Real actual help this time. Not just a quick door to save a few days of travel. Not a weapon. I’m not even asking for a sign to revitalize faith in your followers. I’m asking for help. Iosefael thinks you can’t do it. Maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s one of those things. A restriction that you can’t even think about doing let alone actually enacting. But you know what? That doesn’t matter.

“Because I am here.”

Wind at Alyssa’s back just about threw her over the top of Izsha’s body. The Justice had moved again. Alyssa didn’t know where to, but she didn’t look to find out. There were mystic circles appearing in the air. Alyssa’s fingernails were jet black. But the miracle wasn’t done yet. The mystic circles weren’t doing anything other than hovering about.

“You don’t have to do anything to Izsha directly. I’ll do all the work. I guess that all I’m really asking is for a little guidance. I need you to hold my hand while I do this.

“You told me once that you want to screw up that book? I don’t know when Izsha’s name got written in it, or how many revisions the book went under, but I have no doubt that it is there now. I imagine that you and Iosefael think that it is set in stone. Our experiment with Irulon showed that I can manipulate the book. I can force it to rewrite the future. But you know what? Why not rewrite the past as well.

“You want to screw up the book? Well, so do I,” Alyssa hissed, grinning a grim grin.

As she grinned, she closed her eyes.

Izsha’s soul was right in front of her. It was a familiar thing. Different species all had different styles of souls. As demons had a sticky-tar-like nature to them, Izsha had a scaled nature. It might have been all in Alyssa’s head—a projection of reality onto something in the metaphysical realm—but that was just what Alyssa saw. She had never before looked directly at Izsha’s soul, but she still knew what it looked like. Izsha was often around when Alyssa looked for souls.

It wasn’t interacting with anything. The same state as most corpses that Alyssa had seen were in. An obvious sign of death.

Although Izsha’s body was the only one in front of her, Alyssa saw other things with her eyes closed.

Mystic circles.

She had honestly not ever thought to try looking through her soul-sight while doing Tenebrael things, so she wasn’t sure if that was normal or not. But she had a feeling. Perhaps it was her imagination, perhaps it was Tenebrael.

Alyssa leaned forward with her eyes still closed, pressing both arms through two mystic circles that seemed placed in just the proper position for such a movement.

While searching for souls, Alyssa couldn’t look down at herself. She normally saw nothing of her own soul. If not for Tenebrael’s confirmation, she might have still worried that she was missing a soul for whatever reason. But… with her hands through the mystic circles, ethereal gloves hovered in the air above Izsha’s soul.

Experimentally, she reached down and brushed one hand over the scaled soul in front of her.

A sudden warmth filled Alyssa to her very core. It was the same warmth that Tenebrael or Iosefael or even Adrael’s staff produced. But it was so much more intense. A comforting warmth that was like the sun on a gentle day. Until this moment, she had thought that Tenebrael’s ensign had eliminated all of that despairing aura of the pit.

Alyssa could feel just how wrong that thought had been. With her hand on Izsha’s soul, every trace of despair fled before them. Confidence filled Alyssa to the very brim.

And Izsha’s soul reacted. A little bit of it broke off, moving toward Alyssa. It quickly faded out of view, but the interaction was reciprocated. Alyssa didn’t feel anything from herself, but a bit of soul that had to be hers moved back to Izsha, joining with it.

Emboldened by seeing a positive reaction, Alyssa pressed both hands into Izsha’s soul. She didn’t know exactly what to do, but she had seen plenty of souls, both living and those that had passed on before an angel collected them. She knew roughly what souls should be like in living bodies.

Doctors on Earth had a fairly rarely performed procedure where a patient undergoing cardiac arrest would have their heart physically massaged by a surgeon. Alyssa honestly didn’t know if what she was doing could be likened to that, but she started massaging the soul anyway.

She had just gotten started when another tremble in the ground broke her concentration.

Her eyes snapped open.

Both of her hands were deep inside Izsha’s body. There wasn’t any blood or even an incision. The mystic circles in the air made a barrier right at the surface of the scales. Beyond that, Alyssa’s hands just… disappeared.

Izsha’s eyes were open.

They hadn’t been open before. Not even after Iosefael’s healing. The sole slit-pupiled eye rolled in Izsha’s head until it focused on Alyssa. And it definitely focused. There was no real emotion behind it. None that Alyssa could detect, anyway. So much of Izsha’s body language came from the rest of its body that Alyssa wasn’t sure how to interpret whatever glance it was giving her.

Was Izsha in pain? If she had a human mouth, would she be screaming like that first body double that Tenebrael had produced? Were things getting better as Alyssa massaged the soul?

“Just… hold on, Izsha.” The eye moving was a good sign. It had to be. If Izsha were in pain, there would be noise, thrashing, or other chaos. But Izsha was in a peaceful state.

It was working.

“I’m not going to let you die here.”


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Vacant Throne — 033.009

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War And Peace

Cardinal Virtue of Justice


Don’t you want to save life, Alyssa?” The true demon maintained eye contact for a moment before another Patience swooped down. The Taker readied himself, but a flash of the scythe took its head off before he could react. “Just something to think about, I suppose. It seems I have a mess to clean up.” Reaching up, the true demon redid the buckles of her mask. As soon as it was in place, she jumped. Another flash of her scythe took off the wings of a Diligence, but the blade sparked against the shield-like chitin of a Chastity.

Movement from the Taker had Alyssa on guard. A scythe was in her hands instantly. If it weren’t for Kasita and Izsha being in the distance behind his back, he would have eaten an Annihilator already.

“Quite a surprising end to our last encounter,” he said in an entirely cordial tone of voice.

“Did you enjoy your trip to the moon?”

“Can’t say I got to experience much of it before dying.”

“We could always try again.”

His burning eyes flicked down to the group of cards before returning to Alyssa’s face. “Perhaps next time. It would inconvenience my lady if I were to die here and I imagine that she isn’t through with you yet. Killing you would probably upset her, as much as I would like to.”

Alyssa grit her teeth, staring at him without letting herself relax. He still spoke in that haughty tone that was diminished by his nasally voice. She could still hear him berate her for walking into the Waters Street prison cell in the hidden elvish passage before flinging his daggers in her direction. And his sword…

Unconsciously, Alyssa moved a hand over her stomach. He didn’t carry the same sword he had disemboweled her with in an alternate reality. That sword was probably vaporized or perhaps even embedded in the moon. His new sword was a single-edged black blade with red tattoos all up the flat.

A tittering sort of laugher made Alyssa tense.

His eyes were on her hand.

“Besides,” he said, tilting his head back up. “I never really enjoyed the torture, believe it or not. It was the hunt and the fights I liked. Something that became increasingly less common as my notoriety grew. I never felt more alive than when I was cleaning up the area around Owlcroft when the pit first formed. Wouldn’t have imagined that I would end up on the other side, but I can be thankful that I have a new enemy to fight. One that no mortal has ever fought. I’m… excited.”

Ugh. “If you’re going to go, then go.” Alyssa really didn’t want to get in a fight while on a precipice of molten earth, especially not with a demonic Taker. He had almost killed her last time and that was with him insane and her with several allies. Trying her luck fighting him with the feral infected still around and the Astral Authority was just stupid.

“Until we meet again,” he said, offering a mocking salute as he jumped into the fray following the true demon.

Who he had called ‘my lady’ a moment ago. Was the true demon Her? The so-called monster lord? A fallen angel who thought it would be better to rule in Hell than serve the Throne?

Alyssa shuddered, glad that there seemed to be some restrictions on that thing. There had to be restrictions. If there weren’t, Alyssa was sure that she would be dead or worse.

And there definitely was a worse. Her or whatever she was could spout about saving life all she wanted. Her infected killed plenty of people if they weren’t contained. And the infected themselves, even if the Taker was acting normal, Alyssa could still question whether or not he actually had free will. The feral infected definitely were not anything like their former selves.

With the Taker and the true demon out of the way, and her mission apparently accomplished, Alyssa started running. The leader of the demons either didn’t have very good control over her minions or she didn’t care that a good ten infected were still chasing around Kasita and Izsha instead of helping her against the Astral Authority.

The Astral Authority was out in force as well. When Alyssa had accidentally put up the massive mystic circle above Lyria, she had seen at most twenty at once. Several more had died, crashing down to Earth, but their numbers never exceeded two dozen.

Here and now, the sky was bright gold with the light from their aureole. At first, it had just been one or two. When the Taker had shown up, it had been a dozen. When the true demon had left, it had been several dozen. Now, she couldn’t even count how many. They, thankfully, seemed to be leaving her alone at the moment. The demons and the burning sky had their attention for now.

Though the burning sky didn’t actually seem to be doing anything. Equanimities were using their massive forms to try to extinguish it, but it wasn’t doing much back to them. There was a large black emblem in the middle of the bright white flames. An emblem remarkably similar to the tattoos Tenebrael had on her face. It was likely the ensign that Alyssa had mentioned in her request to Tenebrael. She honestly hadn’t known what she was blabbing about at the time. She was just glad that it had finally worked.

And she honestly didn’t care that it wasn’t attacking them. It just meant that the demons would have more to handle.

With this, Illuna should be relatively safe for the time being too. She wasn’t sure where their guards or watchers should have been to keep an eye on the situation. Alyssa hadn’t crossed any gates or forts. But the demons that were wandering away from Owlcroft would hopefully be drawn right back into it.

Though she wasn’t sure that their numbers would decrease. Not so long as the true demon was around to apparently give them new bodies and life. And if that demon truly was who Alyssa thought she was, she probably wouldn’t get taken out anytime soon.

The moment that thought crossed her mind, light flooded across the skeletons of Owlcroft. For a moment, she thought that Tenebrael or Iosefael had descended onto the battlefield with their halo equipped. But the hue of the light was off. And the feeling as well. Halo light from Tenebrael had always been a comforting warmth deep within Alyssa’s chest even when it was a blinding omni-directional laser beam to regular sight. This was a dark almost orange-yellow that did not add to any comfort provided by the burning sky.

Shielding her eyes with her arm, Alyssa watched a truly massive portal open high in the sky. Equanimity portals were already roughly the size of small houses. This thing looked like an apartment complex appearing in the middle of the air, even at what had to be a large distance.

A… being emerged. Slowly. It moved as if it were wading through water. Or even molasses. A white-gloved hand reached out, grasping the edge of the portal as if it were a simple doorway. Soon enough a body followed the hand from the starry expanse beyond the portal. At first, it looked humanoid. Two arms. Two legs. A torso with a head set on top. It even had long white hair billowing in the wind, though its face was entirely androgynous. A blindfold hid its eyes, further obscuring its features. An aureole much like that of the rest of the Astral Authority stretched in a high arc from shoulder to shoulder behind its head.

The more Alyssa stared, the less she could make sense of the being. It held a sword in one hand and carried a set of scales in the other, but the hand that had grasped the edge of the portal had clearly been empty. It didn’t have three arms or anything of the like, but it seemed to shift in and out of being. One moment, Alyssa would be following the line of its arm with her eyes, only to discover a leg coming off the end. But it still held onto the sword in a regular hand.

Six feathered wings followed it out of the portal. Once completely clear, the shimmering edges collapsed into nothingness, leaving it on Nod, alone.

At seeing those six wings, Alyssa feared the worst. That she had somehow called down a Seraphim. One was supposed to lead the Astral Authority, after all. But the aureole in place of a proper halo and how stiff and fake its androgynous face was gave its true nature away. From Iosefael’s descriptions of the Astral Authority, this had to be a Cardinal Virtue of Justice. One of the four high ranked leaders of the Astral Authority, second only to the Seraphim.

Iosefael had neglected to mention its size.

Infected launched themselves at it, led by the true demon. More than just the Taker were fighting with weapons and intelligence. Alyssa didn’t know what separated them from the ferals, but, as far as she could tell, almost none of the ferals were attacking in formation with the others. They were left to fight the Patiences and other minor members of the Astral Authority with their bare hands.

Bodies were falling all across the edges of the pit. Both of the fake-angel variety and of the infected. The true demon was teleporting around like a madwoman. One moment, she would be splitting a Diligence in two. The next, she would be scything the soul of one of her fallen comrades through the pentagram. As soon as her scythe touched the body, she would vanish again, appearing high up to try to slice through the Justice’s blindfold.

“Alyssa!”

Alyssa snapped her head toward Kasita’s shout, pulling her attention off the battle, only to find herself face to face with a Kindness.

The bubbling, boiling eyes stared at her. Its porcelain mask wasn’t even facing directly toward her, but she could tell that its full attention was on her and nowhere else.

The scythe, still in Alyssa’s hands from her brief encounter with the true demon and the Taker, spun in her hands, slicing straight through the center of the Kindness.

Nothing happened. It stayed right where it was. No soul came out of the creature. Her scythe came out as clean as it had gone in. There wasn’t even resistance in attacking the Kindness as there was with infected. It took Alyssa a moment to realize why.

The Astral Authority didn’t show up to her sense of souls. They didn’t have souls. Spectral Axe killed by separating the soul from the body. Of course it would do nothing to a literally soulless being.

“Tenebrael,” Alyssa said, dismissing the scythe and drawing her pistol. “Bring down the hammer of wrath on the—”

Alyssa stumbled in a sudden blast of wind.

The Justice raised its sword. The mere motion of the sword lifting into the air was enough to send out a strong enough breeze to nearly knock her over. If that sword came back down…

Thoughts of the Kindness fled from her mind as her stomach plummeted. Her mind scrambled through the spells she had on hand. Anything that might protect herself and her friends from what very well might end up more destructive than a dozen Annihilators.

And she was drawing up a blank. Projectile Reflection might help against some debris and detritus. But she doubted it would prevent her from being buried underneath an avalanche of earth. Let alone the possible damage from the sword hitting them directly.

There wasn’t time to ask Tenebrael to stop time. Spell cards were instant. Sitting about making a request was not.

Sucking in a breath, Alyssa activated the one Time spell she had.

Accelero.

Everything slowed down. It didn’t come to the complete standstill that happened when Tenebrael’s magic stopped time, but things still slowed down drastically. Even the true demon’s instant flashes of her scythe were more like long sweeping arcs that took actual time. The Justice, who already looked like it was moving through molasses because of its size, did look almost completely stopped with its sword high in the air overhead.

Alyssa didn’t actually feel any different herself. Waving a hand in front of her face felt a little funny. Like she was trying to push through water. The air was a bit harder to breathe as well. Neither thing happened during Tenebrael’s time stop. It was a little concerning. Alyssa didn’t feel like she wasn’t getting enough oxygen, but if she passed out here, she might as well shoot herself and get it over with.

Deciding to not waste more of what was possibly very limited time, Alyssa stepped around the Kindness. Its eyes tried to track her movements, but were lagging behind enough that one single step to the side was enough to move her out of its direct line of sight. If not for its dozens of eyes around its entire body, a second step would likely have moved her well outside its peripheral.

Alyssa’s slow steps picked up into a sluggish run as she crossed the distance to her friends. As she ran, she spoke.

“Tenebrael, your emblem burns in the sky, burning brightly. With it there, enemies have arrived. We need deliver—”

Another gust of wind took the words right out of Alyssa’s mouth. Literally. With the way the air felt like thick soup, it felt like a whole half of her body had been struck at once. Like she had fallen on her side without making any effort to right herself.

Panic welled up as she feared that the effects of Accelero had ended. But… that wasn’t true at all. Izsha and Kasita were almost completely unmoving. The feral that was grasping for Izsha’s tail wasn’t even touching the ground, yet it was falling so slowly that Alyssa could take a relaxing nap, wake up, brush her teeth, and even have a shower and breakfast before it hit the ground. That was definitely because of Accelero.

The Astral Authority were frozen too. The Kindness that Alyssa had just passed was still trying to turn to keep her in its primary focus. But it was moving only a little faster than the falling infected.

Alyssa turned to look at the Cardinal Virtue of Justice. Its sword was still high in the air, but it had turned almost a full quarter of the way around. It had turned just enough to stare directly in Alyssa’s direction, even tilting its head downward.

That motion must have been what caused the wind this time. And it moved in response to her trying to formulate another request to Tenebrael. Alyssa had thought that they would leave her alone for the moment. At least while all the demons and the pit were around. But no. It was clearly focused on her. And, with how it had moved despite the effects of Accelero, it could probably drop that sword at any moment.

But it didn’t.

It waited. Watched. Observed. Perhaps it wondered if Tenebrael would appear if Alyssa finished a request.

Alyssa clamped her mouth shut.

Better to find a way to escape under her own power than to draw attention by relying on Tenebrael. She needed the Astral Authority to stay here and carry out their duty with the demons.

The demons…

Alyssa’s eyes widened as she stared up at the Justice. And what was in front of the Justice.

The true demon was spinning end over end, flying directly toward her. And she wasn’t moving in slow motion. The only reason she had time to think at all was because of how far away the height of that monster was. The true demon had been knocked down from far overhead.

Maybe the motion had actually been to smack her out of the sky.

So Alyssa thought as she took three steps forward before diving to the ground.

Earth exploded high into the air. Some particles flew higher than buildings. But, as the explosion reached its peak, the dirt slowed. It just hung at the top of its arch. Accelero and its time manipulating powers made the earth stop moving. Or, it stopped moving from Alyssa’s perspective.

Groaning, Alyssa got back to her feet. With a glare, she looked to the person-sized crater, not sure if she was hoping for the true demon’s death or for the demon to survive so that she could go distract the Astral Authority some more.

In the funnel of dirt, the true demon stood upright, oversized scythe resting on her shoulder. Tilting her head from one side to the other let out a series of snaps and crackles. Slowly, her head turned toward Alyssa. What had once been dull embers burning in her sole visible eye was now a blazing beam of red light.

“It’s hard enough to predict that thing’s movements as is,” she said. “Try to avoid doing anything that forces it to move unexpectedly, hmm?” Her voice was strange. Whereas before, she merely spoke with an odd accent, she now spoke at a completely different pitch. And her words were clipped together, almost slurred.

Accelero. It had to be. She was speaking so fast that, even to the altered flow of time that Alyssa was experiencing, it sounded almost normal.

She couldn’t help but shudder. Someone… Some thing that could do that at will just to say a few meaningless words had to be a fearsome opponent. It called her earlier fight against the Patience in Lyria into question. Had she just been messing around? Maybe even toying with that Patience in order to get Alyssa to attack it?

Alyssa couldn’t understand the thoughts of these demons in the slightest.

But she did not want to end up in combat with one. Not a true one, anyway.

Brushing a bit of dirt off her shoulder, the demon crouched and jumped straight out from the funnel of earth.

The Justice started lowering its sword.

A mile-long blade of metal was coming down right where the demon had just been.

Right where Alyssa was now.

The slight hope that the demon would intercept it vanished as she flew straight past the metal to strike at the Justice’s blindfolded face. She struck with enough force to rock the Justice backward, but that sword was still coming down.

Alyssa grit her teeth. Raising an arm, she did the only thing she could think to do.

Every single Annihilator spell burned through the sky as one brilliant beam, either unaffected by Accelero or moving so fast that it didn’t matter. It was bright to the point where she couldn’t see anything. Even closing her eyes made it seem like she was staring into the LED highbeams of one of those oversized trucks in the middle of the night.

Despite the blistering heat from the spell, it was a small comfort. At least, if the blade was still moving through all that, she wouldn’t be able to see it coming. It would just kill her instantly without anything to worry over.

The ground twisted and shuddered under Alyssa’s feet in a magnitude of earthquake that she had never felt before. She hit the ground about as hard as the demon had, though her crater wasn’t as big. Scorching air rushed over her a moment later, burning her exposed skin. Bits of earth as large as baseballs flew off instead of striking her thanks to Projectile Reflection.

When the spots in her eyes cleared, she found the Justice still there, still high in the air, but it had rocked over to a forty-five degree angle. The sword was over its head, buried into the earth on the far side of the pit, almost exactly opposite from where Alyssa had been. It was slowly trying to right itself, but the demon was standing on its face, slamming her heel into it over and over again. With each kick, it lost a tiny bit of progress.

It wasn’t going to be able to use its sword again. Not for a few minutes at least.

Now was the time to get out.

Alyssa got to her feet, shaking and trembling. She sucked in the air, trying to inhale enough oxygen to survive. It wasn’t easy. The air was hot. Hotter than any sauna she had ever been in. And drier as well. She just had to make it to Izsha and Kasita, and then…

Looking in the direction she had been headed, Alyssa’s breath hitched.

Izsha and Kasita were nowhere to be found.


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Vacant Throne — 033.008

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War And Peace

Owlcroft


There was a certain peace to sleeping on top of Kasita and Izsha. Alyssa couldn’t move far from either of them without the protection of the staff failing. It made some… tasks more difficult than they needed to be, but she wouldn’t be here long. She could bear with it. It wasn’t a restful kind of sleep, but she got enough to do what needed to be done.

Still, it was quite the change. When she first met Izsha, she had nearly fallen over herself in an attempt to get away. Those sharp teeth were terrifying. But now, she didn’t fear anything from this particular draken. She still wouldn’t want to be left alone in a room with Musca or some of the others, but Izsha was perfectly fine.

Kasita, Alyssa had never feared. Not physically. Tzheitza and Oz complained about her and suggested that she might try to poison them, but Alyssa had never really believed that she would. Now, even with Kasita having a number of potentially deadly spells in her possession, that hadn’t changed.

Alyssa trusted them.

As they raced through the forest with at least ten infected chasing after them, Alyssa could only hope that they trusted her as well.

Or rather, at this point, they didn’t have much choice.

“Get ready,” Alyssa shouted. They weren’t far now. She could see it. The mass of souls that had to be a part of the pit was practically underneath their feet. And she did not want Izsha falling down inside, with or without her. “Be careful. I think we’re close.”

“Another two are after us,” Kasita said. Her voice was calm, but tense and clearly worried.

“And one more up ahead.” Alyssa gripped Izsha’s neck, holding tight. “Take a sharp right, Izsha.”

Even with her holding on, she almost fell out of the saddle. And they weren’t done yet. “Back to where we were headed.”

Izsha let out a low, rumbling growl as they turned back. The turn let one of the closer infected catch up, almost close enough to grab hold of Izsha’s tail. The stupid fake-demons were fast. Far faster than any human-shaped creature had a right to be. Thankfully, a quick Shorten Distance got them out of reach.

For the moment.

The trees here, once large and proud, were withered to the point of being husks. They were the kind of trees that one would find around the home of the Addams Family. No leaves. Ruined bark. Shriveled branches. They were completely dead. And the sun… even though there wasn’t a cloud in sight, the sun did not try very hard to illuminate the dead forest. Everything had a greyish tone to it. Like someone had taken a picture and slid the saturation bar most of the way down. That probably had something to do with the sorry state of the plant life.

The thin trees made it easy to see ahead, however, so Alyssa wasn’t complaining. She doubted Izsha was either.

The treeline broke after a while. There were many smaller trees, maybe ones as tall as Alyssa while riding Izsha. But they weren’t thick. They were the same skeletal trees that had occupied the forest for almost the entirety of the day’s journey.

A river wasn’t far away. But… it didn’t look like the kind of river that Alyssa cared to drink from. It was perfectly clear. So clear that it might have been glass, if not for a bit of whiter water around the edges of the banks. Someone else might have thought that it was the perfect drinking water, but she distinctly remembered her brother mentioning something about clear water. Clear water meant that nothing was living in the water. If there was water and yet nothing living in it, that meant that there were likely toxins in the water. Something that was killing anything that tried.

Which was unfortunate. Food, she and Izsha could go without for a while. But their supply of water was practically gone.

Irulon and Brakkt were on their way, just the two of them without Trik or Fela or any of the guild, but they were at least a full day back if not more. Their last Message had mentioned their hesitance to continue forward with the aura of oppression around them. Returning still wouldn’t be a problem. Not so long as they reached their destination soon and got away quickly.

It wasn’t like they could stop for water anyway. Not while being chased.

Alyssa fingered the Annihilator spell again as Izsha jumped clean over the narrowest point in the river.

The second Izsha’s talons found the opposite bank, Alyssa felt it. A deep and uncomfortable cold that dug into her spine. Kasita breathed like she had been punched in the stomach, never mind that something like that wouldn’t hurt her. And Izsha… Izsha stumbled. Never once since meeting the draken had Izsha made a single misstep.

She was so stunned by the sudden feeling that she didn’t even notice what they were standing in front of right away.

There were buildings. Kind of. Calling them buildings was a drastic overstatement. She hadn’t noticed them from the opposite side of the river, thinking them to be more trees and nothing else. If the first village they had run into had been a ghost town, this was an ancient ruin left to crumble in the elements.

There were clearly man-made objects jutting up in the distance. The frame of a wall. A post that might have been part of a fence. A mound of cobble. Nothing whole. Not even one complete structure. Not even one complete wall. There was nothing but dry, lifeless dirt, the skeleton of a town, and hundreds of pentagrams.

A signpost with carved lettering, hanging from a broken chain, spelled out the name of the town.

Owlcroft.

Beyond the furthest wall, there was nothing.

Not nothing as in no more village. Nothing as in nothing at all. What had likely once been a road through the center of the ten or so houses simply ended. A smooth line beyond which lay nothing. That nothingness continued as far as Alyssa could see. It swept wide to either side of the remains of the village.

The pit.

When she had first heard of it, she had expected a canyon or a crater. This was just a black hole with perfectly smooth edges. Judging by the souls beneath them, it went on for quite a ways as well, but, surprisingly, not as deep as she would have expected had she seen the hole in the ground before knowing that there were demons and infected at the bottom of it. A hole like this, she would have expected it to reach down to the center of the planet. Or to be in another reality entirely.

“Izsha! Move!” Kasita shouted.

Alyssa nearly fell backward off the saddle as Izsha reacted without a moment of hesitation.

While they gaped, the infected had been swimming. Throwing a look over her shoulder, Alyssa noted several downstream, but plenty had managed to get more or less straight across. One was just outside grasping distance. A Fireball from Kasita made it stumble just enough to buy them a few more feet of a lead. A Shorten Distance got them another dozen feet ahead.

Though there wasn’t much room. The village was quickly coming to an end.

And the slimy souls of the infected in the pit were somehow starting up toward the surface.

“Alyssa!”

“I’m on it.” This was it. They weren’t going to get any closer. “Tenebrael! We’re here! These demons have plagued the land for long enough. The Astral Authority has plagued you for long enough. The enemies of our enemies are not our friends, but we can use and abuse them anyway. All we need is a show of force. A powerful sign to draw them together. That is your will. Carry it out through me. Let us start a war between our enemies! A war that… will hopefully not destroy the rest of the world.”

“You don’t sound very certain,” Kasita called out. “Subjugation!”

“It’s working, isn’t it?”

Alyssa’s fingernails were black. Mystic circles were forming in the air around her.

“Is it? It’s not doing much!”

The Enochian around the geometric lines and shapes was still moving, flowing around, but… Kasita was right. Other than that, the mystic circles that had formed were not moving. They weren’t growing or spreading to the sky like they had over Lyria. Something was wrong. Had she not said enough? Was she not close enough?

It should still work. The Astral Authority had detected even minor usages of Tenebrael’s power. They would be here. They would call for reinforcements. Even without the great visage of Tenebrael looking down over the pit, the plan would work.

In fact, they were already here. The square edges of a portal opened up in their path.

Izsha took a sharp turn just as Alyssa burned another Shorten Distance.

Alyssa could feel her mistake in leaning to the wrong direction before she even left the saddle. As if she were in slow motion, she watched the ground rush up to meet her. With it came a crushing sensation of despair. Like the ground itself was a hundred bedehouses. No longer touching the staff, the chills hit her before she hit the ground.

But she still hit the ground as well. Momentum made her roll along the hard Earth for a good ten feet until she came to a stop at the edges of the golden portal.

An obsidian-black scythe carved through the borders, slamming into the ground inches from her face. The warped space of the portal dissipated without even admitting a fake angel.

Arm pulsing with pain from where she landed, Alyssa followed the haft of the scythe up to the black leather gloves of the demon. The true demon.

“T-Tenebrael,” Alyssa stuttered, not because of fear, but from that feeling of hopelessness. “Wrap me in your warm embrace.”

The mystic circles forming around her drew in close, hugging right up against her skin. It didn’t fully dampen the sensation of despair. It wasn’t as good as Adrael’s staff. But it was something.

Enough to give her a modicum of motivation back.

Alyssa wasted no time in getting back to her feet. If she hadn’t had the dragon armor on, she would probably have wound up much worse off. As it was, she could feel pain all up her thigh and back. Ignorable pain, thankfully. At least while faced with a true demon and all the infected.

Two Spectral Chains kept the closest feral infected from lunging at her. More were coming up from the path leading to the river. And on the opposite side, infected were climbing up around the rim of that darkness of the pit. Some were still chasing Izsha and Kasita, both of whom looked like they were trying to get back to Alyssa, but couldn’t just turn around with the infected on their tail.

They were out of the way enough to take care of one problem.

A white-hot beam of total annihilation forced Alyssa to close her eyes. Only for a moment. A much shorter amount of time than when she had used it on the Taker or even at the Society of the Burning Shadow’s outpost.

A gouge in the ground, shallower than at the outpost, still went a good hundred yards beyond the river. Water was flowing down from both sides of the river. Billowing clouds of steam covered the land and more plumes were still rising from the hot molten rock and earth that lined the gouge. None of the infected were left on that side of the town.

The true demon shot her a glare. Not a harsh one. More like the look Alyssa might give if a coworker spilled something in the break room back at her old job. It was just more menial work to do.

Alyssa didn’t care. In fact, it was better if the true demon left.

Which the demon did. Instead of teleporting using one of the many pentagrams that littered the unscarred town, she lifted her scythe, rested it on her shoulder, and hopped down into the gouge that was slowly filling with water.

While there were mystic circles wrapping around her body, she wasn’t sure why they had failed to attract more of the Astral Authority. But she was starting to suspect that it was the fault of the true demon. If at first you don’t succeed, Mister Kidd… Try, try again, Mister Wint. Hopefully with the demon distracted for at least a few seconds, she would be able to do something.

“Oh Tenebrael, Dominion of Nod. A show of force has become necessary. Demons seek to tarnish your name. The Astral Authority remains at bay.” Her fingernails had remained black, even after falling from Izsha’s back. Larger circles were assembling around her with every word she spoke. “Woeful be any who attempt to stop your will. Though many of your designs are dissembled, I know my purpose here. Grant me the power to—”

Alyssa stumbled back, barely dodging the blade of the scythe as it split the mystic circles in two. The demon was back in front of her, just staring.

“Do you mind?” Alyssa asked through grit teeth, pulling out a dozen more Annihilator cards. She wouldn’t have time to shout out another speech. The infected from the pit were coming.

Three Annihilator beams fired off in a cone in front of Alyssa, hopefully decimating most of the oncoming horde. With these ones aimed at the pit, Alyssa held them longer than she had the first one. The true demon had been caught in the blast. Alyssa could only hope that it would mildly inconvenience her.

“Dominion Tenebrael,” Alyssa shouted before the spots cleared from her eyes. “You stupid angel. Do something! Anything!”

“She can’t.”

Alyssa snapped her head to the side. The demon was apparently not inconvenienced at all. She stood upright on the narrow bridge of land between the two parts of Owlcroft that had not been annihilated. There was a bit of smoking steam rising from her shoulders, but her outfit hardly looked blemished. With a canyon of glassed earth on either side of her, Alyssa had to admit to being disappointed. Though perhaps that was the wrong reaction. That the true demon was smoking at all was a good sign that something worked.

Unfortunately, Alyssa didn’t think that she had enough Annihilators in her deck to cause any real damage if a little smoke was all three had done.

And she didn’t have enough room to cast them. Not enough cardinal directions. Izsha and Kasita were still off in the distance. Over the true demon’s shoulder, Alyssa watched as Izsha’s tail snapped out, sending one of the infected flying into the pit.

As for the pit itself… Her latest Annihilators hadn’t harmed it at all. The edge was lower, following the new curvature of the land around it, but the opposite side—however far it was, a difficult thing to tell when it was a perfectly uniform black—didn’t seem to have been marred in the slightest.

Movement from the demon snapped Alyssa back to her current problem. At first, she tensed, ready to jump back or even attack. But the demon wasn’t acting hostile despite having been blasted with an Annihilator beam.

Instead, she reached up to her mask and undid those buckles near her ear. The mask covering the lower half of her face hung limp from the opposite side.

Alyssa wasn’t quite sure what she had expected to be under the mask. Aside from the glowing part, the eye was relatively normal, as was the skin around it. Somehow, she still expected to find a forked tongue, sharp teeth, or maybe a gaping maw not unlike the pit itself. Instead, there was just a normal mouth beneath. One with black-painted lips, which Alyssa had to wonder about in comparison to Tenebrael, but nothing so unusual as to be notable. In fact, there was really only one notable thing about the whole situation.

“So you can take that mask off yourself.”

“Indeed. I have a lot more… control around here,” she said, dropping the l-sound at the end of control. Alyssa wasn’t quite sure what accent that was—maybe something from England—but hadn’t heard anything like it around Nod.

“Uh huh. So you couldn’t have taken it off back at the bedehouse?”

“No comment.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together for a moment, glaring. “Is this the part where you try to convince me to leave without calling down the Astral Authority?”

The true demon sighed. “Tenebrael is short-sighted as always. She won’t be able to use us to distract the Astral Authority for long. It’s swings and roundabouts, really.”

“Oh yes. Of course. How convincing. I’ll just pack up and head back home then.”

“You don’t have to believe me.”

“Didn’t need you to tell me that,” Alyssa said through grit teeth. Her eyes flicked around for any of the approaching feral infected. The Annihilators seemed to have killed every infected that had been headed in her direction. At least those who had made it up to the surface. There were still more down in the pit climbing up. The true demon was probably intending to stall until they arrived and could further try to stop Alyssa.

It was a war of attrition. She only had so many Annihilator spells. As long as the demon didn’t send all of them up at once, Alyssa would lose. There was no other way around it. The Annihilators would keep her safe from a few waves, but there were more. So many more than just a few waves’ worth of infected.

She didn’t know how long that would take, but she didn’t want to find out.

“You’re the one stopping the Astral Authority from finding you? And keeping Tenebrael’s magic from working?” The scythe through both the portal and the mystic circles was a pretty big giveaway, but Alyssa just thought she would ask.

“Astute,” she said.

Alyssa rolled her eyes.

“I thought I would buy us a moment to chat before you made a mistake.”

“Oh chat. Yes. Lovely. Maybe you should have chatted at any of our other encounters. Now isn’t really the best time,” Alyssa said, flicking her eyes toward the pit. A few infected were climbing up using their bare hands. Which did not go over so well for them. The earth was still red hot. Alyssa wasn’t sure if they felt pain—the Taker had been wandering around nearly headless for a good while without complaint—but their skin sizzled and burned. In some cases, it even fused with the molten rock. One infected toppled backward, falling right back into the pit it had just climbed out from.

Spectral Chains launched from Alyssa’s fingertips. The demon made no move to dodge or counter the spell. The ethereal chains wrapped around her, pulling her arms tight to her sides. She looked down at herself with a detached curiosity.

“Is this really necessary?”

“If you keep interfering. Tenebrael! Dominion of Nod. Hear my request for these woeful demons…”

“Wouldn’t you rather join us? Tenebrael is a bumbling fool who cannot offer what you desire.”

“What? A bit of extra strength and a lot of excess drooling? I could drool on myself just fine right now if I wanted,” Alyssa said with a shake of her head. “Grant that I may bring forth your glory to this forsaken land…”

“Power—”

“Not enticing. I have enough and I’ve seen the slime you call power in the infected. To all my efforts as I exercise the authority that has been granted to me…”

“A way home?”

The next words were hesitant to come forth. The growing mystic circles in the air around them even froze momentarily. A way home… She could see her father and brother again. Reunite her mother and father. But as soon as the thought entered her mind, Alyssa shook her head. It was probably true that the demon could send her home. Tenebrael had said as much. They wouldn’t lie, but the truths they told would benefit themselves first, everyone else never.

“A joy. A rapture unforeseen. For now the sky is all serene…”

“Immortality?”

“You should at least promise something real,” Alyssa said, suddenly wondering if Tenebrael had been correct in her assessment of demons and the truth. “I’ve killed dozens of your infected. We require strife and conflict to draw our enemies nearby.”

“Is that really what you think you’ve done? True, their mortal bodies were destroyed. The important parts were saved. Rescued from utter damnation within Tenebrael’s gullet or the harsh mechanisms of the Throne.”

“I’m sure those corrupted balls of tar are happy being tortured for eternity. Tenebrael! Hang your ensign high above! Set the sky all ablaze!”

The bubble of mystic circles and Enochian text exploded outward as soon as Alyssa finished speaking. Several more infected tumbled back into the pit as a wave rushed along the ground. A blaze of Tenebrael’s black-white magic lit up the sky. It wasn’t quite the same as the mystic circle that had appeared over Lyria, but the sky filled with miraculous clockwork.

Alyssa felt it immediately. A warmth. The gnawing horror that came from being so close to the pit vanished. Tenebrael’s glory flooded through her.

With a triumphant grin, Alyssa dropped her gaze from the sky back to the demon in front of her.

Only for her grin to falter.

The true demon was smiling as well. A calm, serene smile.

“It is only torture if you find life itself to be torture,” the demon said as if there weren’t portals appearing in the sky all around them. She seemed utterly unconcerned with the Astral Authority showing up on her doorstep. “But you’ve been fighting against those who would harm others ever since arriving in this world. You’ve merely been misled by this world’s Dominion into thinking that she is the righteous one. You haven’t forgotten how you met her, have you? She eats souls, collects human sacrifice, toys with and belittles you.”

A Patience dived down, aiming its spear directly for the still-bound true demon.

Alyssa didn’t have a moment to think let alone react.

But she didn’t need to.

Black needle-like daggers pierced straight through the back of the Patience’s head and shattered porcelain mask as they emerged. A blur crashed into it from above, slamming it into the molten glass of the gouge. The humanoid form blurred again before landing next to the true demon.

“Hello again,” the nasally voice of the Taker said, eyes burning embers but otherwise looking perfectly normal. A slash of his hand severed the ethereal chains that bound the true demon.

“We really have the same goal,” the demon continued as if nothing had happened, ignoring the ghostly links as they fell away from her body. “The souls I collect are replaced into better bodies. Stronger bodies. Ones that need not suffer through the mundanity of life, yet can still participate in all the pleasures and experiences that life offers. Don’t you want to save life, Alyssa?”


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Vacant Throne — 033.007

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War And Peace

Warning


Alyssa could feel it. And she wasn’t the only one.

Two days of travel had brought them much closer to their destination. Owlcroft was supposed to be a week out from Illuna. But that metric was based on horses moving at a steady trot. Izsha was much faster. And, without other people, they could travel even quicker than that. Izsha moved at its own pace, setting the schedule entirely, including when to stop for breaks and nights.

The only real input that Alyssa had was when demons were afoot. And they were around in surprising numbers. Since the two in the abandoned town, they had come across another ten. The first morning, they had only come across two more. Yesterday, they had to fight off five, two of which had attacked at the same time. They had fought three today and it was still morning.

But they were getting close.

The bedehouse in Lyria had an aura around it. A miasma in the air that caused fear, weighed down everyone in the area, and simply oppressed everything. It was a singularly unique sensation, one that Alyssa hadn’t ever felt before then. But now, she could safely say that she had felt it for a second time. Except this time, it was even heavier. Every instinct in her body was telling her to turn around and run away.

Adrael’s staff helped. Alyssa had tied it to the saddle. It was easily within grasping distance for her and was pressed against Izsha’s scales. Kasita could easily reach it as well. She was actually afraid to let go. Because it only helped. At the bedehouse, simply touching the staff was enough to completely negate all effects of the aura. Here, it was different. Here, the miasma was so oppressive that Alyssa could feel it even when gripping the staff with both hands.

Even with the staff blocking a large portion of the aura, the woods would have still been oppressive. There was just no sound. Nature had certain noises to it. Ones that Alyssa had grown increasingly familiar with over the course of her stay in Nod. There should have been birds singing, crickets chirping, rustles and noises of the trees and leaves as animals and wind moved through them. Instead, there was nothing. Nothing at all.

Given their inconsistent speed and lack of real knowledge of the surrounding lands, Alyssa honestly had no idea how far away they were. Riding was easy. If they wound up riding until nightfall…

It might be better to ride through the night. Setting up any kind of camp would be difficult with only the one staff. Izsha would have to follow her around so close that they would definitely be tripping over each other. Besides that… Alyssa doubted that she would be able to sleep.

Perhaps it was for the best that it was only the three of them. Irulon might have had some kind of solution for the sensation, but Alyssa doubted it. She had sent a Message asking if the bedehouse guards had any kind of protections, but Irulon had come back without any definite answer. Alyssa couldn’t even imagine Irulon, Fela, Brakkt, and Trik all needing to hold onto the staff as well, plus their mounts and the pack horse.

It would have been chaos.

Tzheitza and the Taker had apparently fought at the pit itself, killing infected comrades. That was the story that Alyssa had heard her tell, anyway. Perhaps the sensation hadn’t been as strong back when the pit was new, but… she could easily imagine the oppressive atmosphere and the horrors of killing former friends being enough to drive a man insane.

How did the guards stand it? Were there even any guards? A lack of guards around the pit would explain why there were so many infected in the lands around it. Then again, hunters, adventurers, brigands, and anyone else who wandered as deep as Alyssa was might just succumb to a lack of faith in Tenebrael if they got this close. Which would probably make most guards relatively pointless unless true demons were just pouring out of the pit.

She supposed that she would find out soon. It couldn’t be far. Even the trees and plants looked like they were on the verge of death.

“Demons to our right,” Alyssa said, voice not quite a whisper, but close. Speaking any louder just felt wrong. The air itself wouldn’t allow it.

However it was that draken managed to hear words without proper ears, Izsha heard. They drifted off to the left side. Not a sharp angle. The demons were far off. Alyssa would have said something if they were closer and Izsha understood that as well.

She kept her eyes closed, concentrating on seeing souls. Seeing threats.

There were a lot of threats dead ahead. But they had been dead ahead for a full day now. They were getting closer. It was just a bit difficult to tell the exact distance when there were so many all bleeding together. A bunch of the souls, far below the earth, actually looked like they were directly on top of Alyssa. It was just the strange way the soul sight worked. Without reference points, it was hard to tell if something was deep underground or directly underfoot.

The mass of souls had to be the pit. Alyssa couldn’t even count how many there were. Hundreds. Thousands. All of them were that same slimy type of souls. Infected. Even though they were all next to each other, the souls didn’t interact. Not like how humans and monsters interacted. Little pieces of their souls didn’t dart away to join with others. Rather, the souls that got close to others would pull back and withdraw, like they were trying to protect themselves from any interaction at all.

At least… with each other. Alyssa distinctly remembered Kasita trying to spy on the demon in Teneville. Its soul had interacted with Kasita’s just before it attacked.

Alyssa had to wonder if this was close enough. There was a steady trail of demons leading back to that mass. Or, rather than a trail, it was more like they were scattered around with more toward the mass than away from it. A Kindness moving toward the most dense portion would surely find them.

But if the Astral Authority just attacked the closest ones and then focused on Alyssa, this was possibly the worst place to try to run from them again. It was too easy to stumble into demons.

“More directly in front of us. And to our left up ahead. Go back to the right. We’ll just take the one out there.”

Alyssa still had a scythe in her hands from the last few demons that they had to dispatch. She could hold it for an unlimited amount of time, but the amount of cards she had were significantly less unlimited. She had to be careful with it. As Irulon had warned her when she first used the spell, it could kill easily. Too easily, almost, but that was what made it good against demons. Still, she had no interest in accidentally killing her friends. With her ability to handle souls, there was a slight chance that she could shove a soul back into a body, especially if the body wasn’t damaged, but testing that…

“Directly ahead now,” Alyssa said, readying the scythe.

An infected beyond the trees shambled around like a zombie. Its back was to Alyssa, but that didn’t last long. Izsha was a fairly quiet predator, but it was impossible to move at a high speed through the forest without making some noise.

The infected turned, showing off burning red eyes. It snarled, mouth gaping and spittle flying everywhere. Fingernails as long as its fingers raised up, readying an attack.

Alyssa didn’t even blink. Izsha charged by. As they passed, Alyssa swung the scythe, hooking it into the infected’s head. It immediately stopped moving, going limp, but the tar-like soul stayed stuck in its corpse for a good twenty feet until Izsha ran past a tree. The scythe and the soul passed clean through. The corpse did not.

The worst thing about killing the infected wasn’t actually the fight. None of them were even close to the level of the Taker. Alyssa had yet to run across an infected that even reached the one that had been in Teneville. Lyria starved them in the bedehouse or in barricaded homes to weaken them. Or they had done so before Fela came along. She wasn’t exactly certain of their policy now. Out here in this forest, with no sounds of animals or prey that they might be able to eat and likely no intelligence to cultivate crops on their own, they were likely all completely starved, just wandering aimlessly until their bodies finally gave out.

No. The worst thing wasn’t killing them. Alyssa was used to that. It came easily.

The worst thing was stopping, waiting for the stupid true demon to appear, and then scouring the pentagrams from the land.

It did give Izsha a small break. Alyssa hadn’t been the one setting the pace, but she was fairly certain that Izsha was pushing itself quite a bit in the interest of getting this mission over and done with sooner rather than later.

Alyssa shook the soul off the scythe behind them as Izsha slowed down. The others couldn’t actually see the soul, so Alyssa actually had to signal when to stop. She did so with a light pat to the smooth scales on the side of Izsha’s neck.

The demon appeared before too long. A blazing pentagram etched itself into the dirt. Every plant in a six foot radius around it just died. The closest of the sickly-looking bushes and trees actually burst into flames. The fire didn’t spread, thankfully. There was something infernally magical about it. The first time, Alyssa had just about had a heart attack at the thought of burning the forest down with her trapped inside.

It was the same demon as always. Black leather boots, skirt, and straps making up a top with a mask that hid all skin but a little bit around the glowing ember of an eye. Alyssa wasn’t sure whether or not this particular demon was following her kills around, if she was the only true demon assigned to this planet in some kind of mirror to Tenebrael, or if she just randomly got assigned to the same souls that Alyssa forked over on the regular.

Which was somewhat ironic to think about. Tenebrael had called Alyssa her little reaper. But the vast majority of the reaping Alyssa had done wasn’t headed to Tenebrael at all.

Every single time, the demon waved to Alyssa. It was a jaunty little wave like she had just seen a neighbor at the supermarket for the first time in a while. Alyssa just glared back. At least the demon hadn’t dropped another ember. So far, anyway. Perhaps they took some time to prepare.

The demon went about her business. She kicked the base of the scythe haft, spinning it around until the gleaming blade lanced straight through the gelatinous blob. A second pentagram formed beneath the soul, adjacent to the first. It quickly wound up sucked into the flaming geometric shape.

As the glow faded, Alyssa just waited. The demon always left right after.

Always.

Except now.

Alyssa’s muscles tensed as she started looking around, wondering if there was some ambush coming. The demon hadn’t even done anything and she had Alyssa on edge. She closed her eyes, concentrating and checking for souls. There weren’t any around aside from present company. Alyssa didn’t see anything nearby and none of the ones further off were moving in their direction as far as she could tell.

Opening her eyes, Alyssa half expected the demon to be holding out another ember. Alyssa did have some of Tzheitza’s anti-demonic serum, so she could destroy one if necessary. But it would just be another thing on top of her already stressful plate.

The demon wasn’t offering an ember. Thankfully. Rather, she reached up to the side of her mask. It, like much of her outfit, was held together by buckles. At least two, but possibly more that Alyssa couldn’t see easily. Just like the first time Alyssa tried to talk to the demon, she scratched at the side of her mask before gesturing toward Alyssa.

Alyssa could only shake her head. “I’m not interested. Not at all. Hurry and leave so I can get on with my day.”

The demon’s sole visible eye narrowed. Her hands gripped the haft of her scythe.

Alyssa tensed, gripping her own scythe, only to frown as the demon slammed the tip down into the ground.

She pulled the scythe back toward her, dragging a burning line through the ground. The flame, a deep red color that Alyssa had never seen in an actual fire, didn’t spread to the surrounding underbrush. Much like the still glowing pattern underneath the demon’s feet, it stayed right where it was.

The scythe slammed into the ground again. With a second pull, it formed another line. Then a third between the two.

At first, Alyssa feared that the demon was drawing out a pentagram for some reason. But it wasn’t. It was a single letter.

A

The demon moved outside the pentagram that spawned her, digging her scythe into the ground as she moved. One line met another, which met another, and another still.

W

A

R

N

Izsha backed away. Alyssa hadn’t said anything. Neither had Kasita. And yet, as the demon moved around, carving letters into the ground, Izsha knew. Or the letters that were apparently appearing out of nowhere were scary enough to force a movement.

I

N

G

“A warning?” Alyssa said as the demon stepped back into the pentagram. “Let me guess. If I come any closer, you’ll try to kill me?”

The demon looked affronted that anyone would suggest such a thing. Pressing a hand to the black leather straps that covered her chest, she shook her head. After a moment, she pointed down at the smaller circle that the infected’s soul had been drawn into then toward Izsha and the riders. At that, she nodded.

“The infected are going to try to kill me? Great warning,” she said, hoping her sarcasm was apparent. “I wouldn’t have guessed. It’s not like they’ve ever attacked me before.”

Somehow, somehow, Alyssa could tell that the demon was frowning. The mask completely covered her mouth and even cheeks. But the one visible eye just gave her such a flat look that it couldn’t have been anything else. With a shrug of her shoulders as if to say that she had tried, the demon vanished in a burst of flames from the pentagram.

Once again, the forest returned to its state of utter silence. Izsha wasn’t moving, so she didn’t even have the breeze blowing past her ears. The ruby red flames of the message were still going, but they weren’t actually burning anything. It just ominously glowed in the dim light.

“Alright, Izsha. The demon is gone.”

“What was that all about?” Kasita said in a whisper as Izsha marched over to the pentagrams.

Alyssa pulled out a spell card. A Physical class spell designed to dig holes in dirt—though they didn’t work on harder stone. They were easy to draw and relatively low rank, but she only had made a handful of them the night they had stayed in the abandoned village. She hadn’t thought that she would need more than a dozen. “No idea,” she said as she carved a foot-deep trench into the ground where the pentagrams were. She had to use a second card to destroy the words. The fire thankfully went out the moment the line was disrupted. “But we should probably watch out up ahead. The infected haven’t been giving us trouble so far, but the demon has to know that. Perhaps they’re stronger up ahead. Or perhaps the warning was about something else entirely. I… really don’t know if I should have tried listening or not.”

“It wanted you to take off its mask again?”

“Yeah…”

“Probably a trap then. An attempt at tricking you into doing what it wanted. Just like last time.”

“That’s what I thought, but…” Alyssa shook her head. She was acting as best she knew how on as little information as she had. Tenebrael said that demons couldn’t be trusted. Period. Not because they wouldn’t tell the truth, but because they would only tell the parts of the truth that served their whims.

Which just made her all the more nervous about that warning. It meant that there probably was something to be worried about up ahead. Whether that came from demons, infected, the Astral Authority, or even angels was completely up in the air.

But it wasn’t like they could turn around and go home now.

“Let’s move. And let’s go a bit slower too. We don’t want to get ambushed or fall into a trap.”

Izsha made a grunt that Alyssa took as an agreement. In seconds, they were off. Their pace was still brisk, but not the straight gallop that it had been earlier.

The road was somewhere to their left, if Alyssa’s sense of direction wasn’t completely screwed up. From the abandoned village, they had been vaguely following it. However, there were more infected on and near the road than elsewhere. It wasn’t really necessary anymore either. As long as that sense of foreboding didn’t wane, they were headed in the proper direction.

Trusting Kasita and Izsha to be aware of their immediate surroundings, Alyssa went back to focusing. Astral Authority fake-angels, angels, and demons didn’t appear to her sense of souls. Luckily, Kasita could vaguely sense them, even if she hadn’t needed to so far, so Alyssa felt she could trust that task to her friend and focus on what was likely the real danger.

With the warning from the demon, avoiding all infected might be for the best.

It, unfortunately, took more time as well. Alyssa had to map out a safe path of travel to weave in and out of the shambling zombie-like infected that littered the forest. Some parts, Izsha could simply run around them, taking a wide looping path. But others, they had to drop to a crawl. In one case, they even had to stop for a full half hour as one particularly active infected staggered across their path.

Much of the time they had gained thanks to Izsha’s haste since leaving Illuna was lost. Probably not all of it, but Alyssa wished she knew just how far away Owlcroft would be. If it was only a few more hours off, she would have tried carrying on through the night. But if it was a day or more, they would need to rest at some point.

She wished that there was another abandoned village. For all she knew, there was one. But it wasn’t on the same road that led to Owlcroft. Leaving Lyria made her realize just how shoddy the map she had was. It was something she thought about bringing up with Jason. If a decent map was as bad as the one she had taken a picture of, constructing rail lines between towns and villages wouldn’t be easy.

No caves either. If they had to rest, it would be out in the open.

Alyssa didn’t want to try. She didn’t think she would be able to sleep. But even still, she started looking around for anywhere that might let them rest. Even for just a few hours.

“Izsha. Angle left until… there,” Alyssa said as Izsha followed her directions. “There is a single infected up ahead, but plenty more around for quite a distance. The demon was warning us against infected, probably, but we aren’t going to be able to avoid them all.”

“A single one is fine. We’ve dealt with up to three at a time before.”

“Be on your guard anyway. Both of you.”

Izsha decided to speed up with a definite destination in sight. Alyssa didn’t bother slowing it back down. There was nothing around that would take notice. Just the one infected.

And Izsha quickly came across it.

Alyssa had been likening the infected to zombies ever since she first came across one. But that wasn’t exactly accurate. In Earth media, zombies tended to shamble around, moaning and groaning. And while there were certainly similarities, it would probably be more accurate to call the infected feral humans rather than zombies. Their posture tended to be somewhat hunched. They lunged and attacked with clawed grips and sharp teeth. Some did stagger around, the weaker and starved ones, but some even held weapons.

This one, however, made Alyssa’s stomach churn. It wasn’t crouched down, readying for an attack. It stood straight with a posture that not even Alyssa had at the best of times. One hand was behind its back. The other held a knife. Its clothes weren’t the torn ragged mess that the others had. Rather, it was a slim suit of black leather. Not shiny and not made out of straps and belts as the true demon’s outfit was. It was more like Oz’s leather armor than that.

For a moment, Alyssa almost thought that it was a normal person.

The embers in its eyes on its ash-white face eliminated all doubt.

“Careful,” Alyssa said as Izsha charged. “This one isn’t like the others.”

As soon as she spoke, the infected smiled and rushed forward to meet their charge. Alyssa had her scythe at the ready as well as her deck of spell cards. Spectral Chains lashed out, but it jumped, springing clear to the opposite side of Izsha.

The blade in its hand lashed out.

A Shorten Distance carried Alyssa and Izsha a step out of the way.

“Subjugation,” Kasita uttered. A wave of light lashed out toward the demon. It tried to dodge, but the edge of the wave clipped its leg.

The demon went to the ground, kneeling. But it was clearly resisting, moving back to its feet. A second Spectral Chains kept it in place as Izsha reared around. This time, it did not get out of the way of her scythe.

The soul didn’t come loose right away. Much like the Taker’s soul, it felt like trying to remove a marble from a crimped pipe.

“Izsha, crash it into a tree again!”

It took a moment for the draken to find a suitable tree. Anything too narrow and the tree would just snap. Too many other trees around and they wouldn’t be able to rush at it at any good speed.

As Izsha was still picking a target, the infected started laughing. “Just like last time?” it said with a derisive chuckle. The sound of its words wasn’t something a human could mimic. They had a reverberation to the tone. “It won’t matter. I will kill you.”

Alyssa didn’t respond. She knew that infected could talk. Octavia had apparently tried multiple times to convince Irulon and the Pharaoh to release her, offering them promises of power or even just good behavior. Neither listened. And Alyssa wasn’t listening now.

She held out the scythe with both hands as Izsha started running.

The demon screamed, turning feral for just a moment.

“Projectile Reflection,” Kasita said, moving a hand in front of Alyssa’s face.

The demon’s knife hit her arm the second it was in the way. With a loud tang, it spiraled off somewhere behind them.

Alyssa sucked in a breath. She hadn’t even considered that the demon might still try to attack.

It slammed into the tree a moment later. Alyssa almost found herself pulled out of the saddle. But she held on tight with her legs. With only a moment of additional resistance, she, the scythe, and the tar-like ball of soul made it through the tree.

“It’s done,” she whispered, letting Izsha know that they could stop.

The true demon appeared once again. This time, she didn’t even glance in Alyssa’s direction. She just collected the soul and left without a single comment.

Which was more than fine with Alyssa.

They would have to get some rest.

And apparently be wary of more of the capable infected up ahead.


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