Freedom of Choice
Alyssa stumbled back, slamming into the wall behind her. Her breaths came hard and fast, filling her lungs with air her body didn’t need. Closing her eyes, she tried to get herself under control.
She was still alive.
Her stomach ached, as did her arm. But it was a phantom sort of ache. No dagger stuck out of her arm. Same with her belly. She even pulled up her shirt to check. There was no hole, no blood, no knife. Just the lightly ridged skin of her abs. She could still feel that cold inside her. Not to the same degree, and it was fading fast, but the sensation lingered in her thoughts.
Heart still hammering in her chest, she shuddered.
The spell had worked as advertised.
Alyssa was back in the hall, staring at two clones of herself with the transparent shards of Empty Mirror lazily drifting around her. The door was shut. No one was chasing after her, at least as far as she could tell.
In fact, she had never opened the door. She hadn’t approached it. Because she hadn’t opened the door, she hadn’t alerted the Taker. Because she hadn’t alerted the Taker, he had never drawn his weapons. Because he hadn’t drawn them, he hadn’t thrown them and Alyssa had never been skewered. Infinite Regress.
Well, not infinite as far as Alyssa understood the term. It had an end right where her clones were standing. But she wasn’t in charge of naming spells.
Alyssa remained right where she had landed against the wall. That had been too close. She had never been stabbed before and really wasn’t looking forward to putting herself in that situation again. It had almost killed her! She could almost hear the light wafts of Tenebrael’s wings as they moved about in the air. Her imagination, surely. Looking around, there was no sign of the black-hearted angel. Just an empty hall, a closed door, and two frozen clones of Alyssa.
Of course, that should be expected. Irulon’s instructions had specifically noted that the spell, Infinite Regress, did not actually do anything. It wasn’t time travel. It was more like she had put on virtual reality goggles and was acting out the future. That didn’t give nearly as much relief as it should. She had seen The Matrix. If she died in this mirror-world, would she die in real life? The instructions hadn’t said.
It wasn’t something she planned on testing anytime soon.
Alyssa shoved off the wall, gritting her teeth and focusing. She couldn’t sit around. As much as she wanted to just curl up in her bed and never deal with this world again… that just wasn’t her. The Taker wouldn’t leave her alone. Even if she ran away now, she wouldn’t be safe unless she ran all the way back to her home in Teneville. Maybe not even then, not if the Taker wanted to keep his reputation. Besides that, she couldn’t just leave Kasita in his claws. He would find out what she was sooner rather than later. If the mimic had already made her escape, there might not be anything to worry about. But she hadn’t. The Taker would kill her.
There wasn’t a doubt in Alyssa’s mind that he was capable of killing the mimic. Even Tzheitza could likely kill Kasita if she actually got serious about it.
Taking a breath, Alyssa pushed the previous events out of her mind. This spell only gave her three chances to perfect her plan and one was already down the drain.
Alyssa pushed open the door just as she had last time. Rather than stand in the middle of the opening like some kind of idiot, she moved her back right up to the frame.
Just in time for a black blade to fly past. It landed with a clatter somewhere down the hall, but Alyssa only had eyes for the Taker.
“Well, well. Bringing a friend? Looks like you aren’t the fool I took you for.” The Taker stepped away from Kasita’s cell, keeping his distance. He didn’t draw any spare knives this time, choosing instead to unsheathe his sword. It was a simple silver blade with no excess adornments. Given that his daggers did something to freeze her body, it was probably anything but simple. “Is that you under that shroud, Tzheitza? No. She’s far too aggressive for the cloak and dagger routine.”
Alyssa slipped into the room, moving away from the door while watching his eyes. They swept right over her as he scanned his surroundings, failing to see through the invisibility spell.
She had done it. She was in the room, he didn’t know where, and she didn’t even have a dagger sticking out of her chest. Gripping her shotgun tight, she moved just a few steps closer, ensuring that there wouldn’t be any missing. Unless his sword could stretch ten feet, she was well out of range of that as well.
“Drop the shroud, interloper.” The Taker put his back up against the stone column between Kasita’s cell and the next one over. He continued looking back and forth, sweeping his head around the room. “You have until the count of five. One.”
Alyssa hesitated. Last time, he had thrown a dagger that almost certainly would have killed her. She wasn’t sure if he had seen through the Empty Mirror spell at the end or if he was just that good at knowing where she would be. Either way, she was slightly curious about what it would be this time. A bluff? Or something worse than an icy dagger.
Hearing that word again, she grit her teeth. He wasn’t going to go at five. He would go at three like last time. Alyssa put the shotgun to her shoulder. Finding out what he had planned, coming as close to death as she already had, none of it mattered if he was dead.
A sharp crack of her shotgun echoed off the stone walls of the prison.
Hot fire tore through her. She felt a hundred stings across her front, from her neck down to her thighs. Little burning rivets in her skin. The shotgun slipped from her grip. Her fingers simply lacked the strength to hold it. Looking down, blood leaked from holes in her shirt.
“Ah yes, Cid and Bacco were kind enough to inform me about those weapons. After inspecting the bodies left behind, I determined that a simple Projectile Reflection spell would suffice for defense. It’s always such a rush of satisfaction knowing that one’s preparations worked perfectly.”
Alyssa staggered, letting out a grunt as a narrow sword punctured straight through her stomach. She hadn’t seen him cross the distance, but there he stood just a step in front of her.
It took a force of will to stop herself from thinking the command word. Alyssa grit her teeth through the pain, blinking back tears. She only had one more chance to come up with a serviceable plan. This attempt had to go further. Even if it only gave her a little more information.
Alyssa clenched her fingers around her pistol, putting all her strength into pulling it up. “Reflect this!” she shouted in an attempt to distract herself from the pain of thrusting herself even further onto the blade until she was close enough to put the gun to his head.
The Taker’s heavy boot connected square with her chest. Alyssa spat up blood as he flung her back, slamming her into the wall.
Kasita shouted something, but Alyssa couldn’t understand the words. Her eyes were locked on the floor.
The contents of her stomach spilled out, landing on the floor with a loud slop. But they hadn’t come from her mouth. Her whole side was torn open.
Her vision blanked out, tunneling from the red mess on the floor to darkness. Death? Is this dying?
No. It wasn’t real. She held on to that thought, remembering the word.
The world around her vanished without fanfare and Alyssa found herself staring at herself. Her hands gripped her stomach as she bit down on her cheek to stop the scream from escaping her lips. That maniac had disemboweled her! Her intestines had been lying on the ground next to her! Alyssa crushed her stomach in a hug with her arms, just trying to get the sensation out of her head.
She could still feel it. That sudden emptiness as her insides slipped out. A knife or sword stabbing through her was something she could understand—while far deeper at his hand, she had accidentally cut herself on occasion. But having her intestines fall out… she couldn’t even think of anything similar.
Frankly, she didn’t want to think much on it. Alyssa focused on her body as it was, whole and properly put together. It hadn’t been real.
To get her mind off the topic of herself, Alyssa forced her thoughts onto the situation as a whole. Shooting him would not work. Not from afar at least. She had barely understood what had been happening at the time, but between his words and her pockmarked body before being stabbed, it wasn’t difficult to put two and two together. Some spell was protecting him from projectiles, which guns most certainly were. It had probably been designed for arrows, but clearly worked well on more modern tools as well. There was a chance that he would be vulnerable up close. He had kicked her away rather than weather the shot when she had put the pistol to his head. That would require getting close to that sword however.
It was also possible that his spell had failed after deflecting her shotgun and that was why he had knocked her away. If she could shoot him at an angle that didn’t reflect the shot back at her… but that relied on both the assumption that the spell failed being true as well as the notion that magic had to make sense. The spell could literally reflect everything back at its source no matter how tricky she tried to be with the shot.
No. Too many unknowns with that plan. Maybe she could have tested it if she had more clones in Infinite Regress.
But she didn’t. She didn’t even have another copy of the spell. And not for lack of trying. The patterns for Fractal spells were nightmarish to copy. They had so many details to them. Her attempts at Infinite Regress had all wound up crunched up and tossed to the side. Irulon had made it look so easy. It hadn’t even taken the princess two tries.
This was her last chance to find something that worked to either incapacitate or kill the Taker. As soon as she returned again, she would be back in her ‘original’ body.
Alyssa pulled out all the spell cards she had. Her hands shook as she held the cards. Just a tremble that took focus and effort to clamp down on. She clenched her teeth, hoping that the shake wasn’t a long-term consequence of nearly getting killed in two discarded futures. Her breath had a slight ragged timber to it as well, she had noticed.
But it had to all be psychological. The Infinite Regress spell didn’t alter reality. Mind over matter. Closing her eyes, Alyssa cleared her mind and focused on the cards in her hand, using them as a distraction.
The final of Irulon’s gifts as well as Bercilak’s deck stared up at her. The latter’s spells weren’t all that highly ranked. From it, Alyssa got the impression that neither Bercilak nor his minions had been counted among top tier casters. That didn’t mean that they were useless. Probably. Projectiles were right out, of which there were a few—one that threw molten stones and another that conjured some sort of ghostly axe that flung toward a target. Did fireballs count as projectiles? They were just balls of plasma. For that matter, Spectral Axe wasn’t a solid either, as far as she understood it. It was probably best to discard them right out. Even Spectral Chains might trigger the Taker’s projectile reflection to stop said chains from wrapping around his body.
Many more were mere utility spells. Lots of Rank Zero through Two spells that seemed suited for someone traveling. Flames, lights, and one that seemingly warded off insects. After sorting through the deck, Alyssa pulled out only three that she thought might be useful.
Immolating Gloves, a fire-based spell that conjured flames around a target’s hands—which might be useful to get him to drop his sword—Desecrate Spells, a spell that corrupted other spells which she thought could have use against the Taker’s reflection, and Conjure Flames, a spell that supposedly caused burning on whatever the weapon it was applied upon hit. After thinking about it a bit more, she slid Conjure Flames into the discard pile. While she had a military combat knife, the Taker would surely have far more martial capability than she would, even if she managed to get close to him while completely invisible. Using it on her guns might work, but it might also cause her ammo to explode. That combined with the projectile reflector ruined its usefulness.
Lastly, she set Irulon’s card down and stared at it.
It had a simple design compared to the Fractal spells and other Rank Four spells. Five distinct lines merged together at one end, at the center of a circle. None of the lines were straight. They had bends in them, making it look almost like a clawed hand with a bit of imagination.
Another death spell. One that she hadn’t been sure that she wanted to use. It sounded nasty. An exceedingly unpleasant way to… not even die. The spell wouldn’t actually kill its target. They might die from the effects, but that wasn’t the spell’s defined purpose. Just reading over the description again made Alyssa shudder.
But, after having had the distinct displeasure of nearly dying to the Taker twice, her empathy was rapidly dwindling. It was one thing to shoot someone. Another thing entirely to effectively torture them before walking up and shooting them. Or… would she be able to shoot him? Even if he were incapacitated, shooting him while his projectile shield was up would just hit her instead.
Glancing down, Alyssa unsheathed her knife. It had one straight edge that angled off toward the tip. The backside was serrated. Cutting the Taker’s throat would undoubtedly kill him. And it wasn’t a projectile. But… Alyssa shuddered again. Would she actually be able to go through with it? If Rigor Mortis gave her the opportunity, could she slice someone’s throat while they were utterly helpless to fight back? She honestly wasn’t sure. Even shooting him… I’m not a killer. Yes, she had killed people. But it was one thing to be acting in self defense in a high-stress situation. Not that this is a low-stress situation, she thought, rubbing at her stomach again. But it was different when someone was down and out. Maybe, after using Rigor Mortis, the Spectral Chains spell…
No. The Taker was too dangerous. He had managed to kill her while she was invisible twice now. If he got even a moment of opportunity, she could easily die for real. Hardening her resolve, Alyssa sheathed the knife. The Taker wouldn’t leave this room alive. The best way to follow through with a decision was to make it immediately. Whether it be stabbing him or shooting him, she had to take action.
Alyssa pocketed the spells she wouldn’t be using, keeping handy Rigor Mortis, Immolating Gloves, and Desecrate Spells. The latter of which she was most excited over as it would allow her to use her guns. A quick clean kill via bullet to the head was more than the Taker deserved, but she would offer it if possible.
Plan in mind, she took a deep breath. Her hands weren’t shaking anymore. All the lingering pain from being stabbed and disemboweled had dampened. Although her stomach lurched as she reached for the ring handle, she fought down the queasy sensation. She had already run through all the reasons she had to take out the Taker now. Several times over, in fact. If she didn’t, she might as well never leave Tzheitza’s potion shop again for fear that he would pop up in the streets.
Throwing open the door, Alyssa stepped to the side. The dagger flew past a second later, just as expected. There wouldn’t be a second dagger, so she moved inside with haste.
“Well, well. Bring—”
The Taker started talking. Alyssa ignored it. She had heard it before. She had a precious few seconds before he started counting, and from there only up to the count of three before he would do something. Because she had attacked early last time around, she hadn’t a clue what, so her advantage only extended to that point. She had to act before then.
While the Taker backed away from Kasita’s cell, Alyssa pulled out the Desecrate Spells card. If she used either of the others first, there was a chance they would be destroyed along with his projectile defense. Like every other spell she had cast, she focused on the effect. This time, she kept her eyes open—she couldn’t afford to close her eyes in concentration.
Alyssa blinked. The spell card was still in her hand, uncast. What had gone wrong? Irulon’s instructions specifically mentioned that spells could be cast within Infinite Regress, so that wasn’t the problem. The only other times she had failed to cast… had been when she hadn’t understood the intended outcome of the spells.
Desecrate Spells. What would the effect actually be? Obviously no spell should work after casting it. But it wasn’t called Cancel Magic. Desecrate held more violent meaning. Adding to that the fact that it was a Death spell, it had to do more than simply nullify magic. Instead of the invisible bubble protecting the Taker simply vanishing, Alyssa pictured it turning on him, harming him.
The card vanished.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. The Taker stopped counting to look around the room, so he must have noticed something. Maybe the lights in the room had darkened slightly. Maybe that was just her imagination.
The jar above the door cracked audibly. Alyssa looked up just in time to watch the glass explode outward. Hot pins of glass pierced her arms as she moved them to protect her face. A searing rake of claws ran down her back, making her cry out.
“Desecration?” the Taker said as a second jar exploded, sounding far more amused than worried. “While under the effects of a shroud?”
Alyssa shouted again as bloody red streaks carved themselves into her forearm.
Another jar of light shattered, raining the glass down on the floor and darkening the room.
“More than just an illusory shroud. You have a lot of high rank magic on yourself, don’t you? Foolish, foolish. I believe Cid and Bacco spoke far too highly of your abilities.”
“What did you do, Alyssa?” Kasita shouted out just as the jar of light outside her cell bulged up and burst. “You—” A scream cut off her words. The form of Alyssa warped, flickering to nonsensical abominations of flesh before her entire being winked out of existence.
“Kas—” Invisible claws flayed a chunk of skin off Alyssa’s stomach. Just a flesh wound, but she still screamed.
The glass jar nearest the Taker went the way of the rest. Finally, he shouted out in pain. A red streak tore from his face, carving a line starting at the corner of his eye and disappearing beneath the collar of his coat. “I have to say—Ah!” He winced back. Alyssa couldn’t see any wound on him, but he jerked his back with a grunt. “Your plan might have been more effec—” A loud hurk cut him off, but either he was good at not showing pain or his wounds weren’t half as severe as Alyssa’s. “Effective if you had dropped your shroud as I had ordered.”
Alyssa let out a loud cry as something tore through her leg. The Taker’s head snapped toward her, eyes widening. He pulled a dagger from his coat.
Before he could throw it, his hand turned bloody red. The blade fell point first from his limp fingertips, turning the ground to ice where it landed. Undeterred, he pulled out a second with his other hand.
Another of the lights went dark with a bang. Only a few remained. Those that had yet to break barely lit up enough to see to the other side.
This had not gone according to plan. Desecrate Spells affected everything. Herself included. Kasita…
And the Taker had another dagger in his hands.
“R-Recede!” Alyssa shouted out loud before he could throw it.
The world lurched. Shuddered. Alyssa, barely maintaining her stability as it was, fell to her knees as the dagger shaved and froze the ends of a few hairs. Her spell destroyed the last lights in the room, thrusting her into pitch black.
She was still in the prison room, not back in the hall as her clone! A cold sweat beaded up everywhere, stinging as it made its way into her wounds. It had failed. She was going to die here.
The pain vanished completely just as Alyssa’s sharp breathing passed into hyperventilation. She was still on her knees, still inside the prison room. But instead of looking at a floor too dark to see, it was brightly lit. Her sleeve, where there should have been holes from shattered glass and blood from the carving rakes of the desecration spell, was whole once again.
Glancing up, she nearly threw up. The Taker stood next to Kasita’s cell, standing right where she had seen him stand three times so far. But both of them were staring at her, clearly able to see her.
“Well,” the Taker started, just as he had every time she had opened the door.
He didn’t get to finish.
Every jar of light in the room exploded.