Vacant Throne — 021.004

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Dismantling

Toymaker


“Good evening, monsters,” Irulon spoke in a loud voice, standing in the center of the room where the golden censer had once hung. It was now lying on the floor at her feet. Her visible feet. She had decided to remove her invisibility to better address the monsters. Iosefael stood next to her, shooting glares at the censer, but nobody could see the angel. “If I could have your attention…”

It had Alyssa a little worried. Everything did, actually. The stairwell leading down here was blocked off by a silvery mirror. The same spell that had obstructed the entrance to Irulon’s laboratory back in the palace. Reality Wall. That was one small reassurance. She wasn’t sure how thick the ceiling was, but was almost positive it wasn’t thick enough to stop a dedicated arcanist from getting through. Even ones who used lower ranked spells like the Society.

Of course, the Society wasn’t the only danger around. They were in a room filled with monsters. Sure, they were in cages at the moment, but that wasn’t going to be permanent. And Alyssa still didn’t know where to place half of them on her threat assessment. Like the hellhound. The muscular beast with fire literally burning out of its eyes apparently warranted a special mention from Irulon, meaning it was probably more dangerous than it looked—and it looked pretty dangerous from where Alyssa was standing. Despite its name, it apparently wasn’t a demon. Something gave Alyssa the feeling that nothing about their current course of action would have changed if it was a demon.

“What an unfortunate predicament you all have found yourselves in. Captured by humans? Imprisoned. Exposed to that nasty smoke. Used in experiments. Repeatedly forced under the control of the fairies. Abused. Starved. Not to mention those chafing chains.” Irulon, hands clasped behind her back, paced left then right. When she got back to the left, the toe of her foot slammed into the censer. Black powder spilled from its holes as it skidded across the floor.

More than one of the monsters flinched at the sharp noise it made. The ants and the two elves especially. And the goblins, for that matter. They had been pressed right up against the bars only to be sent scurrying back against the far wall when Irulon kicked the censer.

“I’ve taken care of one of those problems. For the others… well, I am not such a bleeding heart that I would free you without expecting anything in return. But I expect that many of you will want what I want.” Irulon slowly turned her head about the room, pausing on the troll cage, the shadow assassin cage, and the hellhound. “Others,” she said, snapping her gaze to the group of ants, who all flinched back again, “I’m sure want nothing more than to return to their hives. That is fine. I don’t mind you running away like cowards. There is only one thing I cannot tolerate.”

Irulon took a step forward, looking directly ahead with a deep scowl on her face. The fairies caught in her gaze looked like they wanted to cry. One of them, a tiny little man in the back corner, actually was crying, but he had been before Irulon had even started speaking. So it probably wasn’t her fault.

“The only reason I haven’t freed any of you is because you’ve been too close to these fairies. I know fairies. I know how they think, how they will react. The second I release one of you, you’ll stop at nothing to free the fairies. Not because you want to, but because fairies are too stupid to think past their own noses.”

Taking her hands out from behind her back, Irulon held up two spell cards. “When you wake up, feel free to eat any humans you come across. In fact, I insist. But for now, please stand back. Split Reality.” She didn’t give them a moment to actually comply. Possibly because it wasn’t needed—the fairies were nowhere near the front of the bars at the moment—but also possibly because Irulon didn’t care if she actually hit any of the fairies with her spell.

One of the two cards elongated with Irulon’s words, turning to a long shard of glass. The glass wasn’t like a broken piece of a window. It twisted and folded in on itself over and over again, giving Alyssa a mild headache as she stared. Irulon sent it flying across the room with a flick of her wrist. It left a hazy trail in its wake, but didn’t do much aside from that until it actually struck the fairy cage. The metal started coming apart, splitting into tiny pieces just like the woman who had captured Oxart. The spell didn’t stop at the cage either. It crashed straight through, striking the stone wall which promptly started falling apart.

“Fractal Lock,” Irulon said before the wall could do more than garner a few splits. The entire area slowed to a stop. Panicking fairies froze. Shards of the cage stopped in mid-air. Even the remnants of the first spell, still sticking out of the wall, stopped the space warping and twisting.

“Excellent,” she said, smiling. “The rest of you will have twelve hours before that spell wears off. If you do not wish to be slaves to the fairies, I recommend you be anywhere else by morning. Now then, who wants revenge? Just raise your hands, claws, paws, or whatever limb you desire. Or rattle your chains if that isn’t a possibility.”

Alyssa was almost certain that the hellhound had moved first. But it was far from the only monster that jumped at Irulon’s words. After a quick glance around the room, Irulon walked over to the goblin cage. While walking, she moved her hands behind her back again. Except… the hand that passed over her tome wound up with a spell card pinched between two fingers. Alyssa didn’t see how the card moved from her tome to her fingers, but it did.

She didn’t use the spell. Instead, she reached across her waist with her free hand and pulled out another card. The tome had to be enchanted because Irulon didn’t even look before pulling it out. There was no rummaging or flipping through pages to find the one she wanted. It just came to her hand. Having put a bit of distance between them, Alyssa didn’t catch what the spell was called. Its effect was simple enough, however. The thick lock keeping the cage door closed split in two down the center.

Before the newly made scrap could touch the floor, the door flung open. The first goblin out immediately lunged for her, grasping with its tiny hands.

Alyssa started, grasping for her pistol. She was supposed to be invisible, ready to back Irulon up in case something went wrong. If this wasn’t going wrong, she didn’t know what was.

Irulon simply stepped around the goblin. One hand slammed the cage door shut before a second could emerge. She stuck out her foot, catching the one free goblin in the back. Rather than kick it across the room, she pinned it down.

“I forgot to mention… Attack me and I will kill everyone in your cage.” As she spoke, she took her hand out from behind her back, holding out the spell card she had withdrawn earlier. “Toymaker’s Touch.”

Instead of vanishing, as most spells did when cast, this one… wilted. It turned black and soggy. Sticky, maybe, dripping tar. Irulon slapped it down on the goblin’s back. The black spread into the goblin’s green skin, spreading out in a lightning-like pattern. Or maybe like veins. Iosefael made a strangled noise as it spread, but Alyssa didn’t have eyes for the angel. She was busy watching the princess.

Whatever the spell was supposed to do, Irulon didn’t give it time. She grasped the goblin by the throat, picked it up, and flung it back into the cage. Another goblin required a kick to keep it from getting out when she opened the door, but Irulon moved with barely a care.

Or maybe with extreme arrogance. Alyssa, pistol in hand and safety off, could only shake her head. No wonder Irulon had wound up skewered by a gaunt. She could do with just a little more caution. What if that had been the hellhound? Goblins were stupid, small, and likely fairly weak without their poisoned blades. That hellhound had abs. It looked like she bench pressed trees.

Of course, that was probably why Irulon had gone to the goblins first.

Keeping her pistol in hand, just in case, Alyssa watched with a morbid curiosity. Irulon had said that she would be killing everyone in the cage, but it didn’t look like she actually was. The one goblin with the spell on its back was lying face down. The black tar had spread and soaked in, becoming a faint grey against the goblin’s green skin, but it wasn’t doing anything aside from lying there. Four more were trying to reach out of the cage and grab at Irulon, but their short arms meant that they couldn’t do much except hold onto her dragon hide pant legs as she held the cage shut with her foot. They wound up getting in each others way more than they actually harmed Irulon.

It wasn’t until one of the other goblins tried touching the downed one that Alyssa realized what was happening.

The tarred goblin jerked. Its hand snapped out, grasping the extended arm of the other goblin. Opening its wide mouth made Alyssa gasp. Black tar dripped from every tooth. Its mouth didn’t stay open for long. Those crooked teeth sank into the arm of the now panicking goblin. Black started spreading up its arm while the first goblin turned to find a new target.

Chaos broke out in the cage. Reactions varied. Some spread out to the bars, trying to put as much distance between themselves and the center of their cage as possible. When the first goblin bit down on the shoulder of a third, another of the things tried punching it in the face. It didn’t cause any reaction. For his troubles, the attempted rescuer wound up getting its arm bit by the second goblin, now also leaking black from its mouth. One goblin kept trying to grasp at Irulon, apparently failing to notice the other snacking on its ankle.

Eventually, there were no unaffected goblins left. With no more targets around, they just stood there, nearly perfectly still. In less than a minute, twelve angry goblins had transformed into twelve docile zombies. Not a one tried to attack Irulon despite her stepping away from the cage door, allowing it to partially open.

“Excellent, my little toys. You stay there. I’ll set you loose later.” Turning her back to the cage as if there were zero possibility that one of the zombies would bite her, Irulon looked over the rest of the room with a smile. “Now then, who wants to be free and won’t attack me?”

Unlike before, no one jumped at her offer right away. Irulon looked at the trolls, then at the elves, then the ants. She skipped over a few cages when the hellhound’s chains jangled.

“Ah yes. I suspected that you might still be interested in my offer. I…” Irulon trailed off, looking at the ceiling near where the partially broken chains dangled. “It appears as if our little party has been noticed. Shame. I was hoping for more demonstration time.”

Alyssa couldn’t see whatever it was that Irulon had noticed. Maybe it had to do with the spell she had set on the stone. Whatever the case, they were sure to have company soon. Alyssa double checked her pistol, making sure she hadn’t accidentally put one of the empty magazines in. She had a few spell cards in hand as well. Fireballs. She kept the Immolating Gloves spell handy as well, separated from the rest of the deck’s drivel in an outer pocket of her satchel.

As she went over her arsenal, Irulon stalked straight over to the hellhound’s cage. It had an even thicker lock than that of the goblin cage, but it split in two with a single spell just as easily. “Go ahead and attack me if you must. Just know that you will not survive. Now, hold still if you do not wish for your head to be separated from your body.”

The chain keeping the gag in the wolf-like humanoid’s mouth split apart just as easily as the lock on the cage. While the hellhound spat out the actual gag, Irulon moved on to the chain around its throat. She had to push away an armful of the jet black hair to get at it, but it fell away just as the others did. Only when Irulon moved to the hound’s muscular arm did she hesitate. Which did not go unnoticed by the chain’s captive.

“What’s the matter, human?” the hellhound growled, low and guttural. She reached forward, rattling the chains as she moved, though it only made it a few inches before the chain caught her wrist. “Wondering how fast I could kill you?”

“From the moment your arm is loose, assuming I remain as close to you as I have been, I would have one and one third of a second before your claws tear out my throat.” Irulon’s eyes flicked from their usual violet to their black with white rings. That seemed to give the hellhound pause. She blinked, ending the ceaseless discharge of flames from her eyes for a brief instant.

That moment was long enough for Irulon. She slit the chain in two, pivoted around the hellhound and did the same to its opposite arm.

The hellhound almost fell forward. She had been leaning against the chains, using them to keep herself upright. Without them, she had to use her impressive abdominal core to keep from flopping straight to the floor.

“I trust you can remove your leg bindings on your own,” Irulon said, already half out of the cage before the hellhound had fully recovered. “My spell supply is not unlimited and there are others that need freeing.”

She was already stalking across the room toward the troll cage, a larger cage than most. On her way, she cut the lock from the elf cage without even glancing inside. Unlike the hellhound and the trolls, they were not given additional bindings within their cages and thus required no additional attention. None of them actually emerged from their cage, not even when the door swung open.

An outcry from the mirrored barrier over the stairs tore Alyssa’s attention from Irulon and the monsters. Someone had just found it. The wall and the mirror muffled too much of the noise to actually understand what that noise had been saying, but it had definitely been a voice. Irulon didn’t think that anyone could break through her barrier. She was probably right about that. But Alyssa glanced up at the ceiling once again. How long would it be before they tried breaking through the relatively thin floor to get at their monsters. Or rather, they would almost certainly value the broken censer more than the monsters. Unfortunately for them, it was shut off completely. Recovering the golden orb wouldn’t make it work again, not even if they burned incense. Or so Iosefael had said. The only thing that could fix it would be Adrael.

And Adrael couldn’t show up without Iosefael noticing.

A metallic thunk signaled the hellhound’s freedom. It had taken longer than Rizk, but then, these bindings were a lot thicker than the salamander’s had been. The hellhound kicked them aside before pouncing, landing outside her cage. She didn’t pounce on anything aside from the floor. Irulon was across the room inside the troll cage and Alyssa was still invisible. Since the hellhound hadn’t so much as glanced in her direction, she assumed that those flaming eyes couldn’t detect her… or find her through smell.

“Hellhound, if you would be so kind as to free the shadow assassins. I am almost finished with these trolls. Then… what’s left. Ah. The ants.”

“I don’t take orders from you, human,” the hellhound said in that same low growl. It wasn’t quite as hostile before, having an almost giddy note to it. But she didn’t move to the shadow assassin cage as Irulon had asked.

Irulon paused her work, leaving a chain around one of troll’s necks. Sighing, she looked out of the cage. “Are we really going to do this?”

The flames cut off as the hellhound blinked again. “What?”

“You aren’t an imbecile as those goblins were or as fairies would be. You are intelligent. Surely intelligent enough to work together against a common enemy. Even these trolls understand that working together is preferable to doing the whole ‘waa, you’re a human,’ thing.” She patted a gloved hand on the troll’s arm. “I would hate to compare you unfavorably with a troll of all things.”

Alyssa wasn’t sure how smart trolls were. Oz had called them more intelligent than goblins back when they were attacking the city, but that really wasn’t saying much. Irulon had effectively insulted them while standing close enough to have her head crushed by their giant hands. Either they were a whole lot less vicious while not being controlled by a fairy or Irulon had said it in such a roundabout way that they couldn’t comprehend. Or maybe they just didn’t care, wanting to get out more than anything and knew that Irulon was their best option for that.

Really, she wasn’t even sure that they could talk. The elves and lizards were clearly talking among themselves. Not loudly enough for Alyssa to hear, but they were talking within their cage. The ants were chittering too. Them, Alyssa could hear, but she couldn’t understand. Most of their noises were clicking. They also made a lot of hand movements that probably stood in for a decent amount of verbal language. Since Pho could speak and ants and bees were somewhat similar, Alyssa assumed that the ants could talk if they wanted to, but it made sense that they would have their own way of speaking given how stilted Pho’s English had been.

But the trolls hadn’t said anything. They grunted a bit, but no words. Now that one was free, it was… touching the other one a whole lot more than Alyssa would have expected. Its large, meaty fingers drew out patterns on the other’s shoulders and wiggled its fingers a lot, which the still chained one seemed to respond to with its own finger wiggling. Some kind of sign language? Or maybe Alyssa was reading too much into what was nothing more than affectionate gestures for each other.

Which might have been confirmed the moment Irulon freed the second troll. The two immediately embraced each other. It gave Alyssa a mildly sick sensation in her stomach. Not because she found the display disturbing, but because they were clearly real people. She had helped Oz kill controlled trolls back in the city and hadn’t thought a thing of it. Not to mention all those that had died to the city guard.

Alyssa found herself glaring at the frozen fairies. They were only part of the problem, though. Even they wouldn’t have captured a troll army on their own. Her gaze turned to the toppled censer and then over to Iosefael. Clicking her tongue, she turned away, checking that the mirrored barrier was still keeping any intruders from entering.

“Don’t think this means I’m trusting you.” Alyssa turned back to the hellhound just in time to watch it grip the lock of the shadow assassin cage. With barely a grunt from the monster, the lock came loose. “You’re just using us.”

The red haze representing four shadow assassins all acted at once. They didn’t appear to communicate with each other either, but the way they jumped out of their cage and spread about the room roughly evenly looked practiced. Alyssa tensed as one scampered past her. It didn’t stop or seem to notice her presence as it jumped to the roof and hung just above the doorway. She had never seen them actually move before given their invisibility. Though the red haze from Unseen Sight wasn’t perfect, it gave her a decent picture.

Despite looking like disproportioned humans with their shorter legs and longer arms, and, of course, their missing heads, they didn’t move like people at all. The first thought that popped into Alyssa’s mind was of a bear, but maybe their movements more resembled that of a gorilla. Either way, they used all four limbs to get around, putting most of the movement in the arms. Except while upside-down on the ceiling, there they used their small legs to somehow grip onto a supporting beam of wood.

“Of course I’m using you,” Irulon freely admitted as she sliced the lock on the ant cage and the lizard cage at the same time. “But being used and using the situation to your advantage are not mutually exclusive. I want to see the humans here crushed and destroyed, dying with the knowledge that all their plans have failed. Maybe the shadow assassins could slip by—they won’t, but the possibility is there—but you will have to fight your way free. Might as well enjoy it, hm?”

The hellhound ground her teeth, fur bristling on her tail. The grinding stopped. Tail swishing back and forth and flames in her eyes doubling in intensity, the hellhound grinned—though there really wasn’t much difference. “You want the humans here dead?”

“Excepting myself and one companion of mine, yes.”

“Then our goals are the same,” the hellhound said, nodding to herself as she it hadn’t believed Irulon earlier but now did. “I’ll play your game. For now. There’s an old human who kept trying to exorcise the hell from me.” She rubbed her paws together, grin widening. “I look forward to seeing the expression on her face when I exorcise her head from her shoulders.”

“Then I’ll wish you luck in accomplishing your goal. First, we must egress.”

Irulon left the ants behind—unlike the elves, they had emerged from their cage, though seemed reluctant to do so with the princess standing nearby. As soon as she was back in the center of the room, they came out at once. One smaller ant was apparently injured to the point where it required aid from the others. Irulon didn’t so much as glance over her shoulder at them. She even walked past the hellhound, coming far too close for Alyssa’s liking. But the hound didn’t pounce, choosing to follow Irulon with its eyes only.

The lizards were unexpectedly timid. With how much they looked like Rizk, Alyssa had almost been expecting them to jump out and attack Irulon. But they didn’t. They, like the elves, remained in their cage even with the door fully open.

“Attention, my toys.” Irulon clasped her hands behind her back, staring into the goblin cage. At her words, all the little zombies got to their feet.

Alyssa shuddered at their robotic movements.

“Align in front of the stairs. Attack any humans apart from myself.” Irulon turned as the zombies moved with surprising dexterity to follow the command. “The rest of you, let the toys go first. As a resource, they are significantly less valuable than… most of you. Destroying the barrier… now.”

The mirror fell away, revealing three humans standing on the other side. Two wore hooded robes, though both had their hoods down. The third was wearing more of a tunic than a proper robe, though it did have a hood on it. The latter of the three had his back to the room. He was apparently in deep discussion with the others. Maybe talking about how to get past the barrier. Maybe just talking about what a terrible day they were having with the barrier and stables and food storage while other people were evaluating their options for taking down the mirror.

Either way, it didn’t matter. The goblins didn’t share their surprise at the barrier falling.

None of the humans stood a chance.


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Vacant Throne — 021.003

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Dismantling

Captives in the Church


Getting back into the town proper was the last thing Alyssa wanted to do. With their food and water destroyed, she didn’t see much of a reason to stick about. If this were a true medieval society, they would almost certainly be dead by now. Unfortunately, the Message spell existed. Alyssa had found the spell moderately useful. It definitely wasn’t a phone, but sending quick warnings was probably what it had been originally designed for.

And if these people sent off a request for help, extra supplies might arrive well before they actually felt the effects of their existing storage depots being destroyed. Which was the main reason that they simply couldn’t walk away. Not after Irulon had gone through all the effort of getting Iosefael to remove the protections around the buildings.

Also Kasita. Alyssa wasn’t too worried, but the mimic’s radio silence had been going on for a bit longer than she would have liked. Sending a Message asking for an update had yet to produce any response, which added to her worrying. Was she in trouble? Had she been captured or had she fallen prey to one of the protections? The best possibility that came to mind was simply that Kasita had to hide and couldn’t send a message at the moment.

Alyssa looked around the church’s main floor with a spell active. Unseen Sight. It was supposed to reveal hidden things. Shadow assassins and mimics were all Alyssa cared about at the moment. At least, they were the only things that she knew about. If there was some other invisible Predator in the church, she might care for that as well.

The main floor of the church didn’t look a thing like what Alyssa had expected. The rows and rows of pews were missing. There was no pulpit where a preacher might preach. No giant pipe organ covering one wall or Christian iconography in stained glass windows. That wasn’t to say that the church was empty. There were several… shrines set about. Each featured a small clay statue of a seated person holding one hand with the palm facing upward and the other hand with the palm facing downward. The sculpting wasn’t detailed enough to make out any facial details save for large pits in place of the eyes.

Seeing six or seven of them placed around the room with clear offerings of food or plants in a bowl at the statue’s feet sent chills up Alyssa’s back. It was like something out of a horror movie. Why didn’t they have eyes?

Shaking her head, she looked toward the center of the room. A wide basin, maybe the size of the average hot tub, occupied the majority of the floor. The water was only ankle deep, but it was crystal clear. The water in this world was not polluted at all, not like it was on Earth. However, this pool of water was the only basin that she would consider drinking from without boiling it first. Maybe it was paranoia—other people drank water and she had even taken a few long baths at the public baths back in Lyria without getting sick—but just seeing those doctors in action had reaffirmed her belief in modern science.

In the center of the circular basin, a narrow marble pillar jutted upward. It was elegantly carved with many intricate lines. Alyssa couldn’t make out any distinct images in the carvings, the lines looked more like it formed one gigantic maze. With how elegant the pedestal was, seeing a hunk of sandstone haphazardly dropped on top felt off. It wasn’t polished, chiseled, carved, or otherwise prettied up. The sandstone was just a orange boulder of rock the size of a beach ball. It wasn’t even perfectly round, being lumpy and more flat on the bottom than the rest of it.

The only notable thing about it were the two holes in its side, each no larger than Alyssa’s finger. Beneath the holes, the stone was darker. It glistened slightly in the light from the shrines’ candles. Wet.

“This must be the Struck Stone.”

Alyssa started at hearing the disembodied voice. She glanced to where she thought Irulon was probably standing. It was hard to tell for certain with the invisibility spells active. Unseen Sight did not see this unseen sight. According to Irulon, it was something to do with Fractal magic tricking the world into thinking that Empty Mirror’s occupants weren’t in the world. Or something. Basically, pure illusory or mind-altering magic would be detected easily, but not Fractal magic.

Which was good. It meant she didn’t have to worry about the Society of the Burning Shadow spotting her. But it was bad in that she had no idea where Irulon exactly was.

Or even vaguely. While Alyssa stared at the empty air, Irulon could easily have moved closer to the fountain.

“It’s broken now. Let’s just find Kasita and get out of here.”

“One moment,” Irulon said.

The water in the basin splashed, making Alyssa jump again. Irulon had moved forward. And jumped into the fountain. There were ripples in the still water that hadn’t been there before. Dirt as well. But no sign of Irulon’s actual body. The ripples were fairly uninformative. Maybe Irulon could determine the exact location of an invisible someone standing in the water, but Alyssa couldn’t. There weren’t any feet-shaped holes in the water or a wider disturbance that might be from the shroud.

“Stranding Demise.”

A black mist formed in the air above the fountain’s basin. It drifted toward the sandstone boulder, seeping into the rock until Alyssa couldn’t see anything more. The splashing in the water happened again. This time, a few wet footprints appeared on the outside of the basin’s wall.

Irulon clearly noticed. Despite Alyssa having seen nothing at all, the footprints vanished, swiped away by some unseen hand.

“What was that?”

“Just a little surprise,” Irulon said with clear amusement in her voice. “Anyone inspecting the stone in an attempt to figure out why it isn’t working is going to have a bad time. Incidentally, I advise against touching it.”

Even though she was nowhere near the basin, let alone the stone sitting atop the pedestal in the center of it, Alyssa took a step back. The warning was enough for her. She had absolutely no desire to find out what Irulon had done to it.

“It looks like there is a stairwell leading to a lower level at the far end of the room. Shall we find out what they’re keeping down there?”

Ugh. She would have to get closer to the fountain to get around it. Luckily, the main room was large enough to provide ample space to go around. It was paranoia, she knew, but she couldn’t kick the thought that she might slip on a puddle of water, fall into the basin, knock into the pedestal, and wind up with a cursed rock crushing her to death. Or doing whatever it was cursed to do.

“If you are quite done,” Irulon said, voice having turned terse for some reason. “We should be making haste, not dallying around.”

“How do you know that I’m not already down the stairs?” Alyssa asked, looking at the doorway leading down. An unpleasant scent was wafting up the stairwell. Something of a cross between a zoo and a farm. It wasn’t the worst thing Alyssa had smelled, but she pinched her nose anyway.

“Minor changes in the air and the way you disturb the dirt on the floor, mostly. It’s a strain, but I can keep this up for a while yet.”

When she had cast Unseen Sight, Alyssa had really been hoping that she would get some overpowered version of it. Lots of spells that she cast seemed to be stronger than what other people cast. Spectral Chains could capture gaunts, for instance, while other people’s chains broke instantly when used on gaunts. Unfortunately, the spells didn’t seem to be able to do more than they were designed for. Lumen’s Annihilator had destroyed five cubic feet of stone. Alyssa’s had done five hundred—which was just a guess, she hadn’t actually done the math to figure out exactly how much her version had done.

Unseen Sight was designed to see through illusions. No matter how overpowered she made it, it wouldn’t ever see into the other worlds that Fractal magic used to perform its tricks.

“Well great,” Alyssa grumbled. “I don’t know where you are, so let me go down the stairs first. That way I don’t bump into you and send you tumbling down with a broken neck.”

“I’m sure you’re exaggerating. Besides, knowing where you are, I can step out of the way.”

“Unless you get distracted,” Alyssa said, already heading down the stairs. They were fairly unassuming stairs, carved straight out of the hard rock that covered a decent portion of the desert except tiled with smooth slabs of… slate? The stairs were steeper than she would have liked. Especially with no hand rail. She took the steps one at a time with her hand on the wall, all the while trying to ignore the soft giggling. “And what are you laughing at, you stupid angel.”

The giggling cut off instantly. “You don’t need to be rude,” Iosefael said. The church had been large enough that she could hover off on her own, but now that they were headed down these stairs, the space to float about became significantly more cramped. “I was just thinking how fun mortals are with all your concerns about things angels never even think about. Like broken necks.”

Alyssa paused and stared at the golden angel before shaking her head. Two more steps and she reached the bottom. The smell was starting to get to her. More than a few times in her life, she had been to the local county fair. There were all kinds of activities at the fair. From hypnotists to rides that looked like they might fall apart if bumped wrong. But Alyssa often enjoyed the animals. Walking around, getting to hold cute baby chickens or pet a baby calf. Unfortunately, the animals had a cost to them, and not just the price of admission.

That same cost was creeping up her nostrils right now, making her snort a bit. Which didn’t help at all.

“What is Tenebrael’s agent saying?”

Irulon’s voice came from Alyssa’s shoulder, so close that it made her jump. She had thought that she was descending alone and had been about to call up to let the princess know where she was. This whole invisibility thing had only been going on for a few minutes and Alyssa was already sick of it. It might even be worse than having three Irulons trading off on finishing their thoughts.

“Alyssa?”

“Sorry. Just got distracted. She thinks broken necks are amusing.”

“That’s not what I—”

“Really? Hm. And here I was concerned that Tenebrael’s agent would frown on me setting traps. Maybe I’ll set more.”

Iosefael crossed her arms, head turning to track something that Alyssa couldn’t see. Irulon, presumably. “Mortals die. Since the beginning of time, that has held true. The exceptions can be counted on one hand,” she said, wiggling three fingers. “And even they are not truly immortal. They will die. The important thing is the soul. Aside from that, while I interfered with Adrael, it isn’t my place to stand between two mortals.” After a minute of silence, Iosefael huffed. “And I’m not Tenebrael’s agent. Tell her to stop calling me that.”

“She isn’t going to interfere in anything we do as long as it doesn’t involve angels,” Alyssa said, looking to where she thought Irulon was standing. Turning to Iosefael, Alyssa glared. “And tell her yourself. I’m not going to sit around being a translator for you whenever I can’t hold up my phone. In fact, you’re distracting. Since you’re scanning for Adrael, do you even need to be here?”

“I enjoy observing humans and don’t often get a chance to do so like this.”

“Just don’t be distracting. Wouldn’t that count as interfering with mortals if someone heard me talking to you?” Alyssa was whispering at a level where someone would have to be standing right next to her to hear—or have Irulon or Iosefael powers, neither of whom seemed to have an issue with listening—but it was still a valid point.

“My lips are sealed!”

Alyssa shot the angel a glare before staring around the basement. It was a wide open area. Maybe half the size of the main floor above. Not as opulent. The floor was a lot rougher than the almost polished tiles used in the upper level of the church. Considering that this was out in the middle of nowhere, it was a bit surprising that they had spent so much time and effort on the construction. Other buildings around it weren’t nearly so high quality, looking far more haphazard and sloppy. The Juno Federation was a theocracy, apparently, so maybe taking religious buildings seriously was to be expected of them.

The central area was the only place lit, using jars of potion light. Six of them were spaced evenly around a golden orb hanging by a chain from the ceiling. Clearly an object of some importance. The orb had intricate embossing covering its surface. While its underside was solid, the upper portion had holes. Leafy patterns wrapped around the holes and the three points where the chains connected to the bottom half. Three clawed feet on the bottom were likely for placing it on a solid surface, though that was unnecessary so long as it hung from the ceiling. As long as her sense of space was working correctly, Alyssa estimated that the chain would be directly beneath the fountain’s pedestal.

“The blessed censer,” Iosefael said despite her lips being sealed.

Alyssa didn’t respond, too busy looking around the room with a rapidly deepening scowl. What she had thought were walls weren’t walls at all.

They were bars.

And there were creatures behind them. Living, alert creatures. Which explained the smell. Glad that she had been whispering earlier, Alyssa walked toward one of the cages. Ants. Six of them, all huddled together, making soft noises that Alyssa thought might be attempts at comforting each other. They had clearly been abused. Much like Pho back at the Waterhole, their carapace had cracks and a few had missing antennae.

Moving along the row of cages, Alyssa looked in each. A dozen goblins jumping about while trying to break or even gnaw at their bars. Two trolls chained to the wall of their cage. A furry wolf-like humanoid female—it had breasts, at least—that Alyssa couldn’t put a name to with literal fire coming from its red eyes. That one, like the trolls, apparently warranted extra chains keeping it from moving about even within the thick bars of its cage. It even had some metal ball gag between a set of razor sharp teeth. A cage over from the wolf-thing held a quartet of green lizards similar to Rizk, but not quite the same.

One of the cages looked empty except for some red haze inside. At first, Alyssa thought it was just mist. But the haze was distinct, each with is own vaguely humanoid form. It took her a moment to realize just what she was looking at. Shadow assassins. Four of them. Invisible shadow assassins revealed through her use of Unseen Sight. At least she knew that it worked.

Some of the cages were empty. They clearly showed signs of having been occupied at one point in time. Said signs came in the form of teeth marks on the bars, feces and food residue, and the way some of the bars were bent out of shape, among other things. At the far end, separate from the rest of the cages, was something more like a walk-in aviary. Its bars were thinner but much more dense, leaving it looking like a net draped over a metal frame. Five fairies, all huddled together much like the ants with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Alyssa kept her distance upon seeing what was inside, just in case. Her fairy had mentioned that it would be able to detect even invisible minds if they got too close.

Alyssa found herself torn at seeing them in their cage. The fairy she had rescued had not given her any love for their species. Basing her negative opinion of the entire species off one encounter was the very definition of racism. At the same time, she felt like exceptions should be made when dealing with monsters that could take control of someone’s mind. Shrugging off her fairy’s control might have been nothing more than luck or thanks to the fairy’s panic and distressed mental state. Testing her resilience with five at once seemed the very definition of a bad idea. Still, seeing them locked up as they were made her sick.

It was just… not right. And this Society of the Burning Shadow was the whole reason the fairies had attacked in the first place.

Her disgust turned to contempt directed at the humans rather than the monsters. If not for the Society, everyone could have lived on in peace, minding their own business.

Alyssa turned back to the main area of the room, wondering how she was going to find Irulon. She could call out, but she didn’t want to get the captives riled up before having a chance to talk things over with the princess. However, before she could try any locating tactics, Alyssa noted another red haze in the room. This one on the floor right up near the golden orb of the censer.

A rock. A familiar rock. A smooth, flat and round stone that might be ideal for skipping across a glassy lake. Alyssa had picked up one just like it back in the palace. Back when she had used Desecrate Spells to get out of Oxart’s subjugation.

“Kasita?” Alyssa whispered, nudging the rock with the toe of her boot. It felt like a stone, moved like a stone, and didn’t respond to her words just like a stone would. But the haze around it from Unseen Sight… it had to be Kasita. The placement of the rock near the censer was… concerning. No smoke leaked from the holes in the top half at the moment, but the air was a bit musky nearby. And not just a zoo-like musk from the monsters captured here, but a musk not unlike the designated smoking area behind her work back on Earth. “Iosefael? This is Kasita, right? Is she alright? Is her soul connection damaged or whatever the smoke was supposed to do?”

“The effects aren’t permanent,” Iosefael said, floating closer to look at the rock. “But I can see signs of recent exposure. It should wear off in a few minutes.”

Nodding an acknowledgment, Alyssa picked up and pocketed the stone, feeling a bit bad as she did so. Kasita tended to jump at opportunities to help out. Having found the censer and this prison must have been elating, only for her to be taken out by the censer’s effects. Waking up to find that everything was taken care of would… probably be a minor blow to her happiness.

But better to be picked up and rescued than left here.

Now for Irulon, Alyssa thought, staring around the room. Naturally, she saw no sign of the princess. What would she need to detect the princess? Some ability to see through multiple worlds, probably. She definitely didn’t have anything like that in her decks. What else? Thermal vision? That probably wouldn’t see through worlds either, but she might be able to spot glowing footprints where Irulon stood.

Not that it mattered. She only had a handful of unidentified cards in her deck, those she had picked up from the lead horse rider after rescuing Oxart. Irulon had glanced over them beforehand, but Alyssa had forgotten to ask about the few that she didn’t already have indexed in her phone. Given that Irulon hadn’t made special note of them, they probably weren’t anything special.

Alyssa almost called out, only to hesitate and whisper to Iosefael instead. “How do you see me?”

“You’re a determined little mortal who causes a lot of trouble for just about everyone merely by existing.”

Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes to center herself, Alyssa tried again. “I meant literally. This spell is supposed to turn me invisible, right? But you can clearly see me.”

“A perk of being divine. Mortals trying to play with magic won’t work on us.”

“Spectral Chains worked on you.”

“Th-That was a fluke!” the angel sputtered. “Because Tene was bullying me. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. It couldn’t have.”

“So if I tried it again right now…”

Iosefael’s wings twitched, sending her back a few paces from Alyssa. “Weren’t we talking about something else?”

“Yeah,” Alyssa said with a slight snort. “It’s stupid that I can see you, some divine being who has never been seen by a mortal before, but I can’t see Irulon while she’s using some mortal spell. I’m even using Unseen Sight. I don’t need a spell to see you, so why, with a spell, can I not see Irulon? It’s stupid and shouldn’t work like—”

Iosefael flinched, face twisting into a grimace momentarily. It was an abrupt enough change that Alyssa stopped whispering to simply stare.

“What?” Alyssa said. Had she accidentally activated a spell without meaning to? She had considered the problem before, but if it actually was happening, she needed to ditch magic altogether. The risk of blasting out her hips with a fireball from her pocket was too great if that was the case. But for now, Iosefael’s stare was more concerning. What happened? Adrael? Alyssa glanced around for any other angels in the room…

And just about choked on her own breath.

Enormous scaled legs dug into the ground just in front of the shadow assassin cage. The muscular legs were attached to a torso that… clipped through the ceiling? The bottom half of two wings jutted through the ceiling as well, just a bit separated from the rest of the body. There was something familiar about the wispy black smoke the entire scaled being was made from.

Alyssa recognized the form instantly.

Irulon’s soul. It was the same dragon she had seen back in the Observatorium on the very first day she had met Irulon. One of those unidentified spells must have been Spectral Sight. It fit with what she knew of the Society of the Burning Shadow favoring low-ranked Death and Fire spells. Irulon, knowing the spell well, would have simply shrugged at spotting it without feeling a need to make verbal note of it. Alyssa hadn’t taken a picture of the one Irulon had handed her, and she really could only vaguely remember what it had looked like, having only seen it for a few seconds before using it. As such, it slipped under her notice too.

Handy, but it was disturbing evidence of spells activating accidentally. Alyssa might have to ask Irulon if she knew about a way to stop that. For now, Alyssa kept her mind clear of spells and approached the shadow assassin cage.

“Irulon? I found Kasita. She’s in my pocket.”

There was a sharp breath from between the ethereal dragon’s legs. “Alyssa?” Irulon’s voice had a tension to it that Alyssa would have thought to be surprise had she not known better. “You came this close to… never mind. How did you find me?”

“Spectral Sight. I see your… dragon.”

“Hm. Odd. In all the excitement of leaving the city, I failed to have my brother test the spell on me. I was unaware that it would penetrate Empty Mirror as well, another thing to test on him just in case your usage of the spell is being warped by… you.”

“Right.” Alyssa glanced up at the bottom half of the dragon’s giant body. Maybe Empty Mirror would have worked on it better if it had been smaller. The Empty Mirror shroud of glass shards didn’t extend that far from the body. Shaking her head, Alyssa looked over the princess’ shoulder. The shadow assassins clearly heard something outside their cell. They were moving about, getting closer to the bars. “What are we going to do about them? You wanted to destroy this place, right? They’re victims in all this too. We should let them out before you do. I mean, maybe the shadow assassins and the fairies are too dangerous, but the ants—”

“Alyssa! You and I were thinking the exact same thing,” Irulon said. She was still invisible, but Alyssa could hear the grin in her voice. “Plans change. Originally, I had thought to destroy this place and leave. But no longer. We should let them out. All of them. Especially the shadow assassins, fairies, and the hellhound.”


<– Back | Index | Next –>


Vacant Throne — 021.002

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Dismantling

Lip Reading


“That is Tenebrael’s agent?”

Alyssa nodded, glancing at the real Iosefael over the top of her phone’s borders. The angel had her arms crossed, pouting.

“This is highly irregular. Mortals aren’t supposed to see us.”

“Yeah, well, it is too much of a pain to explain when I could just show you around instead.” Though it was a pain holding up her phone constantly as well. Irulon would eventually have to get used to not seeing the angel at all. For now, Alyssa had her phone in video mode. It didn’t play back audio, sadly, and she wasn’t actually recording either. It was almost a genius idea. At first, Alyssa thought Irulon could have a full conversation through the phone with Iosefael. But the phone didn’t want to record its own audio in an infinite loop, so it naturally didn’t play it back while taking videos. A little fact that had slipped her mind. As it was, she was just using it to show Iosefael to the princess.

“A picture speaks a thousand words,” Iosefael said. “And that is a thousand too many. Oh, this is all wrong.”

“She doesn’t look happy.”

“Of course I’m not happy! Nothing about this is… right.” The little crosses that she had in place of pupils turned to Alyssa. “You’re not supposed to be here and neither of you are supposed to see angelic beings. And she has two souls! What has Tene been doing? She’s supposed to stop accidents like that from happening.”

“It wasn’t an accident,” Irulon said. “I know what I am doing.”

Alyssa blinked in confusion, glancing over at the princess. Irulon wasn’t looking up from the phone, so she still couldn’t see Iosefael, but she had definitely answered. Was there a setting on the phone that accidentally got activated? Alyssa hadn’t heard any words from it, but then, she had been listening to the real thing which might have drowned out the small speakers of the phone.

She wasn’t the only one surprised. Iosefael, startled, made a squeak as she stared at Irulon. Her wide, bewildered eyes quickly narrowed to thin slits. “And now she can hear me too?”

“I’m using the movement of your lips and tongue to determine what words you are speaking. A task I would find significantly easier if Alyssa would hold her trinket with a steady hand.”

“Sorry.”

Irulon just waved a hand. “You are here on… Tenebrael’s request to protect us. Is that correct?”

Iosefael glowered, pressing her lips together. “I am here to contain the archangel Adrael, should she appear again. If you get into a fight with your fellow humans, fall off a cliff, or suffer from a heart attack, that is simply how things must go and I will not interfere.”

Nodding in apparent understanding, Irulon tapped the side of her head. “The other angel, the one not aligned with Tenebrael, wished to remove the dragon according to Alyssa. Are you planning on anything similar?”

“I am here to contain the archangel Adrael. Nothing else…” Iosefael shifted where she stood, or hovered, fidgeting in her golden armor. “But you shouldn’t leave it like that. Tenebrael said not to, but if you ask and show remorse for your actions that led to your souls merging, I might be convinced to do more than fight the archangel.”

“Excellent.” Irulon leaned against the wall of the church, humming to herself for a moment. “I do not believe we will take you up on your offer at this time.”

“If you continue as you are, neither of you will be you!” Iosefael said, sounding almost desperate. “It will be the death of your very being. Both of you! There won’t be two distinct souls, you’ll be an amalgam. An abomination.”

“This won’t happen immediately.”

“Well.” Iosefael shifted again, looking away from Irulon. “No. But it isn’t something you want to take a rain check for.”

“A what?”

Iosefael frowned, looking more confused than upset. “Did I use it wrong? I’m sorry. I’m not used to talking to humans and using all their fun sayings. What I mean is that you won’t want to delay forever.”

“Hm. But I can delay for some time. You’re asking me to make an important decision on extremely little information with little time to decide. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that you exist, that Tenebrael speaks to Alyssa with regularity, and that She has taken a personal interest in seeing our safety from this other… archangel.” Irulon said the word slowly, tasting it. With the way she scowled, it didn’t seem like she enjoyed it all that much. “And taking into consideration the fact that I think far faster than your average human, that I have to think about it for any length of time should tell you how big of a shock it is.

“In fact, thinking about it here would not be the wisest.” Irulon turned away from the phone to look at the one holding it. “We are in hostile territory. Your little spell is distracting them for now, but it will not forever. With the angel not interfering, this is an optimal time to destroy key structures, such as this church, and egress. Perhaps kill off more of their important members on our way out.”

“And we should find Kasita. How long was she supposed to take? We’ve been talking here for ten minutes and she hasn’t shown up. I’m getting nervous.”

Irulon shrugged. “The mimic is fine, I’m certain. After all, she is a mimic. Even if someone walks into the room, all she has to do is disguise herself.”

“And if they have a way to detect mimics? Oxart and one of the palace guards detected her while she was appearing as you. These guys will be on alert, looking for whoever just blew up half their base.”

“Given that you carved out a trough of land, they may very well think that their assailant was at the opposite end rather than within their midst.”

“Still…”

“I’m sure we’ll find her. For the time being, do you still have spare Empty Mirror cards?”

“Just one.”

“As expected,” Irulon said with a nod. “That should be enough to begin. Oh. One question, if you’ll hold up your trinket.”

Alyssa, who had dropped her arm to keep from getting too tired with it extended for tens of minutes on end, had to wake her phone up before she could properly aim it at Iosefael. Once the angel was back on the screen, Irulon pointed at the church building.

“That archangel placed several spells around this location with the intention of trapping, killing, or otherwise harming us. I don’t suppose removing those falls under the purview of your directives?”

“Kill and harm you? She can’t do that. She’s an angel.”

“Your definition of harm and ours must not agree. If she crafts a spell that prevents us from leaving a room that is slowly filling with water, would that not be harming us? We would drown. For that is what she has done here, except using the people in place of water.”

“I’m… I’m sure she wouldn’t have done something like that. Angels are under strict restrictions. We cannot harm humans.”

“Can you allow humans to come to harm through inaction?”

“Yes.”

Irulon’s mouth snapped shut, clearly not having expected that. “I see,” she said after a moment. “So setting a trap doesn’t count so long as you are not the one to actually do the harm.”

“That… depends.”

“Hm. In that case, why don’t you go ahead and remove any spells around this location. Just to be on the safe side. Wouldn’t want one of your fellow angels to violate any rules or laws now, would we?”

“If an archangel cast spells intending to interact with mortals, there was certainly a reason for doing so.”

“Of course there was. There is a reason to do everything. But if those reasons run counter to Tenebrael’s wishes, are you not obligated to handle them?” Irulon shook her head. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to go against Her orders.”

Iosefael floated slightly to one side, looking worried all of a sudden. “T-Tene said that I just have to contain Adrael until she can do something. Not—”

“Should you not also contain her effects on the world? It should be simple for you, right? Just a quick dash around the village here and then Tenebrael won’t be upset with you. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

“No, but—”

“If you’re wrong, you can always put it back later. But taking the initiative is a great way to show Tenebrael that you are serious in carrying out her request.”

“I am serious—”

“Apparently not. You are standing here, arguing with me when you could be out there containing Adrael. Tenebrael might not mention it because of her grace and kindness, but I would be so disappointed in you.”

Iosefael bit her lip, chewing on the corner.

The whole time they were talking, Alyssa remained silent. It was easy to see where this was going and she didn’t want to do anything that might distract either Iosefael, for fear that she might realize just what Irulon was doing, or the princess, worried that disrupting the cadence would break the effect she hoped to achieve. Her role in this was only to hold the phone up and pretend to be invisible otherwise.

Though it did raise a few questions. Although she had only met and spoken to her one and a half times, Iosefael was surprisingly naive. Maybe she wouldn’t go for it, but from the way Iosefael looked deep in thought, she was definitely considering the prospect.

Irulon wasn’t saying anything either. Not since saying that she would be disappointed. It was a little strange, her doing what she was doing. If Iosefael did disappear to go remove whatever spells Adrael had set, Alyssa definitely had a question or two for the princess.

Iosefael raised her left hand, covered in a golden weave of metal, and held it just in front of her face with her fingertips aiming toward her. “Detecting miracles in the local area.”

Alyssa quickly started her phone recording the angel. Proclamations like that were usually followed by magic. Irulon was watching, but having a copy to review later could still be handy.

The gold covering Iosefael’s hand lit up, glowing a faint white. Her glove completely covered her hand, but two bands of metal ran all the way up to her elbow in a winding pattern. The glow spread down both bands. Once it reached the end, an equally faint pulse of white light expanded from her hand in a sphere, quickly moving to encompass everything around them.

Alyssa only saw it for a second before it was gone, so hopefully her phone had recorded enough of it. It wasn’t a uniform sphere, having many lines and angelic runes hovering about its edges. What she didn’t see, however, she felt. It tingled underneath her skin. It was like little bugs crawling over her, making her want to itch and scratch at them.

Luckily, it passed by before she actually had to scratch. The tingle went away, replaced with a heavy weight deep in the pit of her belly. Just shifting her weight from one foot to the other made that disturbing sensation disperse as well.

Throughout it all, Irulon made not a single move of discomfort. She didn’t make to scratch or to move about. Her eyes were black and white, analyzing every pixel of the phone’s display. Could she feel it? Probably not. It was one of those things that only interacted with Alyssa. Just like the angels themselves.

“There are twelve active miracles in this valley,” Iosefael said, eyes staring at her fingers.

Hovering just above her hand was a holographic display that wouldn’t look out of place in a superhero movie. Given what Alyssa knew about angels, it was probably magic, not actual holograms. The effect was the same either way. And, either way, Alyssa couldn’t read the words or symbols. All of it was written in angelic runes.

The cross-shaped pupils scanning the hologram flicked away, looking to Alyssa. “Seven of which are centered on your phone.”

“It is a gift from Tenebrael. Please don’t undo them,” Alyssa said, speaking for the first time since Irulon had started this line of conversation. “It’s compensation for bringing me to her world against my will.”

“I don’t know if I could. The authorization required to grant those miracles is far higher than what I can access. It should require higher authorization than Tenebrael has… but…” Iosefael drew in a deep breath and let it back out through her nose. “The other spells are…” She started frowning as she looked back to her hologram. “That can’t be right.”

Alyssa almost asked what the angel was talking about, but hesitated. Irulon had been handling the conversation so far. Speaking now might ruin that. Yet Irulon wasn’t saying a word. Glancing in her direction, the princess moved a hand up to tap at her lips before pointing toward the phone.

Iosefael’s hand and the hologram were blocking the view of her lips. It had been like that since Iosefael had started casting her spells. Alyssa took a step to the side, sliding along the wall of the church building, stopping once Iosefael’s mouth was on screen once again. As Irulon followed, Alyssa decided to fill the princess in on what she had said in the most innocuous way possible. “What’s wrong with the other spells. What isn’t right?”

“There is a Struck Rock miracle active within this church. An archangel does not have the authority to perform such an act. Tenebrael could, but I doubt she has…”

“Is it dangerous?” Irulon asked, rejoining the conversation.

“No. It provides water. A relatively rare miracle.” Iosefael lifted her head from her hologram to look at Alyssa. “You might be familiar with Moses striking a rock while lost in the desert?”

“Uh. I’ve heard of the guy.” The only things she really knew about Moses were the plagues and having a stick that turned to a snake. It took a moment to remember even that much. Everything she knew about the guy came from an old animated movie. Had there been a rock and water? Well, parting the red sea, but that probably wasn’t the case here.

Iosefael didn’t seem impressed. Disappointed, maybe. “Hmph. There is also an… Oh dear. A blessed incense burner. But the blessing is corrupt. Exposure to the smoke disrupts the soul’s connection to the body.”

“Smoke? Would damaging the connection make the exposed docile and highly suggestible?”

Iosefael looked over to Irulon, staring as if in thought before slowly nodding her head. “I suppose that would be an effect. Without the soul, the body would enter a state of torpor. This doesn’t remove the connection entirely, so the effects wouldn’t be that extreme. Your guess is accurate, I suppose. How did you know?”

“Because it isn’t a guess.” Irulon turned to Alyssa. “That’s how they’re controlling the fairies. Still, disrupting the connection to the soul seems pretty harmful.”

Clasping her hand into a fist destroyed the holograms. Iosefael’s glowing hand and glove faded back to their regular golden color. “You’re right. I can’t believe that she created something like this. Or even that she could. But it can’t remain. I’ll… I’ll remove active miracles in the area.”

“Not the ones on my phone, please.”

“That makes it more complicated,” Iosefael said with a sigh. “I can’t just do a wide-area removal. I’d have to remove each individually.”

“Given that it is Tenebrael’s gift…” Irulon started, gesturing toward the phone in Alyssa’s hand. “I would never dare to speak for Her, but I cannot imagine She would be pleased if you destroyed something She created.”

“I… know. I’ll go around to each and remove them one-by-one.”

“Can you do it without leaving us unprotected from Adrael?”

“I am actively scanning for angelic presences. If she appears, I will be here instantly.”

“Good. Then don’t delay!”

Iosefael took a breath, nodded twice, fully extended her wings, and disappeared upward into the sky. Alyssa stared for a moment, wondering if the flight was really necessary. Maybe flying was fine, but so high? The village wasn’t that large. Only a handful of buildings plus the church. And half of them had been destroyed, thanks to her.

“She seems… simplistic.”

“Yeah. I thought she was going to agree earlier, but good thing their smoke was some angelic nonsense.”

“I think she was going to anyway and merely used its existence as an excuse, but I can’t be positive without further interaction. Either way, this works to our advantage. Once she finishes, we should have full access to this town. Shame we couldn’t have done this before alerting the entire base to our presence.”

“I’m… surprised you used Tenebrael’s name as a manipulation tool.”

Irulon leaned up against the church wall, staring up into the sky. She didn’t speak for several seconds. When she did, it was in a softer tone of voice than anything Alyssa had heard from her before. “Hm. It was not a decision I made lightly. The theologists preach pragmatism. We had a need. I acted to solve it as rapidly as possible. If all is as Tenebrael’s book says, I will be forgiven for my irreverence. Though you may be in a position to say more than the words of half-dead individuals of dubious quality.”

Tenebrael’s book must have been the writings Lazhar had mentioned back in Teneville, the book where he recorded every word spoken by the suicidal pilgrims. As for whether or not she knew Tenebrael better… Alyssa had to snort at that. “I don’t believe that Tenebrael cares one way or another what mortals do. If anything, she would be amused that you managed to manipulate Iosefael into doing what you wanted. Next time she’s around I could ask. Or you could talk to her through my phone.”

“An ancient saying: You should never meet your heroes. My brother, for instance, is highly idolized by many among the military and even in the guild. He is seen as a strong individual capable of turning the tide of a battle all on his own. And he is. Yet I think many would be disappointed if they actually got to know him. His sympathies toward monsters would shatter expectations all on their own. Bringing the draken to the city already tarnished his reputation.”

“And you think meeting Tenebrael would be worse?”

“Faith requires uncertainty,” Irulon said, deliberately avoiding the question. “At first, there were a few clues around you that had that uncertainty diminishing. What you said to my sister, for instance.”

Alyssa blinked, snapping her head over to meet the princess’ violet eyes. “You heard that?”

“Mhm. Those clues, I could ignore or reason away as delusion easily enough. There have been people who have claimed to speak with Tenebrael before. All proved false in the end. But now all this? The portrait you showed me? It is getting more and more difficult to ignore.

“Perhaps that is why I used Tenebrael’s name. I wanted to remove just a little more uncertainty. I still, right now, wish to tell you that you are lying. Or that this being who claims to be Tenebrael is merely a monster taking Her name for its own purposes. If that is the case, it must be destroyed. Yet attacking my god? If it truly is Tenebrael, not even my life would be enough for forgiveness. So I think I want a little uncertainty removed, maybe all of it. But maybe none of it at the same time. I’m just… unsure of what I want exactly.”

“Well, I don’t know what to say. Everything I’ve said is true as far as I know it to be. Everything else, you’ll have to decide on your own.”

A fluttering of white-gold feathers filled the area behind the church. It had only been a minute, maybe two, but Iosefael popped into existence right in front of Alyssa. “Aside from those on your phone, all miracles have been nullified in this area.”

Alyssa had to translate for her—she hadn’t had time to turn her phone back on before the angel spoke. As soon as she had finished, Irulon pushed herself away from the wall and fingered a spell from her tome. “Excellent. Let us find our wayward mimic and finish this job. I want to get back to the palace and think some things over.”


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Vacant Throne — 021.001

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Dismantling

Three of Them


Irulon said something, but Alyssa barely heard a word. All her concentration went toward not panicking at the sight of the angel in front of her. There is no need to panic, she told herself. Angels cannot kill humans.

There are things worse than death, Irulon had said to both Lumen and Kasita. And that was probably true. The angel didn’t need to kill to do harm. Harm could mean a lot of different things. It really depended on whose definition of harm was in use.

What to do? What to do? The angel wasn’t doing anything. Not yet, anyway. She just stared with her red eyes, looking right at Alyssa. Her wings were tucked neatly behind her back, making her barely any wider than her shoulders. Up close, the first thing Alyssa noticed was that this archangel was shorter than both Tenebrael and Iosefael. She didn’t look like a child, clearly having more adult-like features to her face, she was just a short woman and had proportions to match. Yet, even though Alyssa stood taller than her, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated.

Tenebrael had asked to be contacted if she showed up, but what should she do? Just reach for her phone and call up Tenebrael while this angel was watching? It was in Irulon’s hand, but Alyssa could summon it if she wanted. However, drawing attention to it might be a bad idea. Tenebrael said it was invulnerable, but did that include from other angels? Presumably, Tenebrael could break it if she so desired, meaning it wasn’t a perfect invulnerability even if Annihilator couldn’t scratch it.

But if not phone up Tenebrael, what then? Attack her? Iosefael had gotten caught up by Spectral Chains. This angel was supposedly of a lower rank. But what if it didn’t work? Then she would have just made the angel mad for no reason.

Alyssa couldn’t just talk to her. Tenebrael had specifically warned her against that. While Alyssa wasn’t going to blindly follow Tenebrael’s directives like she was one of the angel’s worshipers, her interactions with Iosefael had proved that other angels were not any better. Worse, in fact. At least Tenebrael didn’t want to kill her. The same couldn’t be said for the others. Especially not for an archangel whose duties were apparently to set right what had gone wrong.

Maybe the angel would go away if she was ignored. What was she even doing? Staring like that… Why didn’t she say or do something. The longer it went on with nothing happening, the more antsy Alyssa grew. Turning just enough to catch Irulon in the corner of her eyes, Alyssa checked to see what the princess was doing.

Nothing as well, though she had looked at the now dark screen of the phone. Her eyes were black and white, dancing about in their orbits as she searched. Irulon clearly knew that something was wrong. She might even know that the angel was in front of them. But what was Irulon supposed to do about it? Alyssa at least benefited from being able to see the angel. Given how Oxart had walked right through Tenebrael, it was doubtful that Irulon could even touch this… Adrael.

Irulon’s fingers twitched, moving toward her spell tome. Whether it was that movement or whether enough time had passed for the angel to make a decision, she started moving as well. She held out a hand, forming glowing runes and geometrical shapes in the air.

“Unnatural duality detected. Separation possible, preparing—”

Alyssa didn’t give the angel a chance to find out what the spell did. She stepped forward, grabbed the angel by her outstretched wrist, and wrenched her arm upward.

A part of her expected some laser blast of white light to fly toward the heavens, just in time to save Irulon. But nothing nearly so dramatic happened. The runes and lines in the air faded out and the glow dropped to a faint florescent. Which just made Alyssa realize that the angel didn’t have her halo equipped. Otherwise she would be blindingly bright just standing there.

While her actions had stopped the angel from casting at Irulon, it earned Alyssa the angel’s full attention. Her red eyes were staring hard at Alyssa. After a tense moment, her gaze shifted away to where Alyssa had a hold of the angel’s wrist.

“What has she done?”

Alyssa blinked. “What?”

“You should not be able to perceive divine beings.”

Divine, Alyssa thought with a mental scoff. She was doing just what Tenebrael warned her against, but there was no stopping it now. “I’ve been told that before.”

“Alyssa…” Irulon spoke, voice laced with an uncharacteristic worry. How much could she guess about what just happened? Probably a lot. While Adrael would be invisible to her, Alyssa had clearly grabbed something that had been aimed at Irulon and moved it away from her. At no point had Alyssa tried to disguise her movements.

And she shouldn’t need to. In Alyssa’s opinion, Irulon had every right to know that someone had been about to cast a spell on her, regardless of whether that person was an angel or not.

“What are you? You are mortal, are you not?”

Alyssa clenched her teeth. Why was it always that question? She would accept someone wondering what made her so special, Alyssa wondered the same thing. But surely an angel could tell that she was a regular human. Irulon, Lumen, Tess, and everyone else who had questioned Alyssa’s humanity at least had the excuse that they were not beings from a higher plane of existence, or whatever the Throne was.

“What about you?” Alyssa threw back. “Aren’t you not supposed to meddle in mortal affairs? The people here are trying to commit genocide. How can you support them?”

“Entire worlds have been flooded, burned, or torn asunder. A few million mortals perishing in the name of the Throne is of little concern.” The angel’s lips pressed into a thin line as her eyes flicked over to where Alyssa still had a grip of her wrist. “I request that you relinquish my arm.”

Alyssa shuddered, feeling an uneasy chill wash over her. It wasn’t a physical feeling, but a mental one. This person—This angel spoke so dispassionately about the deaths of millions. It was a bit hypocritical. Back on Earth, how many times had she been flipping through the news and heard about some war in Africa or terrorist bombing in Europe or even a more domestic incident, thought about how tragic it was, then flipped to another channel or browsed to a new web page without a second thought? Probably a lot more than she could count.

But Alyssa had never before been in a position where she could do anything about it. Terrorism was someone else’s problem to deal with. She was just a small-town worker at a home improvement store. What was she supposed to do about some country on the opposite side of the world invading their neighbors?

But here… it was different here. Maybe through coincidence, maybe through fate, maybe through the meddling of angels… however she had ended up in the situation she found herself in, Alyssa had power here. She had just blown away a hill using nothing more than pen scribbles on a piece of paper! Not everyone on this world could do that. Irulon might be able to achieve similar effects with some preparation. But Oz? That wasn’t to say that Oz was useless. He had skills that did not rely on pens and papers. Just being with her the night the trolls and goblins got into the city had probably saved her life. Without him leading her to Tzheitza, she would have been out on the streets alone.

He wouldn’t be reshaping the desert anytime soon, but he was trying to stop this genocide as well. Through killing a community of fairies… which might be genocide in its own right. Even if they were cannibalistic little mind-controlling monsters—Alyssa shook her head. If not for the Society of the Burning Shadow and this angel, the fairies never would have gotten wrapped up in all this in the first place.

What was the phrase? With great power came great responsibility. Alyssa had great power. Maybe she hadn’t known just how great it was until a half hour ago, but she had definitely known that she could cast high ranked spells. So she had power. She was just inexperienced in using it. What she needed now was her own spell tome. To do what she had said she would do before she got her phone back and wound up tangled up in all… this.

“Reiteration: Relinquish my arm, mortal.”

Alyssa opened her mouth, tempted to spit back a ‘make me’ until she realized that the angel probably would take that literally. Even with the power she had compared to someone like Oz, Alyssa needed to do a hell of a lot more research on angels before she would feel remotely confident in standing up against them. Even grabbing Adrael’s arm like she had probably hadn’t been the wisest of actions. She didn’t regret doing so. Letting the angel cast a spell at Irulon was not something a friend would have done. And nothing had come of it… yet.

Not wanting anything to come of it, Alyssa let go, dropping her arm to her side. The angel turned her wrist around, looking at it from all angles before copying the motion. The whole time, Alyssa kept her eyes on the angel. She didn’t trust that Irulon was safe in the slightest. In fact, the angel having her eyes on Irulon at all was a bad situation.

If this angel wanted to, she could just follow them around until Alyssa fell asleep. Even if Irulon stayed awake and alert, she couldn’t do anything against the angel.

Alyssa felt a hazy headache well up. What were they supposed to do against this thing? Maybe Irulon could seal them away in some side world, but there was no guarantee that an angel couldn’t just walk in the same way that they could cross between this world and Earth.

They needed Tenebrael.

Again, Alyssa’s eyes flicked over to her phone. Irulon still had it in her hand. The princess was staring at the blank spot with narrowed eyes as if trying to see what was there. Alyssa found it somewhat surprising that Irulon hadn’t pulled out her tome. Then again, Irulon was surely smart enough to know that taking potentially hostile actions might be met with hostile actions. But the phone… With the screen having gone dark, she would have to spend a second unlocking it, then there was a second or two to get into the contacts list before she could actually call Tenebrael. Would the angel stop her if she grabbed it? Maybe not. At the moment, she was staring at Irulon again. Adrael seemed more concerned with observation for the time being. That might not remain the case if this went on for too long.

Chancing it, Alyssa called the phone to a hand behind her back. It was almost laughable to think that the angel wouldn’t notice. But the angel’s red eyes remained on Irulon’s face even as she felt the hard plastic form in her hand. She quickly pressed her thumb to the fingerprint reader. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the muscle memory required to hit the contacts list from behind her back. Turning slightly to try to keep the phone hidden, Alyssa glanced to her hip. Contacts. A flick of her finger sent the list scrolling all the way to the bottom.

❤ Tene ❤

The screen switched to a still picture of the monochromatic angel, this one posed as if she had taken a selfie. It was dialing some number, but the numbers that appeared on screen weren’t regular ones. They were those same runic symbols that filled Tenebrael’s book and covered spell cards.

Now what? Did she have to bring it up to her ear and start talking? That wasn’t going to fly with the angel standing right there. She was lucky she had gotten this far.

Alyssa bit her lip, waiting. Adrael was still staring at Irulon, but she hadn’t tried casting a spell again. It was a little weird. Given that she had met three different angels, all of whom had expressed a degree of surprise at her being able to see them, it was a little strange that Irulon of all people was stealing this angel’s attention. Adrael had mentioned a duality. It had to have something to do with the dragon.

“Is it still there?” Irulon said, voice quiet.

Even if she didn’t have super hearing, the angel would have heard anyway. As it was, the corners of her lips turned downward at the question. She started raising a hand, but hesitated with a glance at Alyssa.

“Yeah. I don’t think she likes your… companion.”

“Two souls inhabiting a single body will not remain stable indefinitely. One will eventually subsume the other. They must be separated immediately lest the record of their existence be corrupted. The Throne will not accept the soul should they merge.”

Alyssa’s eyes widened as she looked over to Irulon. Subsumed? That sounded bad. Did Irulon know about that? Tenebrael probably didn’t care. She ate souls. As far as Alyssa could tell, she avoided interacting with the Throne. Though Alyssa really didn’t know much about it aside from what she could gather from context. Yet another reason to ask for a dossier on angels from Tenebrael.

“Your heart rate has spiked,” Irulon said. “What is it?”

“She uh… said that one of you will eventually absorb the other.”

“Absorb?”

“Subsume was the word she used.”

The angel raised a hand again. “I do not know why you are able to perceive me, but as long as you can, I will make use of you. Inform her that she should not resist. It will be unpleasant. Already, the duality is bordering on inseparable.”

Alyssa stepped forward again, moving between Irulon and the angel. She tried to grab at Adrael’s wrist, but the angel glided backwards just enough for Alyssa’s fingers to brush against her skin and nothing more. Still, the motion stopped the faint glow that had started to sprout up around Adrael’s hand. Alyssa’s slight sigh caught in her throat as the angel’s red eyes rushed toward her. There was no time to react before Alyssa felt a light touch against her chest.

“Relocating interfering entity to—”

A beam of darkness wrapped in white light encompassed Adrael. Alyssa stumbled backward, knocking into Irulon and sending both to the ground.

The light only lasted a second before it was gone. Alyssa didn’t even have time to wince or squint. Even her backward stumble had barely started when the beam winked out. And when it did wink out, there was nothing left where Adrael had been. No sign of the angel in any direction. Not even a single feather.

At least, not a single white feather.

“I leave you for five minutes and you’re already causing problems?”

Coughing, mouth tasting a bit more like dirt than she was comfortable with, Alyssa glanced up. Tenebrael hovered with gently flapping wings above where Adrael had been standing. The white-winged angel was still nowhere to be seen. It was as if she had never been. There wasn’t even a mark on the ground where that beam of light had struck. Maybe a little disturbed dirt, but it wasn’t like Annihilator at all.

“I felt that,” Irulon said. “I didn’t see anything, but something happened. The dragon is still in my head, whatever it was didn’t remove him.”

“No,” Alyssa said quietly before realizing that there wasn’t much point in keeping quiet. Tenebrael could surely hear and Irulon already knew about the angel’s interest in her. “Tenebrael showed up and… Did you kill her?” Alyssa asked, raising her voice to clarify just who she was speaking to.

The black wings folded themselves behind Tenebrael as she lowered herself to the ground. “She left the plane the instant my attack connected. It wouldn’t have killed her anyway. And now, thanks to you, she knows that I know that she is here.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t have much choice.” Alyssa brushed herself off as she stood up. The dragon hide was remarkably amazing at keeping dust and dirt off, but enough stuck to it that it looked far from the pristine dark color that it had been when Irulon first pulled it out of her closet. I need to stop being so shocked at every little thing. Granted, a laser blast inches from her wasn’t a little thing, but the fact was that she fell over far too much for her liking. One of these times, someone was going to be in a position to capitalize on her weakness. It was a flaw that she needed to correct. That nobody had done so yet was surprising enough.

Irulon didn’t actually look all that much better. She had yet to get to her feet or brush herself off, but even her armor hadn’t been looking pristine. And… even with Alyssa standing in front of her, waving her hand in front of her face, Irulon didn’t move.

“Princess? Are you alright?”

She jerked, blinking her now violet eyes. “Fine. Fine. Just… having a minor difficulty absorb… taking in the situation. Tenebrael is here?”

Alyssa glanced over to a shrugging angel before nodding her head. “Just right there.”

Irulon did not get to her feet. She turned around, moving from sitting on her butt to pressing her head to the ground in a kneel. The speed at which she moved had Alyssa blinking.

“Uh.”

“You should take lessons, Alyssa. That is the proper reaction to meeting an angel of my status and glory.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to do that.”

“Did Her Holiness say that?” Irulon said, keeping her face pressed into the ground.

“Uhh…” Alyssa flicked her eyes to the side to find the angel doing nothing more than smirking. “Yes.”

“I do not appreciate your lying to me.”

“Stay there then,” Alyssa said with a sad shake of her head. Turning back to Tenebrael, she sighed. “Can’t you show yourself to her and tell her yourself?”

“No,” she said with a definite note of amusement in her voice.

“No you can’t or no you won’t?”

“It is forbidden for angels to show themselves to mortals except under extremely specific circumstances.”

“You’re the one who complains about your and other angels’ restrictions. Why not break that rule?”

“I—” Tenebrael opened her mouth before clamping it shut. “Now that you’ve attracted Adrael’s attention, it’s going to be quite annoying for me. I don’t have time to deal with tedious things right now. I’ve got preparations to make back on Earth. Big ones.”

She can’t then? Alyssa thought with a mild hum. It was just a bit… pitiful. Could she really not? Was it some restriction that she had an aversion to violating or literally couldn’t do such a thing? Pressing her lips together, she shook her head. “What are we supposed to do about her? She seems to want to attack Irulon because there’s a dragon in her head. The second you leave, she’s just going to be back here again.”

“A problem I have considered and have found a temporary solution to. After a long discussion, I think I’ve brought an old friend around to my way of thinking.” Waving a hand, Tenebrael gestured directly behind Alyssa.

Having a feeling that she knew exactly what she was going to see, Alyssa looked back with a frown. “Is she going to try to kill me?”

“Alyssa Meadows!” Iosefael said with an indignant pout on her round face. “You know that angels cannot harm—”

“Or get me killed?”

“No, no. Principality Iosefael wanted an opportunity to observe a bit more of my world and form her own opinions on what I am doing here. This is merely a convenient situation that works to all of our advantages.”

Iosefael put on a small smile. “The humans call it ‘watching each other’s backs’ I believe. Though it is more of me watching for archangels and attempting to keep them contained until Tenebrael can… isolate them.”

“Don’t you have a job to do on Earth?” Alyssa said to the golden angel.

Tenebrael was the one to respond, crossing her arms with a haughty smile. “Since I am spending much of my time on Earth trying to mend your mistake of not dying, I will be carrying out her duties for the time being.”

“And you better carry them out properly, Tene.”

“Of course I will. We don’t want another Alyssa running around. Maybe one day, but I’m not ready for more yet.”

Something gave Alyssa the impression that she would be having a lot of headaches in the future. The angels were simultaneously her best bet and her greatest obstacle in returning home. But, if Iosefael was following her around, maybe she would use some spells that Alyssa could take pictures of. Getting more angelic magic into Irulon’s analytical hands could only help. Maybe she could find a weakness in their magic or just a way to Earth.

Though she still needed information. Looking up to Tenebrael, Alyssa made a simple request. “I want information on angels, the Throne, magic, and whatever else related that you can provide.”

“I’ll send you an email.”

“Good, then…” Alyssa blinked. “An email?”

“Is there a problem? You have your phone.”

“No. No problem. I just expected some thick manuscript with those large letters filled with illustrations and iconography at the beginning of every page. You know, like religious texts, or whatever. Hearing an angel talk about sending an email is…” Alyssa trailed off with a shrug.

Which just made Tenebrael shrug in return. “Would you rather a big thick book that you have to lug around? Or some digital text on a small device that you’re already carrying everywhere, is invulnerable, and cannot be lost or stolen?”

“An email is perfectly fine.”

“An email it is then. Look forward to it.” Without another word, Tenebrael pulled off her molting trick and vanished in the midst of her feathers.


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Alyssa’s Notes: Added Annihilator to my collection of spells under the Arcane heading. And I forgot to add Loophole last time. That has been corrected under the new Time section.

Vacant Throne — 020.001

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Interlude

Irulon


“Message. Alyssa Meadows. Acceptable. Wait for my signal. You’ll know it when you see it. Prepare a second Empty Mirror, just in case the spell interacts poorly when you cast it.”

Irulon looked back to the stables. Her original plan just wasn’t feasible with new information gained from the scene. Alyssa was having troubles as well. So Plan B it was. She had wanted to curse the horses with a particularly nasty bit of Death magic that would have them appearing unharmed and unaffected at first. When someone tried to ride them, the curse would trigger, explosively exsanguinating both the horse and rider. Suitably lethal and horrifically messy. Morale within this outpost would drop instantly.

If she further infected the horses’ blood with a variant of her Toymaker spell, the spray of blood and viscera would infect anyone nearby. Once the people were her toys, she could simply direct them to decimate the rest of the outpost. If their morale hadn’t hit rock bottom by that point, forcing the survivors to fight their former friends, comrades, and potentially family would destroy the last vestiges of hope they had. Even if she missed a few, they would probably end themselves in despair.

A perfect plan ruined by forces beyond her control.

The stables had protections around them. Her attempts at unraveling the magic weren’t working. A Rank Six arcanist should always be able to remove any spell cast by a lesser arcanist, so she had to assume that this was constructed by another Rank Six… or possibly that angel. Alyssa’s Desecrate Spells might work, but she wasn’t around to test at the moment.

Even with the help of her companion, Irulon couldn’t quite tell what the intended effect of the magic was either. All she knew was that she lacked the key, so to speak. Stealing one might be possible. From analyzing the magic around the stables and several of the other structures, she gathered enough information to determine that it was a physical object that allowed the bearer to pass through the protections. However, there was no way to determine what that object was.

Could she figure it out given time? Certainly.

Unfortunately, while they weren’t necessarily on a time limit, she did not want to spend more time near this outpost than necessary. The… angel had her uncharacteristically tense. Even if Alyssa was wrong about its relation to Tenebrael, the idea of a hostile being with a fraction of Her power was not comforting. She would have liked to dismiss the notion of angels as a delusion of stress-induced panic—Alyssa clearly loathed heights. Yet something had destroyed the landmass near the guild knights. Irulon had seen it with her own eyes.

Then there was the trinket and the portraits it showed. Having seen the phone take a picture of herself, the surrounding land, Lyria, and more, Irulon had no reason to doubt its capabilities.

A deep voice thundered within the recesses of her mind. ~It certainly is an interesting trinket. I doubt we’ve seen everything it can do.~

Mhm. I cannot fathom the spellwork required to replicate a portion of its abilities. To think she claims that it can access the total sum of human knowledge in her world alone is both awe inspiring and terrific to think about.

~The Akashic Library, made to fit in your hand.~

Let us avoid hyperbole. I doubt it is anything so extreme.

If it was… Alyssa’s world was even more fantastical than it seemed. Her city was fascinating enough. At first, Irulon had only been mildly impressed. The buildings were shiny, but nothing particularly special. It wasn’t until she caught sight of humans walking around that she realized the scale of the structures. Quickly estimating their average height allowed her to calculate the height of the buildings. Most of them were at least the size of the Royal Palace, assuming her calculations were correct—they usually were. And they were so slim too. The palace was an engineering and magical marvel, unparalleled throughout the world, designed with the best magic had to offer and the natural ingenuity of elves. No other building in the world could reach its magnificence. At the risk of thinking sacrilege, Irulon would even compare it favorably with Tenebrael’s temple in Teneville.

From Alyssa’s tone of voice, she didn’t find the structures special in the slightest. That might be the most terrific part of everything. Such structures were considered average and usual among her world.

What other wonders they must possess. Since being shown that short… video, Alyssa had called it, Irulon found herself yearning to return to Lyria and delve into her research with renewed vigor. All the more reason to get this over with quickly. She supposed she owed the Society of the Burning Shadow a begrudging thanks for nearly killing her. Unfortunate though that circumstance had been, it had led to her discovering more about Tenebrael.

A topic she still wasn’t sure what to think about or even if she wanted to consider. The theologists spoke of Tenebrael with reverence befitting an immortal being. Mortals were to be observant and respectful. The idea that an apparent mortal was on speaking terms with Tenebrael would send priests into a frenzy. Irulon doubted that she would have believed it had Alyssa been anyone more… normal. Even as it was, it sounded ridiculous enough that Irulon felt that it might be some being merely tricking Alyssa into believing that Tenebrael was speaking to her.

But Irulon tried to avoid operating on feelings as much as possible. It led to mistakes and unsound decisions.

Still, she wouldn’t mind just a little more evidence.

~Should you not be focusing on the task at hand?~

The prospect that Tenebrael might be so close is… distracting to say the least.

~I shall remind you. You were attempting to deliver vengeance upon the fools who dared to attack us.~

“Yes. How could I forget,” Irulon said aloud. Sarcasm just didn’t translate quite as well without the vocal inflections. “In any case, attempting to enter the stables would be folly. We will be a bit more violent in our destruction of their hope. It will have the side benefit of drawing attention from Alyssa, giving her more time to mentally debate her task.”

~You’re sure she will carry it out?~

“Like most humans, she has an aversion to killing her own kind. That, more than anything else, is evidence that she speaks true regarding her species. But destroying the only food supplies these people have access to will weigh on her to some degree. Depending, of course, on how much she considers the ramifications of stranding a large group of people without food.”

~They have food outside the storage depot. The living quarters will contain more readily consumable food and that church has a high chance of containing additional stores.~

“I am aware. There are also horses outside their stables. I spotted two while walking here. It isn’t about starvation. It is about morale. I want these heretics to know despair. The starvation is merely a positive side-effect.” Irulon held open her tome, cracking it open to a page she had selected earlier. Plan B was more noisy than their initial plan, but was also far more… fun. Poisonings were a dull way to go. The Toymaker spell combined with a Death curse would have been decent, and maybe she could still use it on the horses that were not currently in the stables, but they needed a little panic for the time being.

After… They would surely Message for help. Perhaps one or two survivors would be best. Reinforcements would arrive to a ghost town, finding only a fraction of the people who were supposed to be here. And everyone they would find would be nothing more than hollow shells of humans, too shocked to do more than babble incoherent horrors to their rescuers.

~You truly have a twisted mind.~

Irulon blinked, shaking her head after a moment. “I wonder whose fault that is.”

~Don’t fool yourself. You were like this before killing me.~

Scoffing, Irulon plucked the card from her tome. “Setting down traps.” Upon creating a disturbance, the first responders would arrive from between the stables and the building directly adjacent. Secondary responders, coming from the direction of the church, would arrive on the opposite side. For now, Irulon knelt between the stables, aiming the spell card downward.

“Stranding Demise.”

The card melted away into a sickly green-black smog, seeping into the brown dirt. In a moment, nothing could be seen but faint wispy tendrils drifting in the lackadaisical wind. Someone might notice it, but it was unlikely. Once she destroyed the stables, all eyes would be on it, not the ground.

She moved around to three other spots she had identified as high probability locations for people to stand around and gape, including the area leading toward the church. At each one, she cast the same spell. It was a shame that her Toymaker spell didn’t have a trap-like variant. It was just never something she had needed. Even now, she doubted that she would put much effort into creating one. Alyssa’s very existence made the prospect of researching Fractal magic all the more alluring. Maybe even to the point where she could start terming a new branch of magic. World magic had a nice ring to it.

Finishing her traps, Irulon moved away from the stables until she was standing partway up the hill that surrounded the town. Bringing the dragon to the forefront of her mind, she scanned over everything, ensuring that she wasn’t about to make a mistake. The magic around the building protected against unauthorized entry by humanoid beings. Not against magic. Nothing she cast at it would get reflected back. Kasita could likely try entering should she disguise herself as something suitably inhuman, but there was nothing inside worthy of investigation and Kasita was supposed to be snooping around the church, looking for notable targets and information. Bringing her over here to look at horses would be a pointless endeavor.

Theoretically, Kasita could carry the curse and Toymaker spell into the room in a nonhuman disguise and then cast the spells, but Irulon was somewhat leery about handing over such spells to the mimic. Her counterparts handing over Loophole was one thing. It was an effectively harmless spell, if somewhat annoying should the mimic have used it on her.

It was the same reason that Irulon hadn’t given any deadly spells to Alyssa when she had been attempting to take down the Taker. At the time, Irulon still hadn’t been positive that Alyssa wasn’t some creature in disguise trying to assassinate a highly ranked arcanist and princess. All the spells she had given away couldn’t be used to directly kill anyone. Contract required the target’s agreement. Rigor Mortis could have been easily broken through the use of the other students at the Observatorium. Neither of the Fractal spells had been offensive.

Fractal Mirror technically could have wound up poorly for Irulon. Among the many infinite futures Alyssa had undoubtedly seen, a small infinite number of them had to have resulted in her death. Offering that had been a mistake, but Alyssa successfully casting the spell had not been among her projections for the outcome. Irulon had expected the spell to spectacularly fizzle, confirming that Alyssa could cast Rank Six spells but without actually handing her anything dangerous.

Underestimating her was far too easy to do.

But that was neither here nor there.

“Have I missed anything?”

~Actually asking me? That’s unusual.~

“This is an unusual situation. Angels. Hm. It is out of my expertise.”

~You aren’t the only one. The spell drawn on your acquaintance’s trinket—~

“It’s a picture. You heard her.”

~The picture drawn on your acquaintance’s trinket contained a spell unlike any I have encountered. I am still running simulations on its use and am attempting to recreate it as something usable.~

“Usable for a dragon or for a human?”

~Mhm.~

Well, he seemed distracted. Understandable. Sometimes Irulon wished that she could spend her days lost in thoughts with all the time in the world to develop her theories. There was just so much annoyance with regular existence. Like being stabbed by gaunts.

Shaking her head, Irulon withdrew a card from her tome. Compared to most of her repertoire, this was rather simple spell. Not Fractal magic nor Death. It was a Ground based spell. Lots of stylized arrows pointed in every direction within a cuboid. Pointing the drawn face toward the stables, Irulon activated the spell with a calm voice.

“Destabilization.”

The effect was immediate. The building, made from wood and cobblestone, trembled. Several of its neighboring buildings rumbled as well, though to a lesser extent. Stones along its base came loose, falling to the dirt. With its foundations in shambles, the wooden beams holding up the main structure failed.

Before the building fell completely, Irulon already had another spell in hand. Again, a simple one. Just a boring Fireball this time. While she could have destroyed it with the same spell she had used on the horse and rider the night before, she was too well known for using Fractal magic. Unless she knew for a fact that these people wouldn’t be able to send off a Message, she didn’t want people to know that she was here. It was all too possible that the Society of the Burning Shadow would see her as a valuable enough target to throw everything they had after her.

She could take it, but it would be annoying in the extreme.

The fireball flew from her fingertips with an uttered word, flying straight toward the crumbling building. A blaze started up where it had struck, sending smoke into the sky.

Irulon didn’t stick around to watch it burn. While Empty Mirror was still secure around her body, that fireball would have been visible to anyone looking at the hill. She had to relocate before they could attempt to locate her properly. She did take some small pleasure in watching someone stumble right into one of her traps. Stranding Demise did its job perfectly with smoky tendrils snaking out of the ground to latch onto the first person who trod on them. They coiled tight, eliciting a panicked shout from their target until they started squeezing his throat. It wasn’t long before the hooded man was dragged down into the ground.

Just as his head disappeared beneath the brown dirt, Irulon winced. A blinding light filled her vision, forcing her to turn away. Even with her head turned, she could still feel the light as heat searing her face.

An attack?

~The angel?~

There was a mild panic from her constant companion. A rarity. Not even dying at the hands of the gaunt had caused much more than a calm acceptance. Technically, he had already died once. Doing so again didn’t concern him.

But a being on Tenebrael’s level… Something that might be able to rip their souls from Irulon’s body and keep them from Tenebrael’s embrace…

Irulon squinted her eyes open, analyzing everything. It only took a moment to recognize that black-within-white light. Annihilator. But the size of it. It was as if someone had turned the rings in the sky to the annihilation spell and crashed them to the ground. The blast was so large, she couldn’t even see the other half of the town.

She flicked her watering eyes between the hillside and the town, trying to estimate exactly what it was hitting and where its origin point was.

A low, sardonic chuckle started up in the back of her mind as soon as she did the math. “It’s Alyssa,” she mumbled.

~Weren’t you just saying how you shouldn’t underestimate her?~

“I don’t—” Irulon cut herself off, looking away from the light. She wanted to keep looking, to keep gathering data, but her eyes were going to suffer from the burn for an hour as it was. “I don’t understand how she could possibly have turned Annihilator into that.”

~I always felt human spells were given names far too grandiose for their actual effect. At least she puts the annihilation into that particular spell. It reminds me of the breath of a Void Dragon.~

“And she wonders why people think she’s a monster…”

The burning warmth on Irulon’s face died down, leaving the natural desert heat actually feeling unusually chilly in its absence. Chancing a glance, Irulon had to blink away the spots in her eyes just to see. And once she did, she gaped. She couldn’t help it. Even her companion expressed surprise in his own subdued manner. The surprise only lasted half a second before Irulon felt a flash of irritation. Half the hillside was gone. No one would be wandering into her traps anytime soon. The stables burning down didn’t rank as half as pressing a matter with that scar in the landscape.

That wasn’t to say that they would be useless. People would eventually approach the stables. In fact, it might be even more damaging to their morale if they stumbled into her traps after seeing that swath of destruction. Although she almost certainly had done it unintentionally, Alyssa had pulled attention off everyone else. She could use this opportunity to her advantage. She still had a dozen Stranding Demise cards. Why not use them? Maybe she would even catch someone important when they inevitably came out to investigate. This should also give Kasita time to perform her own investigations.

“Message. Kasita,” Irulon said, withdrawing one of her cards. “In case you missed it, Alyssa just destroyed half the hillside. I imagine opportunities will arise shortly for you to move about entirely unnoticed. Just be aware of the protections I mentioned. Stick to an inhuman form. Meet us behind the church when you finish.”

With that sent off, Irulon started heading toward the meeting place. Every so often, she paused and placed a trap in the ground.

~There appears to be a prison beneath the church. I am investigating for the moment, but I may need assistance freeing the captives.~ Kasita sent the response shortly after.

She arrived at the meeting point far later than she had expected with all the detours to trap likely paths, yet there was no sign of Alyssa. Softly calling out brought forth no response from invisible people. There were no abnormal footprints in the ground anywhere that Irulon could see. Had Alyssa arrived and left? Unlikely. Alyssa would have sent a Message first. Captured? Higher possibility than merely wandering off. In shock from casting such a powerful spell? High possibility, roughly equal with being captured. Or, more accurately, she wound up captured because of her state of shock.

There was another possibility. Her magic use had drawn the attention of the angel. Or of Tenebrael. Irulon might be able to break her out of a holding cell with relative ease, but those beings might pose a problem. If Tenebrael had taken Alyssa somewhere, there would be nothing that Irulon could or would do aside from utter a prayer. If it were the angel, how was she supposed to fight a being so powerful that it had managed to keep itself hidden from humanity for the entirety of human history.

“Irulon?”

Ah. Irulon turned, idly noting disturbed dirt consistent with Alyssa’s size and weight near a bit of sagebrush. The air was empty, of course. Alyssa had Empty Mirror active.

“Irulon?”

“Here.” Checking that no one was around to see them, Irulon dismissed Empty Mirror with a wave of her hand, disrupting the fractal shards enough to break the spell. The cold glass-like bits of magic pressed only slightly against her gloved fingers before winking out of existence.

Alyssa did the same a moment after, fading into visibility as her own spell dissipated. The woman did… not look great. She had bags under her eyes. Since beginning this journey, she had looked constantly tired, so that wasn’t anything too new. But her eyes did look more moist than usual. Had she been crying? That was disappointing to see.

Reassurance. She had clearly not enjoyed what she had done. Telling her she wouldn’t have to do it again would give her relief. That combined with a minor commendation should help to improve her spirits. “Note for the future,” Irulon said. “Let us have you avoid highly destructive spells unless we want something utterly obliterated. I expected something nonstandard, but this exceeds all my analysis. Even as a Rank Six arcanist, I would be hard pressed to do quite that much without significant preparation beforehand.”

Alyssa snorted, shaking her head in the process. “I didn’t mean to.”

“No matter. It is advantageous to us for now,” Irulon said, adding just a hint more praise. They started talking about Alyssa’s usage of the spell. Although she absorbed every word, filing them away in her mental library, Irulon deliberately avoided thinking about the hows at the moment. She didn’t have time and would rather not have half-formed theories interrupted when Kasita arrived. It didn’t help that Alyssa was woefully uninformed in the specifics of magic. She couldn’t explain how she managed to cast spells without an activation phrase, let alone why the spell had been so powerful.

All in all, it wound up being a waste of a conversation. Alyssa truly knew nothing. Irulon did have a few theories. There were a few species of monsters that could occasionally crossbreed with humans. It was possible that Alyssa was a product of such a union. However, she displayed no secondary characteristics of anything but human. Another theory was that everyone from Alyssa’s world would display similar interactions with magic. Not a theory that could be easily tested, assuming it was true. Irulon was still a little on the fence about that. The idea was so fantastic that she wanted to believe it. Alyssa clearly did so. Still, she would need more evidence before fully committing to any one idea.

Irulon was about to halt the useless conversation and move on to more important matters—that mimic was taking a long time and should have at least sent a message by this point—when Alyssa held out the trinket.

~The phone.~

Yes, thank you, Irulon thought to her companion, projecting as much irritation as she could into the three words.

“I took a picture you might find interesting,” Alyssa said, entirely unaware of the mental dialog.

Looking down at the glass surface, Irulon’s breath hitched. She immediately shut off her connection to her companion. He immediately set to complaining. Irulon ignored him, shunting him completely from her mind as she stared at the captured portrait. This was hers and hers alone.

Tenebrael. There was no doubt about that. The image displayed before her eyes was just as the pilgrims described. Four massive wings, each covered in black feathers. Skin as pale as the moon with luminescent eyes shining clearly on a perfect face. The dress, black as the darkest nights. And the tattoos. Described through the words of a thousand dying men, they were nearly perfect. Nearly, Irulon thought, an unconscious hand drifting to touch her own face.

There was still the question of whether this being that Alyssa spoke to was truly Tenebrael. However, if it wasn’t, it had clearly put the effort in to appear true to the description. Everything, from the majestic poise to the calm expression, fit with what Irulon pictured in her mind.

And yet, despite her elation upon gazing at the One Above All, the more she looked, the filthier Irulon felt. Tenebrael, for whatever reason, had chosen to reveal Herself to Alyssa. Not to Irulon. Merely gazing upon her guise felt irreverent. It went against everything the priests had taught.

There was no doubt in Irulon’s mind that Alyssa would not have been able to capture this portrait had Tenebrael objected. Hadn’t Alyssa admitted that the trinket had been crafted by Her hands? If She wished, the trinket would be destroyed. That was true. It had to be.

Then there shouldn’t be anything wrong with looking. Alyssa was the medium through whom Tenebrael had chosen to reveal her full self to the living. Looking at the image before her was Tenebrael’s will.

Considering it that way set her mind partially at ease.

Partially.

It wasn’t like Irulon to lose track of time. While lesser peasants required specialized candles to mark the passing of time, Irulon managed to count the seconds with the aid of her companion. Even still, fully disconnected as she was, she couldn’t be certain how long it had taken her to tear her eyes from the glassy surface of Alyssa’s trinket. She had questions on her tongue for the woman.

But should she ask? Alyssa might be the designated carrier of Her image, but words could easily be delivered through other means. A pilgrimage had taken place mere weeks ago. Irulon had already read the disappointingly sparse transcription of the events. There was little to no information there that wasn’t contained elsewhere. If Tenebrael had wished for Her words to spread across the land, it should have been a simple matter to ask one of the pilgrims to repeat what She had said.

And if She wished for only Irulon to hear the words, surely She would have appeared before her, rather than Alyssa.

The girl in question wasn’t even paying attention any longer. She was staring off with wide eyes… at nothing.

~Something is wrong.~

I concur, Irulon thought, letting her companion fully return. She did tilt the trinket away, preventing herself, and her companion, from seeing it more. Connected once again, it took only a quick scan to deduce the problem.

Alyssa’s breathing was stilted and her heart was beating faster than normal. Typical signs of panic, an unfortunately common state of being for the poor woman. Her eyes, however. Judging by the dilation, the angle of each, and the minor movements, she was tracking something approximately six paces away, slightly taller than herself.

Something that Irulon could not see.

It could be a shadow assassin. The Society of the Burning Shadow was known to use them. However, because of that, Irulon already had Unseen Sight active. And she saw nothing at all. There were a few ways to fool Unseen Sight. Objects and creatures hidden somewhere between dimensions through Fractal magic, for one. However, Alyssa had been unable to perceive the Fractal cloak around Irulon prior to their meeting. The panic inducer was something else.

There was only one thing that Alyssa was known to see that no one else could.

~The angel.~

Yes. This should be interesting.


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Vacant Throne — 019.007

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Outpost

Annihilation


Time seemed to stop. People still moved about in Alyssa’s peripheral vision, shouting and panicking. For all she was paying attention to them, they might as well have been statues.

She had eyes for no one but the red-eyed angel. The reverse wasn’t quite true. The angel, hovering above the gouge, broke eye contact to look around the land. Her face was impassive with no real expression, but just from the way she looked around, Alyssa got the feeling of bewilderment. It was a little strange just how flat her face was. Iosefael had worn her expressions on her sleeve. The golden angel’s face shifted between smiles, frowns, and confused frustration at the drop of a hat. Tenebrael tended toward a constant joviality—somewhat like Kasita in some manner—but even she had shown plenty of surprise and shock. Usually when Alyssa did something that she wasn’t supposed to do. Like use Spectral Chains on angels or just see them in general.

With the angel no longer looking in Alyssa’s direction, she tried moving again. She made it one step before the angel’s head whipped back around to her. Alyssa froze again. A mistake. She should have kept moving, pretending like she couldn’t see the angel. The angel’s expression changed as Alyssa met her eyes. Not a significant change that might be expected from Tenebrael or Iosefael, just a slight furrowing of her brows.

Tearing her vision away, Alyssa moved. Hoping that the angel would think that Alyssa’s gaze had merely been coincidental, she tried her best to keep her eyes on the ground as she walked. Her steps weren’t steady. She needed to calm down. The way her heart was thumping was not healthy. She felt gross. Sweaty and maybe slightly nauseous. How much of that was from the angel and how much was from reshaping the landscape, Alyssa couldn’t say.

She just needed to get away, to find somewhere isolated where she could take a breath and slap her cheeks.

Chancing a glance over her shoulder, Alyssa kept her eyes low to make it seem as if she were looking only at the people or the ground.

But the skies were empty. There was no angel anymore. Feathers, yes. A lot of glistening white feathers slowly drifting down to the ground. But no winged being in the middle of it all.

It left.

Releasing a shuddering sigh of relief, Alyssa started away from the pit again. She needed to meet up with Irulon. That would give her some grounding. Maybe Irulon could explain the giant hole in the ground. Probably not. It was almost certainly that weird way magic interacted with her. But a small part of her could hope that Irulon had done something, had given her a supercharged version of Annihilator.

Then again, surely someone had died during that spell. That would mean Tenebrael would be here soon. That might even be the reason the red angel left. If Tenebrael did not know about that other angel, she definitely needed to be made aware of it. Alyssa didn’t want some angelic government destroying the world while she was on it. Or at all, for that matter. The world had a lot of problems, but they were fixable if someone with enough power and drive came to enact policies. More importantly, it had people living in it, both human and monster. If the world was destroyed, they would be as well. Tenebrael had been worried about that while Iosefael was around. Surely the same was true for this angel.

It was strange how she had gone from hoping that she hadn’t killed anyone to hoping that she had, just to talk to Tenebrael.

Sighing again, she stopped. Alyssa would not get too close. She didn’t want to go back toward it. The pit was too deep and she did not want to bump into anything or be bumped anywhere near it. Even if she didn’t seek out Tenebrael, the angel would probably show up because of the whole landscape sculpting that Alyssa had done. But, in the event that Tenebrael did not show up nearby, Alyssa did need to get closer.

Turning, her breath caught in her throat. Alyssa stumbled back with a slight squeak from her throat, landing on the ground.

An angel stood before her, feet barely not touching the ground. Feathered wings didn’t flap, yet the woman stayed in the air. Those glowing white eyes held a glimmer of mirth as she looked down upon Alyssa. Black lips twisted up into a small smile.

“Alyssa Meadows. When I said you didn’t have the heart to join the Society of the Burning Shadow, I didn’t know you possessed the capacity for such wanton destruction. You killed six people in the span of a second.”

Pinching her eyes shut, Alyssa groaned. That was not what she wanted to hear. Though maybe she could be thankful that the count wasn’t higher. Even though she hadn’t known that Annihilator was going to destroy quite so much land, she had known that she would be killing people. They were her actions and she had to own up to them.

When she opened her eyes again, she found a grey arm extended out toward her. Raising an eyebrow, she flicked her gaze to Tenebrael’s face. The angel was just smiling a pleasant smile. If the wings were removed from the situation, it would just be the hand of one person who was helping up another. For a moment, Alyssa thought to ignore the hand, to get to her feet on her own power as if it were some symbolic rejection of the angel. But… was there really a point to that? If this were a movie, the hero would have slapped the hand away. But somehow, she doubted that she would be a hero. Especially after destroying the food storage of a desert community, hostile enemies though they were.

Ugh. I want to go home. Things made more sense back on Earth. And I didn’t feel like I had to fight off half the world at all times.

Sighing again, she clasped her hand onto the angel’s hand, accepting the unvoiced offer of help. In short order, she found herself on her feet. She still didn’t feel all that steady, but Tenebrael gave her something to focus on that wasn’t the giant hole in the ground. Although… Alyssa chanced a glance around, hoping that Tenebrael wouldn’t pull her disappearing act. No sign of the other angel. The skies were clear of both winged beings and feathers. People were still panicking about, likely wondering just what they were supposed to do now, whether they should flee the town or ready arms to fight off whatever unseen threat had destroyed their buildings.

Regardless of what they actually did, they were no closer to discovering Alyssa than they had been ten minutes prior. Shards of her invisibility were hovering around, keeping her out of public view. It didn’t really surprise her that Tenebrael could see through it. The other angel definitely had. A part of her wondered if Iosefael would be able to see through it. The golden-winged angel had been bound by Spectral Chains where Tenebrael had broken free instantly. But maybe Iosefael would be able to see through it just fine. The red-dressed angel could see her through it and she only had two wings.

“How many angels are there?” Alyssa asked, looking back to Tenebrael. The angel had shifted a bit while Alyssa had been glancing about. Maybe even displaying some discomfort at being ignored. Alyssa would have found herself amused had she less troubles weighing on her mind.

“Angels?” Tenebrael said with a cocked head. “You just killed several people and scratched the face of my world. And you ask about angels? That doesn’t seem like you. The Alyssa I know would be angry with herself for, honestly, no good reason at all. Then she would start blaming me for whatever she’s angry about.”

Alyssa took a deep breath, pinching her eyes shut as she held it. “I killed them for a good reason,” she eventually said. “Maybe the rest of these people will give up and go home, though I don’t know if Irulon will give them the chance.” Justifying it to herself? Maybe. But she couldn’t actually fault the justification. A million ants and the population of Lyria versus half a dozen people? It was the trolley dilemma given form. Shaking her head, Alyssa pushed the thought from her mind. “But I have to focus. I have to ask about angels. Whatever else I want to say to you, this is important. And you have the unfortunate tendency to disappear during our discussions. If we get stuck on tangents, who knows when I’ll next see you.”

The dark wings surrounding Tenebrael fluttered before shrinking down as she folded them up behind her back. Her black boots touched to the ground. It seemed like an unconscious action. More obviously conscious was the way she crossed her arms under her chest before moving one hand to her chin. “I cannot put a number to the angels in existence. Earlier, I explained some of how the angelic orders are organized? Seraphim being the top of the top? They number the least at only forty. Dominions such as I? Well…” Her dark lips quirked into a smile. “Just me. But Dominions in general? Hundreds of millions. Principalities such as Iosefael?” She shook her head. “And then there are lesser angels that number even greater. Angels are finite in number, but that number is high enough to be considered effectively endless. And that isn’t even including my fallen siblings in the figure.”

Alyssa blinked a few times before mimicking the way Tenebrael shook her head. Clearly, that was the wrong question to have asked, but also something of a worrying question. If she did get back home and found herself hounded by angels, even if she managed to get rid of Tenebrael and Iosefael, she could find herself fighting off angels for eternity and they still would have plenty more in reserve.

“Why do you bring up angels?”

“Let me rephrase: How many angels are on your world?”

“Iosefael has been visiting on occasion. Quite annoying really. She keeps asking me all these questions, acting a lot like she did a thousand years ago. It was nostalgic at first, but I am a busy being. Apart from that, there are none,” she said, ending with a smile. That smile faltered after only a few seconds, pressing into a pencil-thin line. “What do you know?” Tenebrael asked, voice much harder than it had been.

Rather than verbally respond, Alyssa pulled her phone from her pocket. She snapped a picture of Tenebrael without really thinking about it, nodding her head in satisfaction at seeing the surprised face on her phone. Maybe removing some of the mystique would knock Tenebrael down a few pegs in Irulon’s eyes.

“Wait. I wasn’t ready! You didn’t even get my good side.”

While Tenebrael jumped into a pose with her wings unfurled to their fullest, Alyssa switched to the clearest picture of the red-dressed angel. She held out the phone without a word. Watching Tenebrael shift from a cheesy grin to wide-eyed confusion to a dangerous glower was unpleasant. Alyssa’s stomach was already tied into the tightest knot possible from everything that had happened in the last few minutes, but the way Tenebrael’s white eyes started leaking little white flames from their corners made her shudder.

“When?”

Alyssa licked her dry lips. “Just last night, right up on top of that church’s cross. She cast that spell, destroying one of those rock pillars out in the desert and scaring off a few of my… friends in the process.” Alyssa waved a hand toward the destruction left behind by Annihilator. “And she appeared again just now, disappearing only seconds before you showed up. Someone you know?”

“Archangel Adrael.”

“Archangel?”

“Technically of a lesser rank than Principalities, Archangels have more effective Authority in practice. When things don’t go according to the plan, Archangels are the first sent in to get things back on track. They are supposed to work with the Dominion overseer. That she hasn’t contacted me is… telling.”

Alyssa couldn’t help but scoff. “The fact that she is associating with the Society of Expunge Tenebrael should tell you more than enough.”

Tenebrael didn’t respond. Not right away. Her eyes were still locked onto the phone. Aside from the glowing eyes and the little white flames, it was almost disturbing just how much Irulon looked like Tenebrael when the phone was showing something of interest.

“Indeed,” Tenebrael finally said after a short eternity. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll see to it that you are suitably rewarded.”

“I don’t want—”

“We’ll talk soon. Please don’t try to interact with the Archangel. At least not yet. If anything does happen, you can speak with me immediately using your phone. I’m in the contacts list.” As soon as she finished speaking, Tenebrael disappeared with a subdued flourish of feathers, making Alyssa wonder just how much of the molting was for show.

The angel was gone. Simple as that. Once again, Alyssa found herself standing alone—relatively, as there still were people about. None were looking in her direction. Most were gathered around the pit, looking like they were thinking about finding a way down there. Alyssa didn’t know what they hoped to find, but it wasn’t her problem anymore. The talk with Tenebrael, though it had worried the angel, had done wonders for Alyssa. She felt far calmer, far more steady. Her thoughts weren’t clogged up with worry over what she had done half as much as they had been before.

Realizing the change was jarring enough to make her wonder if Tenebrael had done something. Calmed her. Healed her mind, or something. But that probably wasn’t the case. Unless Tenebrael had been lying about valuing Alyssa’s agency, she wouldn’t have touched her thoughts for fear of ruining her reaper.

Shuddering, Alyssa considered Tenebrael’s parting words. She checked her phone. There. Contacts. Down at the bottom. ❤ Tene ❤. How long had that been there? Alyssa hadn’t so much as opened her contacts list since getting the phone back. Calling people on Earth hadn’t worked when she had first tried it back at her home, she doubted that had changed. But if Tenebrael had been in there since she got her phone back… What an annoying person.

She had half a mind to hand the phone over to Irulon and see if the princess could speak with the angel, but ended up shaking her head. There were more pressing matters to worry about. With Tenebrael’s departure, Alyssa had nothing to do but meet up with Irulon and try to figure out what exactly they were supposed to do now. That giant gouge had not been a part of any plan.

After casting one last glance about the sky for any sign of the red-dressed angel, Alyssa started toward the church. She did stop to snap one good picture of the gouge. Less because she wanted the memories preserved and more just in case Irulon somehow missed what had happened.

Alyssa moved with purpose. The church was just around a few buildings—the little town wasn’t large at all, even some of the small villages between Teneville and Lyria had been larger. Now that she was actually walking instead of panicking, she made it to the front entrance in less than a minute. The doors, which had been closed last time she had seen them, were now wide open.

If there had been even the slightest doubt that this town was an outpost for the Society of the Burning Shadow, it was gone now. Six people stood out in front of the doors, three on either side, all wearing familiar hooded cloaks, though in a variety of styles. The four standing in the very front had swords or pikes, mixed between them. The two in the back had decks of cards in their hands. The same loose decks held together by a single metal ring that Alyssa had stolen again and again from defeated Society members. The ones with the physical weapons had lithe cloaks that hugged their bodies. The cloak part didn’t obstruct their legs either, more like hooded jackets, really. Those with spell cards had longer cloaks of a fancier style, similar to what Morgan had been wearing in the palace.

Someone stood between all six guards. An older woman, though not ancient-old. Just older than Alyssa, Irulon, or Oz. Someone around Oxart’s age, mid-late thirties. The only reason her age was notable was that most other people around were younger. Late teens to early twenties. Having seen a lot of the Lyrian military, the majority of people meant to fight in this world tended toward the younger side of things. Decorous, Oxart, and those in other leadership positions were older, but leader was something of an oxymoron with how they stayed far from the front lines.

The same was true on Earth, of course, but she hadn’t actually been fighting too. Her mother had been in the military, so Alyssa had a few stories of overseas conflict. It still hadn’t been her. Everything was far more real here. At least from her perspective.

With a sardonic scoff, Alyssa couldn’t help but wonder, now that she actually had something in common with her mother, if she wouldn’t ever get the chance to talk about it.

Alyssa steered clear of the woman. Something about the way she looked made the hairs on the back of Alyssa’s neck stand on end. It was the way her milky eyes had a slight glow to them. If the glow wasn’t there, Alyssa would have thought her to be blind, but the way she turned her head about clearly indicated vision. More than once, she had slowed the turning of her head right on Alyssa. If she did see or sense anything, she didn’t act on it. With a hand gesture to her guards, they started moving away from the church. Like most of the rest of the town, they were headed toward Alyssa’s little accident.

For half a moment, Alyssa thought to kill the woman. She was clearly in a position of power. Cut off the head of the snake and its body dies, and all that. That woman might even be the Liadri the other two had mentioned. Alyssa could kill her. She had spells and her pistols. Not another Annihilator, but using that again without knowing exactly where her friends were was not an option even if she had three dozen of them. Still, there had to be some magic in those eyes to make them glow. A simple Desecrate Spells followed by a quick pistol shot would work without a doubt. But she would have to drop her own invisibility spell or else get injured herself. And then there would be six angry bodyguards.

Some fire spells might be able to take care of them, those fire axes or simple Fireballs. But then she would have an angry town to deal with.

Best to wait. Irulon might want to simply leave. Plan B had been intended to poke the hive, but Alyssa was pretty sure that she had done much more than poke.

So Alyssa did nothing more than watch her leave. The woman kept glancing about, even over her shoulder, but nothing came of it.

Around the side of the church, it didn’t take long to find the meeting spot Irulon had specified. It had a little seclusion. No one was around—probably because literally the entire town was staring at a hole in the ground—but even if someone had been nearby, the bush gave enough cover to hide between it and the church building.

“Irulon?” Alyssa whispered. No response. After checking again that no one was round, she tried a little louder. “Irulon?”

“Here.”

Alyssa spun on her heel, heart rate ramping up momentarily. It didn’t last long. Shards of glass vanished from existence. Wearing her dragon hide armor, Irulon appeared out of thin air. Her eyes, violet at the moment, flicked about. They mostly looked toward Alyssa, but missed by just a small hair. With a breath, Alyssa willed away her own Empty Mirror. As soon as the thought of ending it crossed her mind, Irulon’s eyes focused.

“Note for the future: Let us have you avoid highly ranked destructive spells unless we want something utterly obliterated. I expected something nonstandard, but this exceeds all my analysis. Even as a Rank Six arcanist, I would be hard pressed to do quite that much without significant preparation beforehand. And not with Annihilator, it would require a specialized wide-area destructive spell.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“No matter. It is advantageous to us for now. The church is void of people for the moment. Kasita messaged me just a moment ago, letting me know that she is using the opportunity to sneak about under the floor, apparently, there are several monsters being held captive.”

How easily she glossed over the giant hole in the ground. Alyssa could only shake her head. “Are we done here? They have no food and no transportation. And are probably scared out of their minds.”

“Kasita intends to look for information on plans and any other similar outposts after investigating the basement. If there are any, we need to disable them as well. Otherwise, I have taken care of the stables and have set up a… surprise for when we leave.”

“I’m not sure I want to know.”

“You’ll find out,” Irulon said with a smile. “With that out of the way, I would like to ask about your use of Annihilator until Kasita arrives.”

Alyssa nodded, though she wasn’t all that excited to talk about it. It would give her a chance to mention Tenebrael and some things that the angel had said. Her fingers traced the edges of her phone through her pocket. And maybe show Irulon exactly what the being she worshiped looks like.


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Vacant Throne — 019.006

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Outpost

Annihilator


Alyssa crept through the town, moving slowly as she eyed her surroundings. No one should be able to see her. She had a shroud of glass shards surrounding her, making anyone who looked in her direction see nothing at all. Empty Mirror. Alyssa had snapped a picture of it the second Irulon had handed it over. It was one of the spells that Alyssa had been wanting a permanent copy of. With it being a lower rank relative to some of the other Fractal spells, it didn’t look overly complex to redraw either. As soon as she had a spare moment, she would be drawing up a dozen of them.

Now was not the time.

So far, she had passed no less than twelve people. None made any indication of noticing her presence, but they were definitely on alert, watching their surroundings almost as much as Alyssa was. Whether their agitated state came from the angel, the destruction of one of the rock pillars around their base, or the fact that three of their scouts hadn’t returned didn’t really matter to Alyssa. The point was that they were wary.

And the more she looked around at the people and buildings, the more her confidence grew that these were not random civilians. This was a military installation. There were no children around, first and foremost. Men and women, yes, but no children. If this were a regular village, Alyssa would have expected at least a handful of children. Secondly, while not everyone wore the garb, about half the people Alyssa had seen wore some form of a hooded cloak. She still wasn’t sure why they wore it. Something religious, presumably. Even just a half hour after nightfall, it was hot. A normal person wouldn’t wear a thick cloak in a desert.

Would they? Movies and other media often portrayed desert dwellers as having concealing clothing, but Alyssa had always figured that those would be light clothes, just enough to keep the sun off the skin. The cloaks the Society of the Burning Shadow wore looked more suited to a colder environment. Not quite icy tundra cold, but something with a far more manageable temperature than a desert.

In any case, Alyssa had far less compunctions about acting against these people than she had when she worried that this was just a poorly thought out settlement. Though, she was glad that her job did not involve the stables. People were one thing, but the poor horses had been dragged into this.

Of course, her job wasn’t exactly the most comforting of tasks either. It was one thing to be attacked and fight back. It was another thing entirely to sneak through their village to poison their food stores. If this were Earth, it would probably be a war crime.

If this were Earth, enslaving a million ants to use as shock troopers would probably be a war crime too. Did that make what she was doing right? No. Not at all. But at the same time, going up to them and asking politely if they would stop wouldn’t work. No matter what she did, it would take drastic measures. Poisoning them was definitely safer for Alyssa than fighting them directly.

Alyssa tossed a glance up to the church and its cross. She had expected the angel to show up when she had first crested the hilltop with Irulon and Kasita, but it hadn’t. So far, the church was silent. She wasn’t sure if she should be more worried about the lack of an angel or relieved that another one wouldn’t start talking to her. For now, she continued forward at her cautious pace, moving aside to ensure that she didn’t accidentally bump into a pair of hooded people walking in the opposite direction.

“The way you tell it, Liadri’s vision sounds most concerning,” one said as they passed, making Alyssa pause.

A vision? Like a prophesy? Or some kind of premonition? That sounded mildly more important than poisoning the food and water supply. Maybe it was just an excuse to procrastinate on potentially murdering a few dozen people, but Alyssa turned and started following the two, keeping a short distance behind them, while remaining close enough that she could hear.

“Yes. We should be on guard. Even more than we are now. The watchmen have seen nothing, but I feel an unnatural chill in the air.”

“There is precaution then there is paranoia. And Liadri’s visions breed paranoia. I wonder how accurate this vision will truly be. Her words have not come to pass as often as they used to, lately. The seventh experiment was supposed to have been a success, but only young Morgan returned. We should have received word about the ninth experiment by now, but our brethren are silent. Dead? Captured as well?”

“Have faith. We are a blessed people. Be wary of a wandering mind—”

“I know the tenets. But do you not worry that Liadri’s mind has wandered? Her visions were once as true as the sun rising every morning. Now, they are errant. Even the words you spoke to me are contradictory. Early on in this vision, she specifically mentioned that we are all united in our goal. Two lines later and, ‘The enemy walks among us. They wear familiar faces and pass unseen beside us, carrying about their subversive tasks.’ So which is it? Do we trust each other or do we have a traitor in our midst?”

Alyssa’s breath hitched. They were talking about her, Kasita, and Irulon. Surely. Those were two separate clauses. Kasita wore a familiar face of one of the watchmen they had taken out near the partially complete wall, attempting to infiltrate the church while armed with a dozen spells of Irulon’s creation in case she wound up discovered. Meanwhile, Alyssa and Irulon were supposed to be taking out their supplies and their stables respectively, both unseen under their shrouds.

Just who was this Liadri? Even vague as it was, that vision was accurate. That this guy interpreted it as referring to a traitor was luck. Someone else might not come to the same conclusion. And how old was that vision? It had to be recent. Alyssa hadn’t even known what she would be doing now just a few hours ago. Could a prophesy predict her movements farther in advance than that? Or was it predicting her at all? Not even Tenebrael’s little book could predict her, so the idea that a mundane human had managed to do what Tenebrael couldn’t was laughable. The vision could have been referring to nothing more than Kasita and Irulon, leaving Alyssa out of it.

Would this Liadri have a vision about the poisoned supplies? Or the dead horses? Both could be a problem, though Irulon didn’t seem to care much that they would be found out. Without supplies or transportation, it didn’t matter if they knew about the food. They would either eat and die or starve and die. Neither pleasant outcomes, but nothing that the people here could change.

Liadri sounded familiar. Alyssa was almost certain that she had heard that name before. There were really only a handful of possibilities. It had either come from one of the Society of the Burning Shadow, likely Morgan given that Morgan was the only one Alyssa had spoken with for any length of time. There was the possibility that Irulon or Tzheitza had mentioned a Liadri, but the more Alyssa thought about it, the more she thought it was Morgan.

It didn’t really matter, except that she couldn’t ask Irulon about it if she hadn’t been the one to tell her. Though she wasn’t sure how much she needed to ask. Just from context, it was clear that Liadri was a sort of seer. An accurate one at that, even if her vague words didn’t make perfect sense when taken at face value.

There was a possibility that this Liadri was the angel from the night before, but Alyssa doubted it. Given both Tenebrael and Iosefael’s surprise with Alyssa being able to see them, it clearly was not a common occurrence. If someone here was talking to an angel, it would be a single person, not many people. Perhaps Liadri was that person, disguising what the angel told her as prophesy.

But what to do about it? The two men were still talking. One berating the other for accusing Liadri of having a wandering mind, whatever that was supposed to mean. Alyssa waited, following them for another minute until they went into one of the smaller buildings around the church. No part of their conversation gave her a clue as to what they would be doing inside, but she didn’t want to risk entering. They took up too much space and closed the door behind them. Even though they couldn’t see her, they would be able to see the door opening and closing.

So Alyssa backed away, ducking between two buildings. Making sure that she was alone in the… it wasn’t really an alley, but it was close enough to one for her purposes. “Message. Irulon. I just overheard two people talking about a seer having a vision, warning her followers against an enemy walking unseen and wearing familiar faces. They seemed to think it referred to a traitor, but I thought you should be aware in any case.”

After sending a nearly identical Message to Kasita to warn the mimic that the people here might be on the lookout for her, Alyssa waited. It was really just more procrastination, using the excuse that Irulon might message her back to avoid heading to the food storage. Procrastination wasn’t like her. Alyssa preferred to do things as soon as possible, especially unpleasant things. Just get them out of the way and leave time to do something more fun.

But this, this was something drastically different from homework or getting her truck serviced. This…

She had killed people. There was no doubt about that. But she had justified every death through necessity or self defense. Could she do the same after indiscriminately poisoning everyone here? Honestly? Probably. This world was messed up. The longer Alyssa spent in it, the more she was confident that it was messing her up as well. It wasn’t that there was some magical corruption affecting her mind. Having to kill so many people would mess anyone up.

Two months ago, before she had even heard of this world… back when she woke up every morning, went to work, went to the gym, did the same things over and over again day in and day out, would she have ever considered poisoning even one known murderer? Probably not. Now here she was, easily able to come up with far more reasons to do it than not.

A flash of anger hit Alyssa, once again hating this stupid world and all its idiotic inhabitants. Setting her face in stone, Alyssa stalked through the streets, retracing the steps she had taken while following after those two men. She had memorized the layout of the town thanks to her pictures. Even if she had gotten lost, the church stood tall, acting as a compass. The buildings around it were tiny. Unless she were standing right up against one, she would be able to see the tall cross from anywhere in the town.

Alyssa glanced up. Still no angel. Just checking.

As she walked, a pressure weighed on Alyssa’s mind. A foreign feeling of unnatural thoughts. At first, she feared that the fairy wasn’t quite as dead as it should be in Musca’s stomach, then she worried that she had wandered too near a fairy that these people had captured. But it was a different sort of pressure. She didn’t feel giddy and happy. Once she started to relax, she heard it. A familiar voice.

~Understood. Beware trying to enter the building, I’ve found protections around the stables and am unsure of their intended effects. Complete your task using Plan B then meet near the church. Around the south side, there is a large desert sagebrush. I will be waiting nearby.~

Irulon. Alyssa sighed, glad it was just a Message spell. The first time she had actually heard it directed at her. Though heard wasn’t the right way to think of it. Like the fairy’s voice, it resounded within her mind. Not air hitting her eardrums, but not her own thoughts either. The voice was distinct and separate, clearly Irulon speaking.

Perhaps that was how Oxart had fallen. Oxart might have been expecting to receive a Message, but let in the fairy instead, giving it a foothold in her mind. That made a certain amount of sense, now having experienced both the Message and fairy control.

But again, Alyssa found herself procrastinating.

The storehouse was right in front of her. A smallish building, cobblestone up to the waist then wood from there up. The roof was a yellowed thatch. It only had one wooden door. There had been a few guards patrolling the borders of the village. Those guards hadn’t been there the night before, so something—the angel destroying a rock formation almost certainly—had spooked them. However, there was no guard here. If Alyssa were in charge here, she would definitely not leave such an important depot undefended. Liadri even said that ‘the enemy’ walks among them. Regardless of if that meant a traitor or an interloper, they had to realize that such an isolated, non-farming community lived and died by their supplies.

A magical defense then? That was probably what Irulon meant by protections. Alyssa hesitated in touching the door. Such a defense was possible. Kasita had mentioned that proper spell tomes were typically protected against being touched by monsters such as her. So it might be possible to key a door to opening only for specific people or to some with a special key. Then again, the Society of the Burning Shadow did not seem all that magically adept. They didn’t have a wide variety of spells. Everyone Alyssa had seen basically used nothing but low level Death spells and a few Fire spells.

Unless the angel had done the defenses.

With a little trepidation, Alyssa reached for the doorknob, just touching it.

Nothing happened.

Alyssa closed her hand around the handle with more confidence. Still nothing happened, so she gave it a little tug.

The door didn’t budge. Blinking in surprise, Alyssa quickly found the problem. A little keyhole just above the handle. A deadbolt, or whatever the local equivalent was. How foolish, she thought with a shake of her head. All that overthinking with magic, but it had just been locked. A regular, mundane lock.

Someone somewhere had to have a key. Probably many someones. Food and water was something needed regularly. High ranking people and whoever prepared the food were the most likely people to have keys, but she didn’t have a clue where to start looking. Kasita might be able to find one. However, Irulon had offered an alternative if Alyssa was unable to get into the building.

“Message. Irulon. Locked door on the storage house. Proceeding to Plan B in five minutes, unless you have objections.” Irulon had already said to go ahead with Plan B in her Message, so there really was no excuse for the delay. Maybe it was just another method of procrastination.

While waiting for a reply, Alyssa pulled out a spell card. A triangle with an eye in the center, similar to the eye of providence, set inside a circle with eight arrows pointing away from it. Each arrow pointed to a word directly underneath a symbol. The words were the angelic script, but the symbols were clear to see. A sun, a tree, a skull, flames, an ankh, a crescent moon, a pentagram, and some wavy circles that might have been representations of the wind or waves. There was more to it than that—it wasn’t as complex as Fractal spells, but still quite impressive.

The symbols raised a lot of questions. A skull obviously implied death, flames for fire, a tree for life—or maybe that was the ankh. But one spell incorporated elements of the various magical specializations. She knew the name of the spell and that it supposedly fit under the Fire branch of magic, but if it was only fire, why did it need a skull and an ankh?

Learning magic properly seemed like a daunting task anytime she looked at a higher ranked spell. And to think that Irulon could understand even small aspects of the angel’s spell. Maybe Alyssa needed to go find a dragon to shove inside her head for extra mental capacity, or whatever it was giving Irulon. Alyssa considered herself an intelligent woman, but magic was just a little too esoteric for her.

A pressure in her mind indicated a new Message. This time, she didn’t resist at all, listening to Irulon’s words. ~Acceptable. Wait for my signal. You’ll know it when you see it. Prepare a second Empty Mirror, just in case the spell fails poorly when you cast.~

Alyssa didn’t like the sound of that. She would have to ensure that no one was around her, just in case she became visible for a moment before she could recast Empty Mirror.

Waiting for Irulon’s signal, Alyssa couldn’t help but be glad that she didn’t have to poison the food. The food would still be destroyed and people would still die, but poison… She shook her head. Thinking about it too much wasn’t going to help matters.

A rumble ran through the ground several minutes after the message. Dust shook free from the thatch roof. Smoke started rising over the top of the nearby buildings in a thick black plume. It came from the direction of the stables. If that wasn’t Irulon’s sign, Alyssa didn’t know what would be it. The princess must have had a little trouble cursing the horses to kill their next rider. It was a shame that they had to die like that, but Alyssa had to focus.

She gripped the spell in her hand, aiming it at the door with a slight downward angle to destroy the supports of the building. After the building itself was a pile of rubble, several fire spells should incinerate anything inside. For whatever reason, she didn’t need to speak a word when casting magic. Still, the spell’s name came almost unbidden to Alyssa’s mind.

Annihilator.

The sudden light forced Alyssa to close her eyes and move an arm in front of her face. Even with her eyes closed, it felt like she was staring at a bright light. She could feel the heat far worse than when Lumen had cast it. Her face, even with an arm in the way, felt like she had been staring at the sun for hours upon hours. Alyssa didn’t sunburn easily, but a vacation to the California beaches in the dead of summer without any sunscreen had taught her what bad sunburns felt like.

This was worse.

Even through her dragon hide armor, she could feel the burning. It wasn’t burning her, but it was burning.

Alyssa lost all track of time. The spell seemed like it was lasting far longer than when Lumen had cast it, but telling with any certainty was impossible. All she could do was wait until the heat died down.

Which it slowly did. There still was some heat, but it was residual. Without even opening her eyes, Alyssa recast Empty Mirror. If Annihilator had been as bright as it had been when Lumen had cast it, everyone in this village would be rushing in her direction. As soon as she was sure that she was safe, she opened her eyes just a sliver.

Bewildered, her eyes widened, looking around.

There was nothing. Nothing at all.

The entire cobblestone and wood building was gone completely. As was the building behind it and the building behind that. There were no other buildings further back, thankfully, but part of the hill surrounding the little village was no more. It had a gouge carved through it. Looking down, Alyssa stumbled back, feeling that queasy sensation she got from heights well up again.

The gouge ran deep. That was an understatement. A diving pool was deep. The narrow swathe Annihilator had carved into the land might as well be a cross section of the Grand Canyon. The walls were glowing molten red all the way down.

On her hands and knees, Alyssa crawled away from the pit, not trusting her legs to keep her upright at the moment. A single gust of wind could send her careening to her death.

People were gathering, shouting and making noise. Alyssa paid no attention to them. The shifting shards of Empty Mirror surrounded her. They wouldn’t see. She just needed to get away. To get somewhere safe, where she could catch her breath. She had been expecting rubble, not to reshape the landscape to have an above-ground Mariana Trench.

What if there was a landslide to fill in the fresh hole? She could get caught in it. Or what if there had been a fault line? What if, what if, what if…

She pressed her back against a building, just glad that she hadn’t been aiming toward the stables or to the church. If she had accidentally killed Irulon or Kasita… Alyssa shuddered, wondering how many people had just had their existence wiped out. Though perhaps she had done them a favor, saving them from slow deaths by poison or starvation. She supposed that she could ask as soon as Tenebrael popped into being. Already, there were feathers floating through the air.

Except… not black feathers. Spotless white feathers flew through the air in a furious whirlwind. In the center of them all, an angel in a red dress hovered above the new canyon. She stared down, searching the ground, or what was left of the ground.

Alyssa tried to edge away behind the building. It probably wouldn’t help much against such a being, but the angel gave her as bad a feeling as being near the edge of that pit.

The second she moved a finger, burning red eyes locked on to her.


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