Vacant Throne — 011.006

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Freedom of Choice

Infinite Regress


Alyssa stumbled back, slamming into the wall behind her. Her breaths came hard and fast, filling her lungs with air her body didn’t need. Closing her eyes, she tried to get herself under control.

She was still alive.

Her stomach ached, as did her arm. But it was a phantom sort of ache. No dagger stuck out of her arm. Same with her belly. She even pulled up her shirt to check. There was no hole, no blood, no knife. Just the lightly ridged skin of her abs. She could still feel that cold inside her. Not to the same degree, and it was fading fast, but the sensation lingered in her thoughts.

Heart still hammering in her chest, she shuddered.

The spell had worked as advertised.

Alyssa was back in the hall, staring at two clones of herself with the transparent shards of Empty Mirror lazily drifting around her. The door was shut. No one was chasing after her, at least as far as she could tell.

In fact, she had never opened the door. She hadn’t approached it. Because she hadn’t opened the door, she hadn’t alerted the Taker. Because she hadn’t alerted the Taker, he had never drawn his weapons. Because he hadn’t drawn them, he hadn’t thrown them and Alyssa had never been skewered. Infinite Regress.

Well, not infinite as far as Alyssa understood the term. It had an end right where her clones were standing. But she wasn’t in charge of naming spells.

Alyssa remained right where she had landed against the wall. That had been too close. She had never been stabbed before and really wasn’t looking forward to putting herself in that situation again. It had almost killed her! She could almost hear the light wafts of Tenebrael’s wings as they moved about in the air. Her imagination, surely. Looking around, there was no sign of the black-hearted angel. Just an empty hall, a closed door, and two frozen clones of Alyssa.

Of course, that should be expected. Irulon’s instructions had specifically noted that the spell, Infinite Regress, did not actually do anything. It wasn’t time travel. It was more like she had put on virtual reality goggles and was acting out the future. That didn’t give nearly as much relief as it should. She had seen The Matrix. If she died in this mirror-world, would she die in real life? The instructions hadn’t said.

It wasn’t something she planned on testing anytime soon.

Alyssa shoved off the wall, gritting her teeth and focusing. She couldn’t sit around. As much as she wanted to just curl up in her bed and never deal with this world again… that just wasn’t her. The Taker wouldn’t leave her alone. Even if she ran away now, she wouldn’t be safe unless she ran all the way back to her home in Teneville. Maybe not even then, not if the Taker wanted to keep his reputation. Besides that, she couldn’t just leave Kasita in his claws. He would find out what she was sooner rather than later. If the mimic had already made her escape, there might not be anything to worry about. But she hadn’t. The Taker would kill her.

There wasn’t a doubt in Alyssa’s mind that he was capable of killing the mimic. Even Tzheitza could likely kill Kasita if she actually got serious about it.

Taking a breath, Alyssa pushed the previous events out of her mind. This spell only gave her three chances to perfect her plan and one was already down the drain.

Alyssa pushed open the door just as she had last time. Rather than stand in the middle of the opening like some kind of idiot, she moved her back right up to the frame.

Just in time for a black blade to fly past. It landed with a clatter somewhere down the hall, but Alyssa only had eyes for the Taker.

“Well, well. Bringing a friend? Looks like you aren’t the fool I took you for.” The Taker stepped away from Kasita’s cell, keeping his distance. He didn’t draw any spare knives this time, choosing instead to unsheathe his sword. It was a simple silver blade with no excess adornments. Given that his daggers did something to freeze her body, it was probably anything but simple. “Is that you under that shroud, Tzheitza? No. She’s far too aggressive for the cloak and dagger routine.”

Alyssa slipped into the room, moving away from the door while watching his eyes. They swept right over her as he scanned his surroundings, failing to see through the invisibility spell.

She had done it. She was in the room, he didn’t know where, and she didn’t even have a dagger sticking out of her chest. Gripping her shotgun tight, she moved just a few steps closer, ensuring that there wouldn’t be any missing. Unless his sword could stretch ten feet, she was well out of range of that as well.

“Drop the shroud, interloper.” The Taker put his back up against the stone column between Kasita’s cell and the next one over. He continued looking back and forth, sweeping his head around the room. “You have until the count of five. One.”

Alyssa hesitated. Last time, he had thrown a dagger that almost certainly would have killed her. She wasn’t sure if he had seen through the Empty Mirror spell at the end or if he was just that good at knowing where she would be. Either way, she was slightly curious about what it would be this time. A bluff? Or something worse than an icy dagger.

“Two.”

Hearing that word again, she grit her teeth. He wasn’t going to go at five. He would go at three like last time. Alyssa put the shotgun to her shoulder. Finding out what he had planned, coming as close to death as she already had, none of it mattered if he was dead.

“Thre—”

A sharp crack of her shotgun echoed off the stone walls of the prison.

Hot fire tore through her. She felt a hundred stings across her front, from her neck down to her thighs. Little burning rivets in her skin. The shotgun slipped from her grip. Her fingers simply lacked the strength to hold it. Looking down, blood leaked from holes in her shirt.

“Ah yes, Cid and Bacco were kind enough to inform me about those weapons. After inspecting the bodies left behind, I determined that a simple Projectile Reflection spell would suffice for defense. It’s always such a rush of satisfaction knowing that one’s preparations worked perfectly.”

Alyssa staggered, letting out a grunt as a narrow sword punctured straight through her stomach. She hadn’t seen him cross the distance, but there he stood just a step in front of her.

Re—

It took a force of will to stop herself from thinking the command word. Alyssa grit her teeth through the pain, blinking back tears. She only had one more chance to come up with a serviceable plan. This attempt had to go further. Even if it only gave her a little more information.

Alyssa clenched her fingers around her pistol, putting all her strength into pulling it up. “Reflect this!” she shouted in an attempt to distract herself from the pain of thrusting herself even further onto the blade until she was close enough to put the gun to his head.

The Taker’s heavy boot connected square with her chest. Alyssa spat up blood as he flung her back, slamming her into the wall.

Kasita shouted something, but Alyssa couldn’t understand the words. Her eyes were locked on the floor.

The contents of her stomach spilled out, landing on the floor with a loud slop. But they hadn’t come from her mouth. Her whole side was torn open.

It hurt.

Her vision blanked out, tunneling from the red mess on the floor to darkness. Death? Is this dying?

No. It wasn’t real. She held on to that thought, remembering the word.

Recede.

The world around her vanished without fanfare and Alyssa found herself staring at herself. Her hands gripped her stomach as she bit down on her cheek to stop the scream from escaping her lips. That maniac had disemboweled her! Her intestines had been lying on the ground next to her! Alyssa crushed her stomach in a hug with her arms, just trying to get the sensation out of her head.

She could still feel it. That sudden emptiness as her insides slipped out. A knife or sword stabbing through her was something she could understand—while far deeper at his hand, she had accidentally cut herself on occasion. But having her intestines fall out… she couldn’t even think of anything similar.

Frankly, she didn’t want to think much on it. Alyssa focused on her body as it was, whole and properly put together. It hadn’t been real.

To get her mind off the topic of herself, Alyssa forced her thoughts onto the situation as a whole. Shooting him would not work. Not from afar at least. She had barely understood what had been happening at the time, but between his words and her pockmarked body before being stabbed, it wasn’t difficult to put two and two together. Some spell was protecting him from projectiles, which guns most certainly were. It had probably been designed for arrows, but clearly worked well on more modern tools as well. There was a chance that he would be vulnerable up close. He had kicked her away rather than weather the shot when she had put the pistol to his head. That would require getting close to that sword however.

It was also possible that his spell had failed after deflecting her shotgun and that was why he had knocked her away. If she could shoot him at an angle that didn’t reflect the shot back at her… but that relied on both the assumption that the spell failed being true as well as the notion that magic had to make sense. The spell could literally reflect everything back at its source no matter how tricky she tried to be with the shot.

No. Too many unknowns with that plan. Maybe she could have tested it if she had more clones in Infinite Regress.

But she didn’t. She didn’t even have another copy of the spell. And not for lack of trying. The patterns for Fractal spells were nightmarish to copy. They had so many details to them. Her attempts at Infinite Regress had all wound up crunched up and tossed to the side. Irulon had made it look so easy. It hadn’t even taken the princess two tries.

This was her last chance to find something that worked to either incapacitate or kill the Taker. As soon as she returned again, she would be back in her ‘original’ body.

Alyssa pulled out all the spell cards she had. Her hands shook as she held the cards. Just a tremble that took focus and effort to clamp down on. She clenched her teeth, hoping that the shake wasn’t a long-term consequence of nearly getting killed in two discarded futures. Her breath had a slight ragged timber to it as well, she had noticed.

But it had to all be psychological. The Infinite Regress spell didn’t alter reality. Mind over matter. Closing her eyes, Alyssa cleared her mind and focused on the cards in her hand, using them as a distraction.

The final of Irulon’s gifts as well as Bercilak’s deck stared up at her. The latter’s spells weren’t all that highly ranked. From it, Alyssa got the impression that neither Bercilak nor his minions had been counted among top tier casters. That didn’t mean that they were useless. Probably. Projectiles were right out, of which there were a few—one that threw molten stones and another that conjured some sort of ghostly axe that flung toward a target. Did fireballs count as projectiles? They were just balls of plasma. For that matter, Spectral Axe wasn’t a solid either, as far as she understood it. It was probably best to discard them right out. Even Spectral Chains might trigger the Taker’s projectile reflection to stop said chains from wrapping around his body.

Many more were mere utility spells. Lots of Rank Zero through Two spells that seemed suited for someone traveling. Flames, lights, and one that seemingly warded off insects. After sorting through the deck, Alyssa pulled out only three that she thought might be useful.

Immolating Gloves, a fire-based spell that conjured flames around a target’s hands—which might be useful to get him to drop his sword—Desecrate Spells, a spell that corrupted other spells which she thought could have use against the Taker’s reflection, and Conjure Flames, a spell that supposedly caused burning on whatever the weapon it was applied upon hit. After thinking about it a bit more, she slid Conjure Flames into the discard pile. While she had a military combat knife, the Taker would surely have far more martial capability than she would, even if she managed to get close to him while completely invisible. Using it on her guns might work, but it might also cause her ammo to explode. That combined with the projectile reflector ruined its usefulness.

Lastly, she set Irulon’s card down and stared at it.

It had a simple design compared to the Fractal spells and other Rank Four spells. Five distinct lines merged together at one end, at the center of a circle. None of the lines were straight. They had bends in them, making it look almost like a clawed hand with a bit of imagination.

Rigor Mortis.

Another death spell. One that she hadn’t been sure that she wanted to use. It sounded nasty. An exceedingly unpleasant way to… not even die. The spell wouldn’t actually kill its target. They might die from the effects, but that wasn’t the spell’s defined purpose. Just reading over the description again made Alyssa shudder.

But, after having had the distinct displeasure of nearly dying to the Taker twice, her empathy was rapidly dwindling. It was one thing to shoot someone. Another thing entirely to effectively torture them before walking up and shooting them. Or… would she be able to shoot him? Even if he were incapacitated, shooting him while his projectile shield was up would just hit her instead.

Glancing down, Alyssa unsheathed her knife. It had one straight edge that angled off toward the tip. The backside was serrated. Cutting the Taker’s throat would undoubtedly kill him. And it wasn’t a projectile. But… Alyssa shuddered again. Would she actually be able to go through with it? If Rigor Mortis gave her the opportunity, could she slice someone’s throat while they were utterly helpless to fight back? She honestly wasn’t sure. Even shooting him… I’m not a killer. Yes, she had killed people. But it was one thing to be acting in self defense in a high-stress situation. Not that this is a low-stress situation, she thought, rubbing at her stomach again. But it was different when someone was down and out. Maybe, after using Rigor Mortis, the Spectral Chains spell…

No. The Taker was too dangerous. He had managed to kill her while she was invisible twice now. If he got even a moment of opportunity, she could easily die for real. Hardening her resolve, Alyssa sheathed the knife. The Taker wouldn’t leave this room alive. The best way to follow through with a decision was to make it immediately. Whether it be stabbing him or shooting him, she had to take action.

Alyssa pocketed the spells she wouldn’t be using, keeping handy Rigor Mortis, Immolating Gloves, and Desecrate Spells. The latter of which she was most excited over as it would allow her to use her guns. A quick clean kill via bullet to the head was more than the Taker deserved, but she would offer it if possible.

Plan in mind, she took a deep breath. Her hands weren’t shaking anymore. All the lingering pain from being stabbed and disemboweled had dampened. Although her stomach lurched as she reached for the ring handle, she fought down the queasy sensation. She had already run through all the reasons she had to take out the Taker now. Several times over, in fact. If she didn’t, she might as well never leave Tzheitza’s potion shop again for fear that he would pop up in the streets.

Throwing open the door, Alyssa stepped to the side. The dagger flew past a second later, just as expected. There wouldn’t be a second dagger, so she moved inside with haste.

“Well, well. Bring—”

The Taker started talking. Alyssa ignored it. She had heard it before. She had a precious few seconds before he started counting, and from there only up to the count of three before he would do something. Because she had attacked early last time around, she hadn’t a clue what, so her advantage only extended to that point. She had to act before then.

While the Taker backed away from Kasita’s cell, Alyssa pulled out the Desecrate Spells card. If she used either of the others first, there was a chance they would be destroyed along with his projectile defense. Like every other spell she had cast, she focused on the effect. This time, she kept her eyes open—she couldn’t afford to close her eyes in concentration.

Destroy magic!

“One.”

Alyssa blinked. The spell card was still in her hand, uncast. What had gone wrong? Irulon’s instructions specifically mentioned that spells could be cast within Infinite Regress, so that wasn’t the problem. The only other times she had failed to cast… had been when she hadn’t understood the intended outcome of the spells.

“Two.”

Desecrate Spells. What would the effect actually be? Obviously no spell should work after casting it. But it wasn’t called Cancel Magic. Desecrate held more violent meaning. Adding to that the fact that it was a Death spell, it had to do more than simply nullify magic. Instead of the invisible bubble protecting the Taker simply vanishing, Alyssa pictured it turning on him, harming him.

“Thr—”

The card vanished.

At first, nothing seemed to happen. The Taker stopped counting to look around the room, so he must have noticed something. Maybe the lights in the room had darkened slightly. Maybe that was just her imagination.

The jar above the door cracked audibly. Alyssa looked up just in time to watch the glass explode outward. Hot pins of glass pierced her arms as she moved them to protect her face. A searing rake of claws ran down her back, making her cry out.

“Desecration?” the Taker said as a second jar exploded, sounding far more amused than worried. “While under the effects of a shroud?”

Alyssa shouted again as bloody red streaks carved themselves into her forearm.

Another jar of light shattered, raining the glass down on the floor and darkening the room.

“More than just an illusory shroud. You have a lot of high rank magic on yourself, don’t you? Foolish, foolish. I believe Cid and Bacco spoke far too highly of your abilities.”

“What did you do, Alyssa?” Kasita shouted out just as the jar of light outside her cell bulged up and burst. “You—” A scream cut off her words. The form of Alyssa warped, flickering to nonsensical abominations of flesh before her entire being winked out of existence.

“Kas—” Invisible claws flayed a chunk of skin off Alyssa’s stomach. Just a flesh wound, but she still screamed.

The glass jar nearest the Taker went the way of the rest. Finally, he shouted out in pain. A red streak tore from his face, carving a line starting at the corner of his eye and disappearing beneath the collar of his coat. “I have to say—Ah!” He winced back. Alyssa couldn’t see any wound on him, but he jerked his back with a grunt. “Your plan might have been more effec—” A loud hurk cut him off, but either he was good at not showing pain or his wounds weren’t half as severe as Alyssa’s. “Effective if you had dropped your shroud as I had ordered.”

Alyssa let out a loud cry as something tore through her leg. The Taker’s head snapped toward her, eyes widening. He pulled a dagger from his coat.

Before he could throw it, his hand turned bloody red. The blade fell point first from his limp fingertips, turning the ground to ice where it landed. Undeterred, he pulled out a second with his other hand.

Another of the lights went dark with a bang. Only a few remained. Those that had yet to break barely lit up enough to see to the other side.

This had not gone according to plan. Desecrate Spells affected everything. Herself included. Kasita…

And the Taker had another dagger in his hands.

“R-Recede!” Alyssa shouted out loud before he could throw it.

The world lurched. Shuddered. Alyssa, barely maintaining her stability as it was, fell to her knees as the dagger shaved and froze the ends of a few hairs. Her spell destroyed the last lights in the room, thrusting her into pitch black.

She was still in the prison room, not back in the hall as her clone! A cold sweat beaded up everywhere, stinging as it made its way into her wounds. It had failed. She was going to die here.

The pain vanished completely just as Alyssa’s sharp breathing passed into hyperventilation. She was still on her knees, still inside the prison room. But instead of looking at a floor too dark to see, it was brightly lit. Her sleeve, where there should have been holes from shattered glass and blood from the carving rakes of the desecration spell, was whole once again.

Glancing up, she nearly threw up. The Taker stood next to Kasita’s cell, standing right where she had seen him stand three times so far. But both of them were staring at her, clearly able to see her.

“Well,” the Taker started, just as he had every time she had opened the door.

He didn’t get to finish.

Every jar of light in the room exploded.


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Vacant Throne — 011.005

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Freedom of Choice

Empty Mirror


“You stupid bitch! Can’t threaten to kill me now, can you?” Cid shouted at the hole in the tunnel floor. His eyes widened momentarily as he reached up to his throat, but the black smoke from the Contract spell was already disappearing, leaving him with a full grin on his face. “Hope you enjoy it down there as much as I did. Say hello to Bacco for me.”

Alyssa watched in silence from her shroud of fractal illusions as he slid the light holder back into the wall. The trapdoor snapped shut, becoming nearly impossible to tell apart from the surrounding floor. If she hadn’t known it was there, she wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Elven engineering? She hadn’t known that elves were engineers. Craftsmen, yes. Engineers? Maybe she could start an industrial revolution, she just needed to go visit the elves.

Later. For now, she needed to get Kasita out of whatever dungeon she had fallen into. Alyssa wasn’t too worried about the mimic. Unless that trapdoor dropped her into a furnace, she should be fine. Tzheitza had stabbed her enough over the past week that Alyssa had a hard time being worried. Even the Taker torturing her wouldn’t cause much harm unless he realized that she was a mimic and changed his tactics to compensate. And Kasita had assured her that she would be fine. In fact, she might have already escaped. Alyssa pictured some kind of barred cell, which she would easily slip through just by changing to something small.

Now, what was her plan? Tzheitza and Oz wouldn’t have been able to follow, so maybe return and open the doors for them? Cid might get away if he continued on down the tunnel. Following him would be fine, but if he started walking back to the secret entrance, she would have to keep ahead of him. There simply wasn’t space in the narrow tunnel to slip past someone.

Not without potentially brushing up against him.

“Cid.”

Alyssa felt her blood curdle as a new voice broke the silence. A man emerged from the shadows behind Cid. A shorter man, though not significantly so. He still managed to cut an imposing presence with his dark leather outfit. It almost looked like a trench coat with how long it was, though it clearly had been tailored for his narrow frame. A long sword hung from one hip and a shorter dagger on his opposite. No tome of spells like Irulon had, though he could have spells hidden inside his coat. Tzheitza had said that he was an arcanist, though he had only been around a Rank Three caster back when he worked with the Knights Solaris.

At hearing the slightly nasally voice, Cid jumped and spun around, losing all the haughty confidence from when he dropped Kasita down the hole. “T-Taker. I-I-I thought you were waiting down below.”

“You cut your deadline close. I was heading out to find you. My appreciation for saving me the trouble.” The Taker took a step forward, sending Cid a step back.

“I did everything you asked for. The girl is down in the dungeons. I-I couldn’t get her weapon away from her. Or her spells.”

“So not everything.”

The Taker took another two steps forward. Cid staggered back, tripping over his own shoes and landing on the ground. He was right over the trapdoor, though with how much his hands were shaking, he probably was too focused on the Taker to realize, though the Taker was still a good distance away from the disguised lever. “Please, I did the best I could.”

“I suppose expecting anything more from you would leave me disappointed,” the Taker said, clasping his hands behind his back. “Would that I had more time, I could teach you, instill upon you my standards. Unfortunately, they want this taken care of as soon as possible. You’re free to go.”

Cid didn’t move. Even as the Taker walked over to one of the lights—not the same one that had activated the trapdoor—he stayed on the floor, just blinking his eyes. Ever so slowly, a smile parted his lips. “Really?”

“If you wish to stay…”

“No!” Cid shouted. The Taker paused, turning to him with a raised eyebrow. “I-I mean, no thank you, uh, boss.”

The Taker gave a curt nod of his head, pulling the light as he did so. Cid remained where he was, no hole opened up beneath him. No other traps did anything to him. Instead, a section of the wall slid away, falling into the ground to reveal yet another staircase.

Alyssa started eying the nearest light holder to her. Did all of them open up something? Maybe a few even activated traps. Not just the trapdoor, but spike traps or falling ceilings. She slid away, moving to the opposite side of the tunnel to keep from accidentally triggering anything.

“Her weapon,” Cid blurted out before the Taker could descend. “She has more than just the long one. There is one under her arm and one at her hip. They don’t look anything like the long one, but they are definitely the same kind of weapons… I haven’t actually seen her use them, but she pulled one out and pointed it at me just like the big one.”

The Taker stilled for one moment before bursting out in a tittering sort of laughter. “Well done, Cid. Well done. I didn’t think you had it in you to be useful. Any other interesting tidbits I should be aware of?”

“Uhh… She uses regular magic as well? I didn’t see her spells, but she used one on me.” Cid’s hand moved up to rub at his neck again as if he were confirming that the smoke noose had indeed vanished. “Contract, I believe its name was.”

“Death magic, Rank Four. Similar spells won’t be an issue.”

“And that potion maker. I haven’t seen her in a while, but she was probably following us until we reached the house.”

“Ah yes, Tzheitza. I’ve already sent my latest disappointment to deal with my dear old comrade. Unless she has lost her touch since her retirement, the assassin will fail—hence disappointment—but it should have proved a distraction for her. Best not to use that exit, just in case. In fact, remain in the Waterhole until further notice.”

Alyssa’s stomach dropped out from under her. She clutched her shotgun to her chest. An assassin? Tzheitza was a former mercenary who could almost certainly take care of herself. Oz was with her as well. They would be fine. They should be fine. But Alyssa still clenched her teeth together, angry at… a lot of things. Herself, for dragging them into this. Cid and Bacco for dragging her into this. The stupid gang. This Taker.

Tenebrael. Couldn’t forget about that stupid angel.

She had a Message spell. She could warn them. From the way the Taker was talking, it was already too late. Shouting a warning in their ears could be just the thing that distracted them into making a mistake. The Taker didn’t seem to think that the assassin he had sent was up to snuff either. Besides, she couldn’t do it now anyway. Not with these two so close to her. The Empty Mirror spell kept her safe from being spotted and heard, but it wasn’t perfect. If she intentionally reached out of the veil of shards, say to brush at Kasita’s elbow, the spell would allow it. Speaking with the intention of sending her voice out of the bubble might just reveal herself.

No. She would have to trust that they could take care of themselves. Hopefully the assassin wouldn’t be expecting Oz.

As she thought, Cid had started to blubber to himself. “But-But I’m free to go. You said it yourself!”

“I changed my mind. Don’t leave the Waterhole, Cid. Your life is worthless enough as it is; I don’t want to waste my time hunting you down. But I’ll have to. You’ll be caught by Tzheitza and she will make you tell her everything. I know you. You’re a squealer.” The Taker’s hand, gloved with black leather that matched his trench coat, dropped down to his dagger. “Or I could save myself the trouble.”

“W-Waterhole? I love that place!”

“That’s what I thought. We’ll talk later, Cid.” Turning back to the stairs, the Taker left the passage. After a moment, the wall rose up out of the floor, sealing his path from the rest.

Cid flopped over on the ground, no longer able to prop himself up on his hands. His breaths were rapid and heavy, as if he had just run his first mile in over a year. For a few minutes, he didn’t move, content with his rest.

Neither did Alyssa. She stayed where she was. A part of her wanted to run back, find Tzheitza and Oz, and help them with their assassin. But she would most likely just be in the way. Tzheitza might be more than a match for the Taker’s latest disappointment, but Alyssa doubted that she would be. Aside from that, she couldn’t just leave Kasita down in the cells. While she might have escaped already, she could still be pretending to be Alyssa. They hadn’t planned for this exact situation. They had expected an ambush of sorts. If she was still disguised and the Taker found out that she was a mimic, she could find herself in serious trouble.

Besides all that, if the Taker found himself looking into an empty cell that was supposed to be holding Alyssa, he would probably march right back up here, kill Cid, and then go hunting for her. She could care less about what happened to Cid, but not much. Not after this, admittedly expected, betrayal. But with the Taker, she had the initiative at the moment. Losing that could cost not only her, but Tzheitza, Oz, and even Kasita. She needed to act now. Or, as soon as Cid got out of the way. Climbing over him while he was lying in the middle of the floor risked too much. All she needed to do was walk down the stairs while invisible and shoot the Taker in the back of the head.

A man like that, she was willing to accept his death on her conscience.

Cid didn’t stay on the floor for long. He pulled himself to his feet. Given how much his legs were shaking, it was a surprise he managed to stand at all. Yet he did. He even managed to take a few steps, moving forward until he paused right where the Taker had disappeared down the side passage. “I hope you two kill each other,” he spat out. As if spooked by his own shadow, he took off running away from Alyssa, leaving her alone in the tunnel.

Waiting just long enough to ensure that he wouldn’t be returning soon, Alyssa walked up to the same light holder that the Taker had used.

It was brass like the others, scuffed up and ugly. Forged in a hurry, probably. Like all the others, it looked like it had been hammered into the wall haphazardly. The lights weren’t evenly spaced. Some where higher up on the walls than others. A few didn’t even have jars of light sitting on top of them. One holder had broken glass littering the floor around it. If someone like the city guard found their way down here, they would pass by the holders not knowing that at least a few of them were hidden levers. Some were probably designed to kill or capture the puller, just in case a guard or escaping prisoner got the bright idea to test it out. At least, that was how she would have done it if she were the leader of an evil crime syndicate.

Of course, if she were in charge, she would have some kind of key system so that not just anyone could open the top secret doors to her underground dungeon.

Which is exactly what Alyssa did. Pulling the lever caused a ripple in the slowly moving shards of her invisibility spell. As soon as she let go, the ripple returned to normal. At first, she had been worried about reaching through the veil of the spell. It looked just like shards of glass. Just because it didn’t whip about like a tornado as the Fractal Mirror spell did didn’t mean that it wouldn’t tear off her arm if she put it through.

But it didn’t. It did feel strange. Like dipping her arm into a cooler filled with water and ice, minus the cold. When she put her arm through, most of it moved out of the way easily, but some of the shards felt hard against her skin. Strange, but no harm seemed to come of it, so she wasn’t going to worry over it too much.

The hallway opened up just as it had when the Taker pulled the lever, revealing another set of stairs. The ceiling started low, no higher than the already cramped main passageway, but it stayed roughly the same height. Both the walls and stairs were much smoother, having been made of actual bricks rather than just carved from the surrounding earth. The actual size was still rather narrow, but the extra headroom alone reduced the claustrophobia tenfold.

Finding no guards, she started down the steps. It was a bit odd that this criminal organization didn’t have any guards outside their secret passages, but maybe it made sense. A fully armed man sitting outside or even inside a house all day would be far more suspicious than a boarded up and abandoned old house. Their best security was their secrecy.

As with the stairs inside the house, a far more obvious lever at the bottom closed up the opening. From there, the path split. A hallway crossed from the left to the right with identical doors on either end. There weren’t any signs indicating what was behind those doors.

Alyssa picked the right path. She had two primary reasons. The first was that the trapdoor Kasita had fallen through was in this direction. The second was the pained moaning echoing off the walls. It wasn’t Kasita. The groaning was far more masculine than Kasita’s voice.

Or… her normal voice. If she wanted to, she could probably disguise herself as Cid—or anyone else for that matter—and sound just like him. This voice didn’t sound like Cid though. It was a bit too deep for him. It did, however, sound familiar.

Bacco.

Alyssa hesitated outside the door. If she was right, the other side would be some kind of prison. Maybe it wouldn’t warrant such a fancy word, but there would be holding cells and captives. And, most likely, the Taker. Opening the door, even with her invisibility, would surely attract his attention. If he was even half the man the others talked him up to be, he would know without a doubt that someone invisible had entered the room.

So rather than barge in like some kind of fool, Alyssa pulled a card from her pocket. Another of the spells Irulon had made for her. Another Fractal spell. Infinite Regress. Rank Five.

In all honesty, she didn’t want to use it. It sounded too similar to Fractal Mirror. Perhaps even stranger despite being a lower rank. But she couldn’t just walk in without starting a fight. As long as she understood the spell’s effects, Infinite Regress should allow her to safely scout out the interior if not deal with the Taker.

Closing her eyes, Alyssa cast the spell. When she opened them, she found the door gone. The hallway extended further out, continuing onward until there was a door far far off in the distance. Just in front of her, there was a slight glistening field blocking off most of the hallway. Most. Leaning around it, the door was right where it had been before. The hallway hadn’t extended at all. The spell put a mirror in the way. Had she not been invisible, she probably would have seen herself.

With a deep breath, she walked into the mirror.

The world dimmed, becoming saturated like an old film. Not quite black and white, but much of the color bled out of her surroundings. The door reappeared in front of her and, looking back, she saw the hallway just as it had been before she stepped into the mirror. So far, everything seemed to be working.

Image, she thought. Stepping to the side, she found a copy of herself frozen in the air where she stood, posed exactly how she had been when she thought. Thinking it again created a second copy of herself, this time standing to the side and staring at the first. Moving around, she could pass through herself without any resistance, as if they weren’t actually there. It almost made her nauseous, reaching out to touch her own face only for her hand to pass right through her cheek. She had already seen Kasita take on her form more than once and that was bad enough. At least Kasita had substance. Looking at her clones, they were just empty. Vacant in being and utterly still.

Alyssa pulled herself together with a shake of her head. She had to focus. According to the spell’s description, it would only create three copies. Three again. But no time to muse over that magic number at the moment. She had already wasted at least thirty seconds. The card hadn’t mentioned a time limit and most spells she had used didn’t wear off until she slept, but that was no reason to assume the same would hold true in every case.

Taking a step to the side, she thought it again. Image. Simple as that. As soon as she thought it, another copy of herself shimmered in her place, overlaying her form. She quickly moved out of her image, standing aside. Three of herself. Or four if she included her actual self. Hopefully that would be enough.

Turning back to the door, she took a deep breath and pulled it open.

What lay beyond was a small room, circular in design. A single chair sat in the very center, out in the open. Brown spots of dried blood littered the floor around it. Barred cells had been carved out of the curved wall, one every few paces with a thick wall between each. Bacco huddled in the back corner of one, lying directly on the floor—there were no beds or seats, just a small bucket.

Alyssa’s double—Kasita—stood behind the bars of the cell directly opposite of Bacco. She had her arms crossed as she stared out of the bars with a smug look on her face. The Taker stood on the other side of her cell.

He wasn’t looking at his latest captive.

In the short few seconds it took Alyssa to process the room’s layout, he had reached into his trench coat and pulled out a black knife. A flick of his wrist sent it across the room.

And straight into Alyssa’s stomach.

She stumbled back, letting out a sharp cry of pain.

It hurt.

A lot.

She had been hurt before. A new kitten when she was younger that hadn’t enjoyed her abundant affection, a fall from her bicycle that still left a black scar on her knee, she had even broken a finger one time while messing about on monkey bars. She regularly got slivers, cuts, and scrapes at her job—her old job at the home improvement store back on Earth.

But this… this was different.

A knife was sticking out of her stomach!

“Well, well. Bringing a friend? Looks like you aren’t the fool I took you for. Your friend, however, is.” The Taker stepped away from the bars, moving closer. “Is that you under that shroud, Tzheitza? No. She would know better than to stand in one spot after opening a door.”

Alyssa barely paid attention to his words. She had a dagger in her stomach. A dagger in her stomach! Her skin burned where the metal touched her, but deeper inside, she felt cold ice spreading through her veins. Grazing her fingers over the hilt sent jolts through her body. Gritting her teeth together, she tried pulling it out. Alyssa screamed again. Trying to pull it felt like she was trying to pull her insides out.

Blinking away a glaze of tears over her eyes, she tried again.

Only to cry out as a second dagger sheered clean through her wrist. The tip, poking out of her skin, started growing. Icy tendrils spread away from the black metal, wrapping around and inside her arm.

“Drop the shroud, interloper,” the Taker said. He stayed back, half behind the chair in the room as if it might work as a shield, but the two daggers in his hands showed he was more than ready to continue the offensive. “You have until the count of five. One.”

Alyssa grit her teeth together. Rather than try to pull the knives out, she drew her pistol.

“Two.”

Aiming wasn’t easy. The gun felt heavier than normal. It wavered back and forth no matter how much she tried to steady it.

“Three.” The Taker flicked his wrist early, just as she squeezed the trigger. But her shot went wide, not even coming close enough to make him flinch. On the other hand, his dagger sailed across the room, cutting through the air on a collision course with Alyssa’s face.

She pinched her eyes shut.

Recede.


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Author’s Note: Just a Top Web Fiction vote reminder! Thanks everyone!

Vacant Throne — 011.004

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Freedom of Choice

Contract


“This is it,” she said, holding out a card. One of Irulon’s spells—or a copy of it that Alyssa had made. The spell, Contract, seemed useful. More than that, Alyssa wanted to keep a record of as many spells as possible. The more tools in her possession, the better off she would be, or so her logic went. Especially because her existing tools wouldn’t last forever. They could run out of uses or get damaged. It was almost assured that they would become useless sooner rather than later. “Contract. Take me to Bacco.”

“No.”

“What!” she said, acting shocked. Her hand drifted toward her pistol, but Cid’s lack of hostilities made her hesitate. “You agreed. That’s the whole reason we let you out.”

“You must think I’m a fool. Take you to Bacco?” Cid shook his head. “And what if he’s been moved or killed, your little spell will kill me!”

“Well, yes. That is the point of it. I’m not just going to blindly follow you wherever you want to go. Either agree to the contract or I’ll dump your unconscious body in front of Oxart’s tent.” She didn’t actually have a spell that induced unconsciousness, but the potion master should still be watching from not too far away, along with a guild knight she had convinced to come with—on some bargain about that upcoming fairy job. If she whistled, they would jump in to assist.

“I don’t want to die. So how about this: I’ll take you to where Bacco and I were being held. That should be possible. If Bacco isn’t there, I don’t die.”

She pressed her lips together, acting as if she needed to think it over. The spell was limited. Too limited, in fact. It would force him to complete a single simple task. The more caveats added, the higher chance the spell would fail. That was as far as Irulon’s description went. It didn’t say exactly how the spell would fail. Maybe it would explode. Maybe it would kill Cid. Maybe it wouldn’t enforce the task at all. Regardless of the how, none of the outcomes for failure could be beneficial.

Really, if she had been in charge of spell names, she would have called it Agreement or something. Contract felt too large for how simple the terms had to be. But who was she to decide what all the foolish humans called their stupid little spells.

Frowning, she pretended to think over his words. In truth, this possibility had already come up. If Bacco had moved, Cid would die. The real question was whether his proposed change was alright or not. She wished that she didn’t have to make this decision, but Cid didn’t know that she was being followed by anyone else. Revealing that little secret so early would make the whole charade pointless.

She wished she could just tell him not to lead her into any ambushes, but they were about to walk down Waters Street at night. A random mugger popping out of the shadows could kill Cid before he had a chance to bring her to the Taker. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think up anything better that didn’t also have too many clauses added on. Nothing that was both simple and wouldn’t have a chance at just randomly killing Cid. “Fine,” she said, holding the card up once again. “Contract. Take me to where Cid and Bacco were being held.”

“Agreed,” he said, showing off his teeth.

As soon as he spoke, the spell activated. It was a novelty experience, watching the card in her hand vanish only to be replaced with a cloud of greenish-black smoke. It lashed out at Cid, leaping from her fingertips to his chest where it snaked up to his neck. There, it wrapped around, coiled tightly just under his chin like a snake.

He tried to tug at it, smile completely gone, but his fingers passed right through it. “Unnerving a bit,” he said with a strained chuckle. “Let’s go then. Don’t want this thing on me longer than needed.”

“Right. But I’m going to be hanging back a bit.” With the contract in place, he couldn’t lead her to some prearranged trap unless said trap was at whatever holding pen he had been kept in. The theory was that, since he hadn’t seen any of his old gang mates since finding Alyssa, he wouldn’t have time to arrange alternate ambush points. Moreover, since the wording of the contract included both him and Bacco, it lent credence to his story that they had both been captured. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to lead her to where they had been held and would have essentially just signed his own death warrant.

“Shall we get going then?”

“Sure thing, boss. But you fall too far behind and I’ll pick you up and haul you there over my shoulder. I’ll fight and claw to get you there now.”

She nodded, not arguing. She would do the same were their positions reversed. Or rather, she would never have agreed to a contract like this in the first place. Too much relied on the other person. “I won’t let you get out of my sight.”

Waving her hand in dismissal, Cid started walking down the street. His moves were hesitant at first, slow and sordid with several glances back. Each time, she just waved and gestured for him to continue on. He got more nervous the further he got, almost constantly looking over his shoulder. It wasn’t until she actually started following him that he calmed down.

Waters Street was far creepier in the dark than it had any right to be. Did it even count as a street? It was more like one long alley that wound back and forth at random intervals. Its dirt road, which was partially mud at the moment thanks to the recent rain, wasn’t perfectly even. Stepping into even a shallow hole where she expected ground tickled at her nerves. The very same buildings that gave the street its run-down appearance during the day gave it a haunting aura once night fell. With the amount of deaths she knew had occurred both on the streets and inside those buildings, she wouldn’t be surprised to find a specter jumping out at her.

But still, she continued on. A ghost wouldn’t be able to hurt her. Slightly more worrisome was the simple fact that this street was the home of a gang. While most humans capable of magic tended to find respectable jobs that could make use of their talents, the gang had managed to snag a few with promises of riches, drugs, whores, revenge, or all manner of other things they might want. And magic did frighten her. Some magic, anyway. When directed at her.

It was a small comfort that those shadows moving in the sides of her vision would probably be men jumping out with swords rather than spells. The movement was probably just her imagination; She had an innate sense for everything around her and there weren’t any people out tonight aside from those she expected to be out. Especially not after that whole troll attack. Waters Street was close enough to the breached sections to have had to deal with a few invaders. Everyone would have been frightened into their homes for a while after that.

Clutching the weapon in her hands, she wondered how the stories might have spread through the gang of when Alyssa had killed Svotty. Its presence alone might be enough to ward off anyone actually hiding in the shadows.

Cid walked along those shadows, keeping close to the wall and out of the light as he moved. Disgusting scum of the human race or not, he was good at keeping stealthy. Even straining from not far away, hearing his footsteps against the utter silence of the city night was nearly impossible. His shoes, ratty though they looked, were soft enough on the bottom to prevent noise. Somehow, he managed to avoid tripping over a wicker basket left out in front of a boarded up building that she just about kicked down the street despite trying to keep aware of the surroundings.

The shifty rat scampered along, pausing every so often while looking around.

She followed along, keeping her eyes peeled for any assassins or this Taker. The Contract spell was in place and active, but it would be foolish in the extreme to blindly trust that something about it hadn’t gone wrong.

Similarly, Alyssa didn’t trust their destination. Leading them right to where Cid and Bacco had been held? Like some sort of makeshift prison? What were they going to do, prance right in? There had to be guards. And the Taker as well. No matter how much Cid thought Alyssa needed to fight this guy up close and personal in front of a crowd, Alyssa wanted that to be the absolute last resort.

Cid glanced over his shoulder one more time, ensuring she was still there, before turning a corner.

She glanced over her own shoulder, looking for any of the ones who were supposed to be following her. There was nothing but the dark street. Ah well, she was sure that at least one had eyes on her. With a shrug, she walked around as well.

They passed right by the Waters Street Waterhole. Light could be seen through the cracks of its blocked up windows. A hint of smoke seeped out as well. Apparently it was back in business. The foolish humans hadn’t escaped when the opportunity presented itself. She wasn’t about to feel bad for them. Maybe she would stop by in the future and see if any new monsters had been kidnapped and enslaved.

For now, she stayed a dozen paces behind Cid as they moved on.

It didn’t take much longer before Cid slowed to a stop. The building he stopped in front of was a smaller affair. Likely having only a single room, as most homes did in this section of the city. Its size wasn’t all that strange. The shutters blocking off the windows and door were some cause for concern. Why would Cid have stopped in front of a plague house? A recently infected house at that. The metal shutters only kept it blocked off for two weeks before the city removed them to be replaced with less secure wooden boards or bricks. Theoretically, the plague died off after two weeks without living hosts. Most people left the homes boarded up for months and months, if the buildings ever reopened.

The plague had been quite a cause for concern back at the Waterhole. There had been heavy screening for the telltale sores around the mouth, bumps on the forehead, and the eyes of course. Such people tended to disappear quickly.

After a quick glance around the dark street—locking eyes as he looked in her direction—Cid walked right up to the metal shutter over the door. He did something, obstructed by his body, and swung open the shutter! That wasn’t how they worked. They braced against the door frame and needed a special tool to remove. Or they should have required that. But Cid just pressed it open and stepped into the darkened interior.

She hesitated. They had been expecting a larger manor. Or at least a building like the Waterhole. A tiny room might as well be a tiny tomb. Unless the potion master had something to turn herself invisible like that other spell Alyssa had, they wouldn’t be able to enter without being seen by Cid at the very least. On the other hand, there weren’t any guards around. Maybe this wasn’t the main headquarters of the Waters Street gang.

“I guess I’ll follow him?” she said aloud, though quiet. Nothing argued against the idea, so she shrugged and slid up along the nearby buildings until she reached the entrance. Cid hadn’t closed it behind him, but there were no lights on inside. Aside from his legs, still standing in the doorway and catching the dismal light of the stars, she couldn’t see anything.

Deciding to act nervous, she held the long weapon right up to her shoulder as she slowed to a crawl. It had the slight side effect of making Cid jump further inside and out of the doorway. His slight squeal broke the silence that had hung over the entire street since the Contract spell had wrapped itself around his neck.

“Quiet,” she hissed, stepping into the room. Cid was back against one wall. With him well away from being able to close the door, she stepped further inside to keep the way clear. “Do you want to get heard?”

“Don’t point that thing at me!”

Rolling her eyes, she complied, looking around the room. The darkness didn’t help, but she had a near innate sense of nearby objects. Or, in this case, a sense of no objects. The room was… empty. There was no other word to describe it. A normal plague home looked just like a regular home. When the city guards put up shutters, they didn’t remove any of the furniture, belongings, or people. So there should have been a bed, maybe a chair and table, and a corpse if the plague-carrier hadn’t been taken outside the home.

But there was nothing. It was an empty cube, save for herself and Cid. No bed. No table. No emaciated corpse. No vermin.

All of which she found highly suspicious. “What is this place?”

“One of the gang’s holdouts. Not used too much anymore because of its location on Waters Street, but there are still some people keeping it running. Mostly, it’s used as a storehouse and a place to keep slaves on their way to or from the Waterhole.”

“This is a storehouse?” The place was empty. Even if it had been cleared out not too long ago, it couldn’t store much just because of its size. He must have been mistaken. Clearly, he had been sampling some of Svotty’s drugs and his poor addled mind couldn’t take it. Glancing over to him, she frowned as she failed to catch any glisten in the dark of brain juice dribbling out of his ears.

No such luck.

Instead of leaking cerebral fluids all over the floor, he pressed his foot into a small notch in the wall. A barely audible click followed, but nothing else. Not until he walked over to the far corner, dug his fingers into the dirt floor, and hefted up a long hatch. Light flooded into the room. Not much, but enough to see colors again. The hatch opened up fully on hinges, though the dirt on top didn’t slide off the wood, revealing a narrow stairwell.

Now things made sense. His mind wasn’t mush. At least not enough to mistake an empty plague house for a storehouse. Still, she had been in far more welcoming subterranean dwellings than this. The stairs, carved right out of the dirt and stone, looked like they might crumble under any significant weight. Not a big problem for her, but she couldn’t see how Cid’s larger companion could make his way up and down. Maybe there was a secondary entrance elsewhere.

“Shut the door,” he said. “Don’t want to tip anyone off that we’ve come in.”

That actually made her hesitate. While she was certain that the others had watched her enter the home, there might be a trick to opening it like there was for the hatch. And if he closed the hatch, even if they got in, they wouldn’t be able to easily find the stairs.

Something brushed against her elbow. Just a light touch of air. A bit drafty with the hatch opened? Or…

“Alright,” she said with a shrug. “If you think that’s a good idea.”

“I do,” Cid said with a grumble. “Should have closed it before I opened the passage. Now close it and get over here—err… if you please.”

“Sure thing.” The metal shutters were real, even if they had been modified into a door rather than the door-blocker that they were supposed to be. As such, the door wasn’t exactly light. She had to throw her whole weight behind it just to get it moving. Once it was moving, closing it wasn’t all that bad. The latch fell into place, securing the metal door. Pushing and pulling against it did nothing. It was well and truly locked. “Phew.”

Cid cocked his head to the side. “You alright?”

“Fine. Fine. Just fine. It’s down here then, is it? How much farther after that?”

He eyed her for a moment, staring. Whatever he was looking for, he apparently didn’t find. With a shake of his head, Cid said, “Not far. There’s a small hallway and a short drop before we’ll find the cells.”

“Good. Lead the way.”

With one last look to her, he started descending the stairs. Taking care not to misstep on the narrow ledges, she went down after him, though she moved at a nice languid pace, putting just a little distance between them. When he inevitably ran into some guard, she would have at least a little warning. Though the distance didn’t matter when he stopped to wait at the bottom of the stairs. As soon as she joined him, he pulled a large lever sticking out of the wall. The hatch door creaked closed behind them, but shut softly without making a loud bang as the wood connected with the frame.

“Fancy. Elven engineering?”

“Yeah. One of the slaves a few years back.” He let out a slight snort before nodding his head down the hall. “Come on.”

The hall didn’t deserve to be called as such. It was more of a hastily dug out passage. Two people couldn’t walk side by side comfortably. Alyssa was a bit on the taller side of things, though not giantess size. Her head didn’t hit the ceiling because of that, but it was a near thing. Cid was actually having to duck. She couldn’t even imagine how Bacco made it through without being dragged along the floor.

Which he might have been for all she knew.

The passage had rocky walls and a rocky ceiling. No smooth faces so typical of elvish work. They must have had the elf do the door mechanisms and had humans working on the tunnel itself. The floor was somewhat smooth, though not thanks to any craftsmanship. The dirt and rock had worn from use. It actually made her wonder how tall the passage had originally been before all the floor compression and wear.

Little brass candle holders stuck out of the wall at regular intervals. Though they didn’t actually have candles placed atop them. Maybe at one point in time, they would have had candles. Now they had jars of liquid light, keeping the hallway lit.

“How long does this passage go on for?”

Cid paused and turned around. “Actually, it goes all the way back to the Waterhole, though we’re not going that far.”

“Ufu~ Does it now? I’ll have to remember that. But how far are we going?”

He hummed, turning back the way he had been heading. This time, he wasn’t looking straight ahead. He kept glancing between the wall and the ceiling. She followed along as he moved forward another ten paces. Then he made a little noise of epiphany. “It should be right… around… here.”

“Here?” Nothing around them looked any different than it had ten paces back. She couldn’t spot any markings on the ceiling. Though the passage did darken further ahead. Someone must have taken the lights. Or maybe they just hadn’t done maintenance on the tunnel in a while. The lights that were around were not at their brightest.

“Yep.” He put his hand on the nearest candle holder and glanced between her and the ceiling again. “You, uh, might want to take about three steps back.”

Complying, she looked around again. Right above her, a small cross had been scratched into the ceiling. “Here?”

“Perfect.” He yanked on the candlestick, sending another loud click into the air.

While her eyes were on the ceiling, the floor dropped out from under her. Air rushed past as she began falling. Her last sight was of Cid’s foul grin before she fell into a black pit.


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Vacant Throne — 011.003

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Freedom of Choice

Helpless to Help


“You aren’t leaving it to him. That would be foolish in the extreme.”

Alyssa blinked, not having expected a response, she momentarily struggled to form a proper sentence. “I have to do something. I can’t just stand around waiting. The deadline is tonight, according to Cid. If I haven’t taken action, then I’ll be the one who… has action taken against her?” That didn’t quite come out right, but she shook her head. The meaning got across. That was all that mattered.

“Which is why you have come to me.”

“Yeah.” Honestly, Alyssa hadn’t thought the princess had been listening to the story. The whole time she had been telling her story, Irulon had sat hunched over three books, writing down spells in a fourth. The younger woman had hardly looked up since Alyssa entered the room. Only to call her over and to cast a quick spell.

Apparently, clearing out the whole of the library was a one time thing. Just like the first time Alyssa had been in the Observatorium, other students meandered about the books for their own studies and research. Many, many of them had their eyes on the princess. For the second time, they were watching someone breach Irulon’s bubble of personal space. Not only that, but that someone was engaged in a heavy conversation.

Though this time, the bubble was a little more literal. As soon as Alyssa had sat down, Irulon cast a spell. Another Fractal spell simply called Alternate Visage. Shards of glass surrounded them just like Fractal Mirror. Much larger shards than the other spell, but similar nonetheless. They differed in what they displayed. Namely, nothing at all. Alyssa could see right through them, only aware that the spell was active thanks to the occasional glimmers of light that caught on the edges of the shards. She shifted under the gaze of a young man with far too many rings on to be tasteful.

But his eyes slid right over her, tracking some other movement. He couldn’t see her.

Not this her, anyway.

Alternate Visage created a… Irulon’s explanation had been far too technical. Just thinking about it made her head hurt. Basically, everyone outside the bubble was seeing a conversation that could have been. Something far more innocuous than what they were actually talking about. Maybe they were talking about simple magic. Maybe they were discussing how their weekends had been. Whatever everyone else was seeing, neither Alyssa nor even Irulon knew what it was. Which wouldn’t have been much use if people were listening in and later asked them about it, but Alyssa had no intentions of interacting with the people in the Observatorium. Given the permanent bubble of personal space around her, Irulon likely wouldn’t either.

Alyssa shuddered. Watching everyone look at her but not quite her was just weird. Hopefully whatever was happening wasn’t embarrassing. There wasn’t much point in getting embarrassed in front of strangers who she would likely never see again—that was her general philosophy any time she did something foolish at a store or restaurant. But if she was coming to the Observatorium on any kind of regular basis, she might actually have to interact with some of those people.

A scraping sound pulled her attention back to where the princess was cleaning off the tip of her pen. She was meticulous in her care, first using a cloth to ensure that not a spot of ink remained before scraping the metal tip of the fountain pen on a stone to sharpen it. To Alyssa, it seemed a sharp tip would just punch right through any paper, but she really didn’t know anything about writing with a fountain pen and the princess surely did. After a bit of polishing, the princess finally finished by setting the pen into a gemstone-studded case. The sight of it almost made Alyssa laugh. It looked just like a case she had owned back in elementary school, except her case had those little adhesive-backed plastic jewels instead of being worth ten fortunes.

Stifling her smile, Alyssa looked up to Irulon. “So you’ll help then?”

“Hm. I’d like to. I can’t.”

“What? Why? I mean, I’m not expecting you personally to go fight this guy, but you’re the princess. Can’t you just order the city guard to…”

“To go and destroy Waters Street. Unfortunately, that is impossible. Save for defense of the city and the kingdom, the army cannot be mobilized without the consent of the Council of Nobles. A stuffy group. Mostly unpleasant,” she said with a mild glare around the room. The glare vanished quick enough, replaced with her overly polite smile. “While Lyria supplies a bulk of the army’s personnel, the majority are actually supplied from the nobles. They train and outfit soldiers in their own territories, a large portion of which congregate under the banner of Lyria. It reduces the individual strength of each territory to strengthen the nation as a whole, most of the soldiers wind up either at the Fortress of Pandora or at the various outposts throughout the land.”

Alyssa blinked, remaining silent as she took a moment to absorb the facts. Guardsman Ipo had mentioned something about the guard being unable to be deployed rapidly. And something about nobles. But that had been a week ago, a lot had happened in the time since, and she really had other things on her mind at the time. “So you can’t send the soldiers because they’re mostly owned by nobles. And you can’t convince the nobles?”

“In a single afternoon? Not even if half of them weren’t corrupt. I suspect that some are paid off by the gang itself. Several others might even have closer working relations.”

Ugh. Maybe help taking down the whole gang was a bit too much to expect. Police in her world would have probably taken her into protective custody or given her a guard detail, both concepts that, even if they were familiar to this world, Alyssa didn’t really want around her if she could help it. But police would almost certainly not have charged into gang controlled buildings on a moment’s notice. There would be research and investigations… and a hundred miles of red tape.

“What about the Black Prince,” Alyssa said as the thought occurred to her. “I saw him cut through trolls like they were made of butter. He can at least get this Taker guy, can’t he?”

“You saw him. You were outside the wall.” Irulon’s pale eyes flicked over Alyssa, moving from her shoulders down to her hips then back up to her face. “Interesting.”

“Huh?” Alyssa shifted slightly, feeling far more self-conscious about that casual comment that she might have otherwise been. It didn’t help that the princess was back to her serene smile. As if she knew something that no one else did.

“My brother could deal with the Taker without a doubt. If he couldn’t, I would have to disown him.”

“Then…”

“In addition to the logistics of sending people out to take care of the problem, there is one more issue concerning anyone in authority taking action. Especially my brother.”

Alyssa just sighed and waited for the explanation that was sure to come.

Irulon stood up, walked around the table without leaving the bubble of Fractal magic, and sat against the table’s edge. Looking down at Alyssa, she tilted her head ever so slightly. “You mentioned rescuing some people from this brothel. Merchandise, your malefactor friend called them.”

“First, he isn’t my friend. Second, I thought malefactor was some potionspeak thing. Third… that is correct. There were four people who left when I did. Apparently another few left after.”

“People, you say again.”

“Yeah,” Alyssa said slowly, drawing out the word. This line of discussion wasn’t exactly heading in a direction that she was comfortable with.

That discomfort only increased as Irulon’s polite smile turned almost hungry. “Human slaves are illegal under my father’s laws. But they aren’t all that valuable. After all, humans are extremely common around these parts,” she said with a slight gesture around the room. “Certainly not valuable enough to get the Taker on your tail. I know his reputation—I’ve actually collected a number of examples he has made of his enemies. Many bodies wind up on the streets, all showing clear signs of torture or worse as a warning. Every one of them utterly fascinating. One man had his spine torn out without killing him. I had quite a lot of fun figuring out how.”

Her smile never wavered, sending chills down Alyssa’s spine. And she wasn’t even sure who she was shuddering at, the Taker or Irulon.

“No. You did something else. Either you stole something of significant value or… those people were far harder to acquire than your average humans.”

“I stole a bag full of coins,” Alyssa said. “It had several altus and a decent assortment of the smaller denominations.”

“Hm. At least one elf. Then… a harpy?” Alyssa didn’t say a word but Irulon shook her head. “No. Not a harpy. Then what? It must be races appealing for a brothel yet still suitably exotic to draw in patrons. No trolls or mountain giants. The ant people? No—”

“Alright! Just stop. It was an elf, a mimic, a bee-like thing, and some lizard woman. I don’t know what their races’ proper names are.”

“A lizard? Green scales or red?”

“Red.”

“Hm. No wonder they set the Taker on you.”

Alyssa slumped in her chair with a sigh. “Is that rare or something?”

“Let me put it this way. That salamander is probably the only one north of the Fortress of Pandora. And… Ah. You were outside the wall the night of the siege. You released them there and got caught up in events. I read the reports after our last meeting. You might be pleased to know that only tolls, goblins, and a single fairy were among the monstrous casualties. The monsters you rescued escaped.”

“Great. So you’re going to have me arrested now or something?”

“I should. But no. Your value to me decreases substantially if you are trapped in a cell. So long as word is kept quiet, I do not have to act. Which is why my brother cannot act in your defense. If he showed up to kill the Taker, those corrupt nobles I mentioned earlier would almost certainly raise the issue that the royal family acted in the defense of someone who freed monsters and set them loose, even though he would also be killing a known killer. It would not be a pleasant experience. Especially for me and my brother. We would likely be disowned immediately and charged as traitors to humanity. My brother is already on rocky shores with his draken.”

Slumping forward and letting her head rest on the table, Alyssa let out another long sigh. This whole thing had been a waste of time. She should have been helping Tzheitza make potions or finding other allies at the guild. Even if Cid insisted that she had to do this herself in order to convince the gang that she was a legitimate threat, having a significant number of friends she could count on would probably work as well.

“Well, thanks for your time and sorry for wasting it, I guess.” No sense not being polite. Alyssa had no intentions of dying no matter what happened. Burning a bridge just because the princess couldn’t help her in this situation would only result in pain later on. “I suppose I better go make preparations.”

“Leaving so soon? Surely you’ll accept my gift first.”

“Gift?”

Irulon flashed her most polite smile before moving back around the table. “I am aware that your spell library is… lacking.”

Alyssa wasn’t so sure about that. She had Bercilak’s deck of cards. Though she had only identified a handful of the spells. It seemed quite versatile, having spells like the fireball and the chains, good for both offense and defense. Honestly, she still wasn’t sure what she thought of magic. Her shotgun seemed far more reliable. Still, she wasn’t about to argue against the princess. Not if she was about to give something away.

The princess picked up her tome, still open to the very page she had been writing out while Alyssa had been telling her story, and plucked the page from its bindings. It was much larger than the spell tome chained to her waist. More of a research notebook. Flipping it over for Alyssa to see, she placed it on the table. Four spells were drawn on the front. No two were the same.

“Just a few items I thought might help with your issue.”

“You drew these out for me? For this specific situation? How? You started working on them before I even told you what was going on.”

“When you walked in, I noticed differences between today and both other times. You displayed traditional characteristics of fear. Dilated pupils. A sheen of sweat gracing your arms and face. Worry and despair once you looked around and noticed the other students. Occasional glances behind you, clearly afraid of being followed. That is when I started. Early on, you mentioned the Waters Street gang. From there, it wasn’t difficult to ascertain your problem. Most of your story was entirely superfluous.”

“Well, thanks for letting me waste all my breath,” Alyssa mumbled.

“It gave you something to do while I was working,” she said with such a natural smile that Alyssa was almost ashamed for having commented. “Besides, it is always best to have more information. You could have said something that would have changed my selection of spells entirely. You didn’t, but the possibility was there.”

“I could have helped draw cards at least.”

“Watching you do so last time was physically painful for me. I would hate to have you arrested for assaulting me.”

Alyssa narrowed her eyes at the princess’ bright smile, but didn’t say anything. Arguing with Irulon just wasn’t worth it. Instead, she looked down at the sheet of cards. The spells were all on the same piece of paper—or parchment or whatever these people used. But Irulon quickly solved that issue by drawing a small jeweled knife from somewhere on her tight dress. Its blade split the spells apart without her even needing to press hard. The edge was just that sharp. In short order, the four spells were all on their own cards.

None of which, Alyssa noted, she had ever seen before.

“What do they all do?”

Rather than respond verbally, Irulon reached out and flipped one of the cards over.

 

Empty Mirror.

Invisibility spell. Works by wrapping you in a fractal field, showing anyone looking in your direction what the world would look like if you didn’t exist.

 

“It is a bit more complex than that, but this is far more effective than an illusion variant for going unnoticed.”

Alyssa couldn’t help but frown at one word in the description and another word in the title. “This isn’t like that Fractal Mirror spell, is it?”

“Ah hah, ah no.” Irulon’s laugh sounded both stiff and sarcastic. It gave Alyssa the impression that she didn’t laugh all that often and probably hadn’t laughed just now. “It is only Rank Four and should be significantly less intense and less draining just because of that. Moreover, it shows you nothing but the world around you, rather like this spell we’re under right now,” she said with a wave of her hand around the shimmering barriers.

“That’s good. I think I can handle that.” The bubble they were under didn’t bother her at all. It was like looking out of a window, if said window had some cracks in it. And was moving around. And there were a lot of them. Even if it was a little distracting, it was nothing like seeing an infinite number of herself, all doing different things.

“You will be able to interact with things outside the shroud as well, so keep that in mind. Don’t go bumping into anyone you don’t want alerted to your presence.” Irulon flipped over the rest of the cards one after another, not stopping to explain any. Each had a title and a short description underneath. The spells were divided between Fractal and Death magic, two of each. “You can look them over on your own time. All of them should be self explanatory. None of them are higher than Rank Five, so you shouldn’t have an issue casting them.” As she spoke, she stacked them all up into a single deck and held it out to Alyssa.

“Thank you,” Alyssa said, accepting the cards. She still wasn’t sure that she was going to use them over her shotgun—it was somewhat depressing how quickly she had resigned herself to having to kill yet another person. Invisibility sounded nice. She could just sneak up and shoot him in the back of the head. But Cid seemed to think that she needed to fight him in the open in order to get the gang off her back.

Ugh. What a mess.


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Author’s Note: Just a reminder to vote on TWF!

Vacant Throne — 011.002

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Freedom of Choice

Gathering Storm


Rainwater dripped down the windows of Tzheitza’s potion shop. It wasn’t her first time seeing rain in this new world. One night while traveling to Lyria, she had needed to pitch her tent early. Thankfully, the tent was water proof and kept her and everything she carried dry, though packing it up in the morning hadn’t been all that comfortable. But it had only rained that one evening, providing ample time for her tent to dry over the next night.

Still, it was somewhat nostalgic. When younger, she and her brother had always sat on his bed during any kind of storm. Its head had been directly under the window, so they put their feet on the pillow and their heads at the opposite end. Lightning, as a child, had been awe inspiring to watch. Even heavy storms were fun. Whiskers had always freaked out in big storms. Poor old cat. He had passed away just a few years ago.

A crack of thunder rattled the windows. Alyssa blinked in shock before shaking her head. Earth felt so far away. But she couldn’t afford to get caught up in a reverie. To dwell in the past, to dwell on home, was to get stuck. Alyssa had to set out clear goals for her own sanity’s sake. Whether those be simple—survive the evening camping, get to Lyria, find a clean source of water—or more long term, such as getting home without angels interfering. Her current goal was to get this gang off her back.

“Tenebrael’s all madlike today,” Tzheitza said as another wave of thunder rolled over the shop.

With a suppressed scoff, Alyssa turned to correct the potioneer, only to hesitate. She had taken high school physics. She knew all about the buildup of static electricity in clouds until it became too large, discharging downward in a bolt of lightning that increased pressure and temperature in the air, causing the crack. But she thought about it for a moment. Tenebrael making lightning… actually wasn’t all that implausible. Iosefael could easily have said something to anger the dark angel. Given that this was her world, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult for Tenebrael to make rain and lightning. This could just be a little temper tantrum.

“Yeah,” was all Alyssa ended up with.

“Could be good for yeh. A blessin’ if she’s angry about the gang.”

Now that was extremely doubtful. While Alyssa could see Tenebrael getting upset about something and having a fit, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that the demonic angel apparently in charge of this world did not care in the slightest for its denizens. She didn’t care if they worshiped her or ignored her, if they sold humans—or monsters—as slaves or if they were the greatest saint to grace the world.

But that was something that Alyssa couldn’t say no matter what. Maybe to Kasita. Not to Tzheitza. “What did you do with Cid?” she asked instead. A glance to the door showed the black fog still blocking out view of the little cubicle. He hadn’t left.

“Sleepin’ for now,” Tzheitza said with a casual shrug. Which might have explained why she had wanted Alyssa to leave the room. Given that forcing him to drink one of the potions probably wouldn’t have gone over so well, she had probably used some sort of gaseous potion. Or maybe she had simply told him to drink or get his fingernails pulled off. “Don’t wanna see the haberin malefactor runnin’ about before we decide what to do about him.”

“Right.”

As it turned out, all those torture tools had been purely for show. Tzheitza had never used a single one of them. Every question asked of Cid got an answer straight away. Sometimes those answers had been obviously embellished… or the inverse when it came to his part in any unsavory events.

Waters Street was a large organization with no central leadership. They had their fingers in several illegal pies. Prostitution wasn’t illegal. Slavery was. At least for human slaves who weren’t branded heretics. Literally branded. With a hot iron. There were several varieties of narcotics that the royal family had declared hazardous to society. Then there were a bunch of run-of-the-mill crimes such as common burglary, arson, and protection payments. Apparently they had ties to some assassin’s guild as well, though Cid hadn’t known much about that. Thankfully.

They also took requests. If someone needed a disturbance or distraction to cover up other illicit affairs, they were the go-to group in the city. Maybe something like an evil mirror of the Knights Solaris.

When she had first heard that the gang was after her, Alyssa had to admit that a somewhat morbid thought had crossed her mind. Given her experience at the Waterhole, she had momentarily thought to take her shotgun and run down Waters Street, shooting everyone who looked like they might be part of a gang. Even if she hadn’t decided that doing so would be an absolutely horrendous idea, it simply wouldn’t be possible now.

The organization was simply too large.

Waters Street was merely where they had begun. Twenty years ago, they had been a small time crime group that just doled out illegal drugs in their brothel. In the years since, they had expanded throughout the city and even outside its walls. Which explained a lot about why the guards didn’t just raid the street. There wasn’t much left that was important. Just their namesake whorehouse.

According to Cid, they were even trying to change their name to get rid of even that connection. Waters Street was just too ingrained in people’s minds for it to easily disappear.

Even if Alyssa could find the three generally considered to be leaders of the gang even if it wasn’t official, a daunting task in and of itself, going to the extreme of killing them probably wouldn’t get everyone else to go away. Though there might be some infighting over a new leader, which would work to her advantage, but it was still an implausible option. Cid hadn’t seen any of them in person in at least five years.

“So, any suggestions?”

Tzheitza scoffed with a slight shake of her head. “Keep yer head down. Hire on a proper bodyguard—not Ozheim—and hope those slaves weren’t a haberin dolly cost.”

Ducking her head, Alyssa sighed. “I suppose you don’t want me putting your store in danger.” Losing a roof overhead would be a blow. Especially such a safe place where she could leave her gear while out doing other things. Even worse than that was losing the company. She might only be able to understand Tzheitza a third of the time, but having someone to talk to made the evenings pass much easier.

Kasita didn’t count. In some ways, Alyssa felt like she could be a little more open with the mimic. However there was one glaring issue. Kasita only showed herself when it suited her. Even now, despite having called out for her, she was probably disguised as one of those torture tools. She would pop up sometime soon with a giggle about how unfortunate the situation was.

“I’m not about to shunt yeh roundabouts. We fought together, saved my life, or close enough. That’s worth more than an occasional assassin. ‘Sides. Any who darken my doorway’ll radecomb before they can break a single bottle. I dare ‘em to try.”

“Right.” Well, that was one worry gone. “But I can’t just stay cooped up inside. You have potions that need delivering and I have my own matters to attend to. Sitting around doing nothing but cooking…” Would be standing still. Her goals would remain forever on the infinite horizon if she wasn’t moving toward them. Alyssa’s eyes hardened and her fingers clenched into tight fists. “No. I can’t remain stagnant. I need to—” Cutting herself off, she glanced to the darkened window, realizing that she had forgotten something. “Is it possible to wake him up right away.”

Tzheitza made a face. After a long moment of hesitation, she nodded her head. “One minute,” she said as she headed back behind the counter. In a flurry, just as Alyssa had seen her do whenever customers needed something, she started pulling jars off the shelves, removing items from drawers and cabinets, and setting out her measuring and grinding tools.

Habit nearly made Alyssa walk over to watch. But she realized that there wasn’t much point to it. Unless Tzheitza actually started teaching her, she would just be grinding up and mixing various items. There had to be recipes somewhere, but the shop was surprisingly light on literature.

So Alyssa turned back to face the rain-spattered window once again, just in time to watch the sky shift from evening to night. The shop was officially closed. It had been a slow day, at least for the parts where she had been present, but she flipped the latch on the door anyway. Just in case Oz came barging in.

Or gang assassins.

As it turned out, one minute was a drastic understatement. After nearly a half hour of preparing an orange slime, Tzheitza put a small tin of it over the fire. A smell quickly filled the room. Faint at first. It smelled like ammonia, but with a fruity bend to it. A little unpleasant, but not unbearably so.

Five minutes later had Alyssa pressing her sleeve over her face. The rank scent burned at her nose and windpipe, making her feel as if she had just swallowed a bottle of Tabasco sauce. None of the windows opened and even with the door unlatched and wide open, the overpowering stench was just too much for such a small place to handle. It was getting to the point where running outside was starting to look like a good option, thousands of assassins hiding in the shadows or not.

Tzheitza handled the smell in a far more stoic manner. Even as Alyssa coughed and gagged in the opposite corner of the room, she stood over the small tin, watching the boiling liquid without a single expression crossing her face. Every so often, she would add some black strings that didn’t help the smell at all.

It took another ten minutes of agony before Tzheitza pronounced the putrid potion complete. She slid a cap over the top of the tin, but that didn’t magically make the smell go away. “Hope yeh weren’t plannin’ on sleepin’ tonight,” she said as she carried the tin into Cid’s little cubicle.

Though wary of getting closer to the tin, Alyssa followed her. Waking up Cid had been her idea after all. She couldn’t just hang back. Despite the smell having fully leaked into the partitioned room, Cid remained fast asleep. His arms hung down off the sides of the chair as he lay slumped in it.

At least, he remained asleep right up until Tzheitza dipped a wooden dowel into the liquid then shoved it up his nose. Alyssa winced, unable to even comprehend how horrid that must be. Cid’s eyes snapped open. For just an instant, he looked around, confused. That didn’t last. He started rubbing at his nose as his panic visibly mounted. Finding nothing to wipe away, he actually started screaming.

Tzheitza took a glass of water and threw it in his face. That got his screaming to stop, but he doubled over coughing as most of the water had gone right down his open mouth. He sputtered, trying to get a breath of fresh air.

A small vestige of empathy welled up in Alyssa. Cid was scum. There wasn’t a doubt about that. But having even a thimble of that smell right up his nose was a torture far worse than the effect of any of the tools Tzheitza had out earlier.

Alyssa dropped her arm to her side, uncovering her face. Given how little a cloth in front of her mouth helped, it wasn’t that big of a loss. She tried to put on as impassive a look as Tzheitza, but highly doubted she was succeeding. Cid, being in as much agony as he looked like he was in, probably wouldn’t notice much.

“I forgot to ask,” she said as soon as his coughing died away. He wasn’t even looking at her, too busy shoving a bit of his vest up his nose. Absolutely disgusting, but Alyssa couldn’t say that she would be acting any different in his position. “When we met in the alley, you said that you could get the gang off my back. How? And how does it tie in to helping Bacco?”

She had almost forgotten his whole goal. He wanted her help to rescue Bacco. Presumably he had some sort of plan. Alyssa couldn’t think up any scenario where rescuing Bacco didn’t bring down even more heat on her head. Which, for all she knew, might well be Cid’s plan. Rescue Bacco, run away, and leave poor Alyssa to deal with the fallout.

Still, she needed to at least hear him out.

Though it looked like she might not be able to do so anytime soon.

“What did you do to me?” he shouted, still trying to scrape out the interior of his nose. Tears welled up in one eye on the same side of his face. “It feels like someone tore off half my skin. I think I’d prefer that!”

“Kendrik our own noses,” Tzheitza said with a glare. “Get over yerself.”

“Right,” Alyssa said with a hesitant nod of her head, not quite sure she wanted to agree with whatever that meant. “But answer my questions, Cid. Or I’ll dump the rest over your head. I can’t imagine it would be pleasant getting it in your eyes.”

“I think it’s already there, up my nose.” He scrunched his eye closed until he caught Alyssa glaring at him. With a hefty snort right onto his vest, he settled himself down. “It’s simple. We kill the Taker.”

To Alyssa’s side, Tzheitza shifted slightly and deepened her already intense scowl. It must have been something significant, but not to Alyssa. She still had to ask. “What is the Taker?”

Cid put on a pain-filled grin, showing off his unsightly dental care. “Who is the Taker. He is a man. A bogeyman.” He paused a moment, apparently unable to hold back a hacking cough.

Another monster? Or just a general term for a scary person? For the moment, Alyssa decided not to interrupt. She could ask Tzheitza or Kasita later.

“He is the reason the city guard leaves the Waters Street gang alone. He is the reason why, when the guards are forced to show some spine, the gaols are empty by morning. He has Bacco, he almost had me, and he’ll soon have you. Unless you do something about him. Kill him and the gang won’t touch you. You’ll have proved yourself scarier than the bogeyman.”

“Alright stop,” Alyssa said, changing her mind. This couldn’t wait until later. “Is he human or is bogeyman a type of monster that I haven’t heard of yet.”

Cid opened his mouth but Tzheitza beat him to answering. “A human,” she practically snarled. “A traitor.”

“Oh yeah, I bet you’d know him. Used to be in the guild,” he added as an aside to Alyssa. “Got a bit too bloodthirsty. He went an—”

“Gab yer gottermore yeh malefactor.”

“Ooh, a bit touchy are we? Sore subject?”

Tzheitza thrust a hand into her pocket and tore out a vial of silvery liquid. With an undignified squeal, Cid cowered back in his seat as much as he was able. Alyssa put a hand to Tzheitza’s arm before she could throw it, or whatever she had been planning on doing. The older woman, face bright red with anger, turned her ire to Alyssa just long enough to regain her composure. She took a deep breath, somehow managing without choking on the foul air, and slid the vial back into her pocket.

Once sure that there wouldn’t be any accidents, accidental or not, Alyssa addressed them both. “So he is just a human then.” That was good news. She hadn’t resolved herself to actually hunt and kill anyone, but at least a human wouldn’t be able to shrug off bullets like the trolls had the other night if she did end up deciding to take that option. Though it might not be necessary. Tzheitza looked about ready to rush off and take some rash actions. “I assume he isn’t just a regular Joe walking down the streets.”

“Regular? Ha. Rumor has it that he summons up demons just to drink their blood. Excepting the Black Prince himself, the Taker hasn’t got an equal in swordsmanship within Lyria. His spell work is top notch as well.”

That had Alyssa frowning. Not such good news there. She still had those fractal futures burned into her memories. Irulon was apparently one of a highly exclusive number of the most powerful arcanists in the city, so maybe this Taker wouldn’t be so tough, but Alyssa had tried to attack the princess in several of those infinite possibilities. Exceedingly few had succeeded.

“Do you have a plan?” Alyssa asked, still not committing.

“Do I have a plan,” Cid repeated with a raspy chuckle. Glancing over his shoulder, he opened his mouth to say something only to stop dead and turn back with a frown. “Yes, I have a plan. And it isn’t just to sneak in and assassinate him. That won’t impress anyone. You’ll have to fight him in front of people who can tell the story.”

That sounded even less appealing. But Tzheitza was nodding her head. “Makin’ ye all scarylike ought to work. And the Taker. One of the guild’s own. The haberin traitor worse than a rottymix…” Her words quickly became less intelligible as she started grumbling under her breath.

Alyssa hadn’t a clue what that meant, but it sounded distressingly like an agreement with Cid. “Great. Lovely.” Maybe she could ask for Irulon’s help. She did have a few cards from earlier in the day that might do some damage and she still had Bercilak’s deck of cards, which Irulon had tasked her with looking up on her own. Something about how it would be good to identify common spells based on their patterns. Really, she was probably just too lazy to look them over. “I’m going to need to know everything about this guy,” she said, glancing between the two. “What spells does he like to use, how does he like to fight, and so on.”

“I can say,” Tzheitza said. “I knew him.”

“Good.” Maybe Oz could help too. And the rest of the guild. If he was some traitor, taking him out might even be a job they would do on their own. “And you?” she said with a glance to Cid.

“Know him by reputation only. Never seen him in action. But I can take you to him. I know where Bacco is and he won’t be far away. Just leave everything to good old Cid.”

Which just got a groan from Alyssa.

“We shouldn’t wait too long. They’ll know I escaped by now. He’ll be hunting tomorrow night. Better to jump him early.” He tried to grin again only to scrunch up his face in pain. “As soon as my face stops feeling like it’s on fire! Agh! I think some ran down the back of my throat!”


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Vacant Throne — 011.001

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Freedom of Choice

Intimidation Techniques


Tzheitza glared at Cid.

Which, if Alyssa was being honest, was exactly what she had expected. They hadn’t even made it inside the building and she could already see Tzheitza standing behind the counter, eying them. She had a customer standing on the other side of the counter, waiting for her to mix up some concoction that was likely pure charlatan nonsense like her earthworm balm. He had his back to them and hadn’t seen Cid yet. Not wanting him to make a scene, Alyssa dragged him off around the side of the building. There was a side entrance that led directly into the store rooms, but Tzheitza kept them locked and Alyssa didn’t have a key. Still, it was a good place to stash Cid for the moment.

“Stay here. Don’t go anywhere.” Alyssa started back toward the front, only to pause. “Or do. That would solve one of my problems.”

“I won’t move a muscle,” Cid said, flashing his dental horror show of a smile, though it wasn’t quite as glee filled as the ones she had seen on him when they first met. “Please hurry back.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Under other circumstances, she might have had reservations about leaving Cid right outside the place where she spent her nights. However, he had already mentioned knowing about the potion shop. If he had plans to break in and slit her throat in the middle of the night, he wouldn’t have needed to show up in person. Similarly, if he couldn’t get inside because of some protections over the shop that Alyssa didn’t know about, he would still be out of luck because there was no way that she would allow him to sleep in the same building as her. If he really needed a place to sleep, there was an alley not far from the potion shop that he could have. For some reason, she doubted it would be the first time he slept in an alley.

Moving back around to the front, Alyssa opened the door and walked right up to the counter. She gave the man a slight nod of her head. He was a fairly well-to-do sort, nothing like Cid at all, but not someone she had seen before. “Tzheitza,” she said with another nod to the potioneer behind the counter. “Almost finished with what you are doing?” Thankfully, she was weighing already crushed powder. That meant that she had to be nearly finished. Probably. At least, most of the times when Alyssa watched, the crushed powder on the scales meant the end. If it was going to take even a mild amount of time, she probably would have offered the customer a seat.

“With this?” She gestured to her brass scales as she added just a little more powder to one side. The needle on the scale didn’t move at all as far as Alyssa could tell, but it apparently satisfied Tzheitza. She locked the scales, picked up the plate of powder, and dumped it all into a larger mixing bowl. “Just about.” Taking a wire tool that resembled a kitchen whisk, she started stirring the powder, turning it into a thick paste.

Curious as to the actual process, Alyssa stood around watching for a moment as Tzheitza finished some final mixing. As soon as she finished mixing the powder with whatever else had been in the bowl, she grabbed it by hand and placed it on an empty spot on the counter. She used her hands to roll it into a long thin clay-like strip of medicine—or whatever it was. Once it was about the diameter of a pencil, and about as long as one, she placed it on top of a small wooden board set into the counter top with little metal grooves in it like some kind of washboard. The strip of medicinal clay went perpendicular to the grooves. Sandwiching the medicine with a handheld version of the board, Tzheitza grabbed the handles and started sliding it back and forth.

In no time at all, she pulled the handheld board off, revealing little balls of the medicine. About twenty in total. One for each groove. With a brush of her hand, they rolled down the grooves into a little removable receptacle, which she picked up and dumped the pills down the mouth of a glass bottle. She sealed it up with a stopper and held it out to the customer.

“One every morning after ye wake up. If yer rash ain’t fading away after half the bottle, come back and see me again.”

“Thank you Tzhei,” the man said, accepting the bottle with a shaking hand. He dug into a small leather pouch and pulled out a gold altus. Alyssa couldn’t help but raise her eyebrows at that. Most over-the-counter concoctions were considerably less expensive. Tzheitza didn’t even accept it right away, hesitating before reaching out to take it. “You’re a real life saver!”

“Yep,” Tzheitza said without conviction as she pocketed the gold piece. “Take care of yourself, Zhadoj.”

“Oh I will. I’m just glad you’re around for when I can’t.” He chuckled as he walked out, which Tzheitza weakly echoed. “I’ll see you soon!”

“I hope not,” Tzheitza mumbled as soon as the door closed behind him.

Alyssa, watching him walk off through the windows, asked, “Someone you know?”

“He comes in once a month with some new problem, constantly thinkin’ he’s about to die. Never anythin’ serious, but…”

“Huh. So hypochondriacs existed even back… now, I guess.”

Which was kind of odd to think about. While Tzheitza had that blue potion that literally fixed her broken bones just by pouring it on, the materials that went into creating it were extraordinarily rare. A potion maker had relatively easy enough access so that she had about three of those orbs in storage. Well, two and a half after using some that night. Most people were stuck healing naturally or visiting surgeons. Or chiurgeons, as Tzheitza called them. As far as Alyssa could tell, everything Tzheitza made for customers was all for the placebo effect. “Those pills you made were… nothing again?”

“Not this time.”

“Oh?” Well, maybe she was wrong. “What does it do?”

“It is a bulk-forming agent designed to clear the body of… everythin’.”

“Huh.” Alyssa wasn’t quite sure she got it. She hadn’t seen Tzheitza use something as barbaric as leeches, but this was ultimately a medieval society. With magic. Those pills could easily have been something terrible designed to send the taker into cold sweats and induce vomiting to try to ‘clear the body of everything’.

Alyssa just shook her head, deciding she didn’t want to know. “I need… help? Or maybe advice.”

“Yer askin’ the wrong woman.”

“What?”

“Relationship advice. Never been in one that hasn’t ended poorly. Yer gonna have to ask someone else about your boyfriend.”

“My boy—” Alyssa gagged, throwing up a bit in her mouth. “No. No. Absolutely not. That thing was not my boyfriend.”

“Oh. Good. Only caught a looksee. Didn’t look too… clean. But didn’t want to say anythin’ about yer tastes.”

Ugh. Why would she even think that? He was a disgusting piece of filth that probably deserved to be locked in the darkest dungeon for the rest of his life. Of course, Tzheitza probably didn’t get a good enough look at him and even if she had, she probably wouldn’t recognize him or know of his crimes. Hell, half of his crimes might not even be actual crimes around here. While she had learned a little, especially about blasphemy, Alyssa still didn’t have a full grasp on the legal workings of Lyria.

“No. No. Nothing like that. He is, or was, a member of the Waters Street gang.”

Tzheitza, who had been cleaning up the mess of making those pills, stilled. “Ye roundaboutin’ a hooligan on my home? Friends with a monster and a malefactor?”

“No!” Alyssa had no idea what a malefactor was, but that was par for the course with Tzheitza. It couldn’t be anything good, that was for sure. “That scum tried to sell me to a whore house. I objected. Violently. Killing the proprietor and a guard as well as freeing some of the ‘merchandise’ as Cid put it. I almost killed him then and again today, but he said something that made me hesitate.

“Apparently, the Waters Street gang is after me because of that aforementioned merchandise. He showed up looking like he had been tortured and complaining about his criminal friend being in trouble—wanting help to get him out of that trouble.” She took a quick minute to explain the circumstances of her meeting Cid a little more thoroughly. She skipped over a few things. Namely freeing the monsters, save for Kasita, and the purple cloak. Most of it, Tzheitza already knew. But Alyssa hadn’t said everything back when she had first asked.

Tzheitza took a deep breath and tossed a cleaning rag onto the counter, knocking over a few sealed jars. She didn’t bother to pick them up. At least they hadn’t rolled off and broken against the floor. “And ye what, wanna save this malefactor Bacco?”

“Honestly? No. Both of them can rot in… in Tenebrael’s embrace or whatever. But if a gang is after me, I need to do something.”

“Ask the Knights. I’m retired.”

“I highly doubt I have the money to hire them. Not for a job to wipe out a whole gang. I don’t know exactly how big this gang is, but that’s why I brought Cid along.” He had said that Svotty got replaced almost immediately. If that was true, they probably had a fairly sizable organization. “I just need… I don’t know what I need. That’s why I came to ask you. And Kasita, she probably knows at least a little about the gang. Where is she?”

Tzheitza first narrowed her eyes, then rolled her eyes with a shrug, all before sighing. “Your pet. Not mine. I’m just waitin’ for her to screw up enough to be worth the effort of killin’.”

“And I’m sure she won’t do anything worthy of raising your ire,” Alyssa said in a raised tone of voice. “And if she can hear me, I would appreciate her coming out.” She waited a moment before calling out, “Kasita? Kasita!”

No response. No shimmer of an object turning into a person. Just silence in the well lit pharmacy.

“Huh. I wonder where she went.”

“Hope to throw itself down the Black Pit.”

Alyssa didn’t know what that was, but it probably wasn’t anything good. “She did save our lives and she hasn’t done anything bad in the week she’s been here. I don’t know why…” Sighing, she shook her head. “I heard about the First City. But that was thousands of years ago. Isn’t it time to let up a bit?”

Tzheitza’s face twisted to a scowl as she slammed her fists on the counter. The little brass weights jumped on the scales, landing with a clatter. “I’ll let up when they stop killing my friends at Pandora.”

A tug pulled at Alyssa’s stomach. She had forgotten completely about the Fortress of Pandora. Built to defend against incursions from monsters. If there wasn’t any aggression from the monsters, there would be no need to build the place. The fact that the place even existed was proof that the hatred for monsters was not wholly unwarranted.

And friends? That sounded personal. Tzheitza had her eyes downcast, staring at the scales with shaking fists. Definitely not something to bring up now. Maybe later when the potioneer was in a better mood. Though really, how much did Alyssa really need to know? It was clear just from the look on Tzheitza’s face and her words. Someone she had cared for died defending the fortress. Any names that would be mentioned would be meaningless to Alyssa.

Hoping that Kasita would stay hidden for at least a few more minutes, she tried changing the subject. “Sorry for bringing up bad memories,” she said in a quiet voice, waiting a few moments before speaking to give Tzheitza time for her thoughts. “But I do need help with the gang. I’ll go find Oz if you don’t want to, but I would like your help interrogating Cid. I’m new to the city so I don’t know what all I should ask about.”

Tzheitza scoffed at the mention of Oz, but didn’t otherwise interrupt Alyssa. “Fetch the malefactor.” She cracked her knuckles in the most intimidating manner. It was straight out of Hollywood with her scowl and glare. Even the lighting of the room made her look ominous.

Not needing telling twice, Alyssa nodded her head and ran right out of the potion shop without bothering to tell Tzheitza that Cid was waiting around the side of the building. Even if she had mentioned it, Tzheitza probably didn’t want a malefactor in her personal rooms. The main shop room was probably bad enough.

Cid had stayed right where Alyssa had left him. Though not in the position she had left him. He was leaning against the door at an awkward angle. Trying to listen in? There shouldn’t be anyone on the other side of the door. It was the storage room. Not even the storage-room-turned-Alyssa’s-bedroom where Kasita might be hanging out. He was definitely too far away to have overheard her conversation with Tzheitza.

Just a light clearing of her throat made him jump the height of the door frame. Really. If he was so worried about her sneaking up on him, why hadn’t he faced the other way, toward the front of the shop, before putting his ear to the door. Shaking her head, Alyssa nodded back toward the front entrance. “Come on. Though I’d think carefully about what I’m going to say if I were you. Tzheitza might just kill you. And the only reason I’d stop her is because I want to kill you myself.”

His cracked lips curled back. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come here.”

“Yeah. Maybe. Should have thought about that beforehand. Too late now. You’re not running off.” Alyssa rested her hand on the holster at her side. If he actually did run off, she probably wouldn’t shoot him. As it was, she had already killed more than enough people for several people’s lifetimes in the last month alone. One of which had been out of pure anger, though a court might have declared it self-defense back on Earth. All the others had been legitimate self-defense, but still.

It weighed on her mind. Pretty much every night. Tenebrael’s comments about her being a reaper didn’t help either. She assuaged her conscience with the knowledge that all of them had deserved it. Pretty much every night, she started to question whether or not the common thieves on Earth or Svotty’s guard had actually deserved it. She squelched those thoughts the second they arose. There were no therapists here. Or, if there were, they probably weren’t very good and she couldn’t exactly go tell them that the deity they worshiped had kidnapped her. For her own peace of mind, the people she had killed absolutely needed to have deserved it.

And while Cid definitely did deserve it just as much as Svotty, Alyssa didn’t want to get in the habit of going around killing all her problems. It was too… permanent. She couldn’t. Not if she wanted to be able to look her parents and brother in the eyes when she finally got back.

All her worrying was for naught. Cid followed along behind her without a single complaint. As soon as they made it inside, Tzheitza shunted him off into one of the… Alyssa wanted to call it a waiting room, but that wasn’t accurate. There were three little cubicles partitioned off from the main shop floor with wooden doors that were used to treat customers over a moderate period of time. If someone needed their hand soaking in a vat of goop for an hour, they went into one of the cubicles. The other day, someone had some earthworm balm applied to a bruise in one.

Now, Cid was practically thrown into one of the seats. There were glass windows in the doors, but Tzheitza hit a small button on the frame. A thick black smog rolled out of an opened hatch, filling the space between the two panes of glass to the point where nothing could be seen on the other side. Though there was still one of those glowing jars of light, the room still felt like a dark cave.

From her apron, Tzheitza started pulling out items. A vial of black liquid. Some metal tool akin to pliers. A glass jar filled with squirming worms—actual leeches? Every time she set another one on the small counter built into the wall, Cid’s eyes widened. With each light clack of a jar hitting wood, muscles in his neck and shoulders twitched. By the time she had finished, there were a dozen tools, potions, and who-knew-whats all lined up in tidy rows.

“Now,” she said slowly. “Who are yeh?”

“C-Cid. I’m Cid. And…” he swallowed with a glance toward the counter. “I really don’t think any of those are necessary.”

Humming, Tzheitza ran a finger over the rim of one of the bottles. Cid leaned about as far as he could without falling out of the chair. It was like some old-timey horror movie. Didn’t torture not even work anyway because the torturee would say anything to get it to stop? Did Cid even need to be tortured? He had shown up on his own to offer information or… to get help with Bacco. Torturing him seemed wholly unnecessary.

But Alyssa didn’t say anything. First of all, there wasn’t any real torture going on. At least not yet. Just the threat of it. Secondly, she didn’t want to undermine Tzheitza’s authority or give Cid a reason to lie as he would know that the torture was only a threat. She just stood to the side, keeping her face as impassive as possible.

“I hear ye like sellin’ young ladies to the gangs.”

Cid’s wide eyes flicked to Alyssa for just an instant. “Selling? Why I… That’s just… I prefer to think of it as assisting newcomers to the city with finding permanent lodgings and even meaningful employment. If I happen to earn a small finder’s compensation on the side, well, we all have to eat.”

“A regular good Samaritan,” Tzheitza said with a sarcastic chuckle.

Which just made Alyssa blink. While she had never read it, she was almost positive that a good Samaritan was a phrase that came from the bible. The very same bible that this world almost certainly did not have a copy of lying about. But, after thinking for a moment, she dismissed the phrase as not important. They all spoke English. If that wasn’t something to get hung up about, neither was a metaphor.

Instead, she focused as Tzheitza started her questioning.


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Author’s Note: Character page has not been updated because I don’t think there was a new character last arc. So just a simple request to vote on Top Web Fiction!

Alyssa’s Notes: Fractal spells. Ugh. I don’t even want to think about them. But I did add Fractal Mirror to my notes. Also, learned a little about potions so I’ve added an addendum to my general magic notes.

Vacant Throne — 010.005

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Brewing Trouble

Madame Webb’s Fine Threads


Alyssa’s hand ached. Muscles in the palm of her hand and her wrist were all cramped up. They shouldn’t be. She had only been practicing drawing a perfect circle for two hours. Back in her grade school days, she had written pretty much all day long for twelve years straight. Two hours holding a pencil should have been a cinch.

Haha. No. By the end of it, her fingers had been locked in place. Her knuckles crackled and popped when she finally set down the fountain pen. She hadn’t even been using ink for the majority of the time. It was too expensive for simple practice. But Alyssa couldn’t fault the results. She had successfully tested a Message spell on Irulon.

Maybe not the most impressive spell to test, but also not a destructive spell. The actual act of creating the spell card had been fairly unimpressive as well. A few scribbles and… magic. A small part of her had expected some sort of ritual involved in their creation. Maybe a drop of blood in the middle or a few abracadabras mumbled under her breath. But no. So long as the designs were properly formed and the card contained the proper angelic text—which Irulon didn’t know the exact meaning of either, though she had mentioned that they were among the more difficult parts of spell creation—the spell would work.

Flicking her wrist to try to work the kinks out, Alyssa walked down the street with an occasional glance to a piece of paper. Directions. After Irulon decided that Alyssa’s meager attempts at perfect shapes were satisfactory enough—or maybe she had just gotten bored—Alyssa had asked for directions to that tailor that she had mentioned. While her modern clothes were less attention-grabbing than the purple cloak she had first worn to the city, acquiring some legitimate attire that fit with the local fashion sounded necessary, if not now then at some point in the future. She doubted that she would actually purchase anything as she had left most of Svotty’s cash behind. Scouting out prices and making contacts with important people were her current goals.

The wealthier side of the city, which contained the Observatorium and several of the larger more opulent homes, felt awkward to walk through. The streets were cleaner than the north and western areas. Larger as well. Some of the main roads were even paved with smoothed cobblestones. There were big houses, even bigger than Tzheitza’s shop, that didn’t even have businesses attached to them like many others did. Their yards weren’t like modern grass yards. They had grass, but they were more like miniature farms filled with all sorts of chickens and turkeys. Walking past was like crossing in front of a band of trumpeters.

But none of that really bothered Alyssa.

It was the slaves.

They were elves for the most part once again. Some would wander the streets with their masters. Others would be in their manor’s yards tending to the livestock or plants. It took a great deal of effort to keep her head focused forward and not get too worked up about their status.

The markets were far more fascinating. There were larger stalls like those at the city entrance, though there weren’t as many of the mobile carts compared to the permanent building shops. The permanent buildings were all oversized. Each shop was unique, nothing like a modern strip mall. Every single shop without exception had large signs hanging above the doorways, painted with their names and a logo. The names were actually far smaller than the logo. Perhaps for the illiterate. Tonks Tailory had a spool of thread with a single string stretching off toward a tunic. The leatherworking shop had its whole sign made out of hides. A barber’s shop had scissors and… leeches?

Not as many people wandered about between the merchants and stores when compared with the city entrance market, but both the people and the goods for sale looked far more expensive. Apples still lacked the glossy sheen of the modern version and were still bruised, but less so compared to the ones she had seen and purchased over near Tzheitza’s shop.

Checking her directions, Alyssa frowned. There was a tailor shop right in the middle of the main square, the second that she had seen since entering this market. It had a few people standing around it. But Irulon’s instructions specifically said to avoid Cott’s Cloth Emporium. Instead, Alyssa headed in the opposite direction down a dark and dusty alley. Despite it still being the middle of the day, it was almost like she had walked indoors. Or into a cave.

Save for herself, the alley was empty. No one bustled about down in this forsaken section of the market. Even the sounds of the crowd from the main square were nothing more than eerie whispers in the shadows.

Was this supposed to be Irulon’s idea of a joke?

Alyssa threw a glance behind her, just to make sure that she wasn’t being boxed in by two creepy thieves. For her meeting at the Observatorium, she had left behind her shotgun. Both her hip and underarm holsters were filled. Putting her hand on her pistol’s hilt, she crept on just a little longer.

The alley seemed to stretch on forever. It couldn’t, of course. There were other streets around. But no matter how far she walked, she never seemed to get closer to the light at the end. The bricks of the alley closed around her as if it were a mouth trying to consume her in the most unassuming fashion.

A flash of movement skittered about in front of her, tearing out of a small archway. Alyssa had her pistol out and aimed down the alley in the blink of an eye.

She didn’t need to use it. The skeletally thin mutt scampered off, startled from an alcove it had been hiding in. Alyssa clamped her hand over her mouth and nose as she glanced toward the alcove. A metal shutter contraption blocked off most of a doorway, but one of the metal plates near the bottom was bent back. Red viscera spilled out onto the ground. Blood mixed with dirt and saliva in deep gouges from claw and teeth marks. The starving dog must have found a snack, but ugh, what was it?

The smell burned at her nose; a meaty, rank scent that was somewhere between rotting food and an outhouse.

Bugs swarmed over the viscera. Large bulbous bugs with sharp snouts. Like mosquitoes except they were the size of her palm. They stayed close to the bloody mess and away from her, but the sight of them still made her shudder.

Thinking she must have taken a wrong turn, Alyssa backed away. This couldn’t be the right place. A princess like Irulon would never be caught dead in such a dank place. There were even thick cobwebs clinging to overhead archways that stretched between the buildings, blocking out light. It was all too much.

No. Irulon would shop at some marble mansion filled with clothes made out of actual gold threads. There would be a hundred attendants surrounding her at all times, bringing her one dress after another as she sat in the middle, directing them like an orchestra conductor with her too-perfect smile.

Alyssa started out of the alley only to pause. She hadn’t noticed when passing earlier, but there was glass on this wall. A window. Dust had caked onto the glass so thick that it blended into the surrounding walls. The only reason she noticed was because of the massive spider web breaking up the fine layer of dust. Now that she was looking, she could see faint lettering etched into the glass.

Madame Webb’s Fine Threads

Glancing down at her directions, Alyssa confirmed that yes, this was the tailor that Irulon had mentioned. What a creepy place, she thought as she leaned in to try to peer through the glass. Even if the place actually existed, which Alyssa still wasn’t sure of with how empty and uninhabited the building looked, she still wasn’t all that inclined to enter.

Wait.

It wasn’t empty. Something just moved inside. Brushing a bit of dust away, Alyssa got her first good look at the interior. Only a few candles lit up the dim room. A young girl sat behind a counter, she had to be younger than Alyssa. Maybe even a teenager. She had long black hair and… a blindfold covering her eyes. Even with the thick cloth on her face, the girl still turned to the window with a smile.

A knot formed in Alyssa’s stomach. But the girl couldn’t possibly have seen her. That was definitely not some false blindfold. It might as well be a wool scarf.

The girl lifted a gloved hand into the air and gave a small beckoning wave.

The knot pulled itself taut as Alyssa jumped back from the window. Nope. No no definitely not. I’ve seen this horror movie. Gun in hand and keeping an eye over her shoulder, Alyssa stalked back down the alley toward the main market square. Running away from someone who might be legitimately blind and had merely heard her brush away the window dust did make her feel a bit bad, but this was a world of monsters and magic. Alyssa would take her chances at the popular tailor shop in the well-lit market rather than some run-down back-alley hole-in-the-wall.

A narrow shadow blocked the light at the end of the alley as a figure moved toward her.

Grinding her teeth together, Alyssa aimed her gun. The market was just beyond, likely filled with people, but Alyssa found herself hard pressed to care at the moment. Between the bloody meat leaking from buildings, creepy blind girls, and dark alleys, she just wanted to be back out in the light. And this man was blocking her in.

Or… he had been blocking her in.

A scream echoed off the bricks in the alley. Not Alyssa’s scream. She was just fine. It had come from the man who was now sniveling in a heap on the floor with his hands clasped over his head. A handful of people passing the mouth of the alley glanced in. Either they didn’t care or they didn’t want to get caught up in troublesome things because they all continued on their way. At least one of them would probably notify a guard. Which might either be good or bad depending on who the guard decided was the aggressor here.

Right now, it was looking an awful lot like Alyssa.

After tossing a quick glance down the alley to ensure that this wasn’t some strange distraction while people sneaked up behind her, Alyssa took a cautious step closer to the man. Not because she wanted to, but because it was the closest way out of the alley. Thankfully, he had thrown himself to a wall, leaving her with plenty of space to edge around him. So long as the curved sword at his hip remained in its little sling on his belt… Alyssa frowned as she eyed the skinny man. His clothes were shabby. Nothing like what someone actually shopping in this section of the city would normally wear.

He peeked out from under his arms as Alyssa paused.

All sense of curiosity fled from Alyssa, replaced with rage. Her fingers tightened around the grip of her pistol as she brought it back up to aim squarely at the man.

Cid,” she spat.

“P-please don’t hurt me!”

“Stalking me? Or out hunting for more victims to sell? Either way, I should send you to Tenebrael. That would solve at least two of my problems. Give one good reason why you deserve to live.”

“I…” He kept his head down, forehead pressed firmly into the dirt ground. His voice came out slightly muffled with how he was curled up. But he still managed to steady his voice enough to speak clearly. “I need your help.”

“Help?” Alyssa parroted. He had been clear, but she still wasn’t sure that she had heard him clearly. “You need my help? With what? Kidnapping more—” Cutting herself off as someone coughed, Alyssa looked up. Apparently not everyone had moved on. Three people dressed in a well-to-do style were staring. Others, curious at what was making a spectacle, were stopping to watch before moving on with their business. “I’m leaving. If I catch you following me again, I will shoot you and I won’t lose a wink of sleep over it. Rather, I imagine that this world would be a much better place.”

“Wait! Please.” Cid reached out, grasping for her ankles until she stepped on his hand. She ground her heel in, eliciting a sharp groan. But it wasn’t enough to stop him from talking. “It’s Bacco. T-They took him! He’s all I have. If something were to happen to him…”

No matter what universe, there was a generally agreed upon rule that a tragedy befalling someone did not excuse their crimes and disgusting personalities. Sympathy should only be afforded to the sympathetic. Which Cid most certainly was not. Even if he had lost his arms and legs to goblins, she wouldn’t have cared in the slightest.

But Alyssa still found herself stopping. Not because of Cid, but because of Bacco. The larger man had helped her out and had been slightly more tolerable than his partner. In the end, he had still tried to sell her, but he had seemed at least somewhat reluctant about it. Maybe that wasn’t a good reason to forgive him. In fact, no! It most certainly isn’t a good reason to forgive him. Especially when he had probably only been reluctant because he had been afraid of her. Had she been any old regular girl, she would likely be confined to a bedchamber right about now.

“I don’t see why I should care. Get out of my sight.”

Cid clutched his hand to his chest the moment Alyssa lifted her foot. Leaving him to his sniveling, Alyssa started walking again. She shot a glare at one of the men watching the altercation from the main street; he quickly decided that he had other places to be, leaving the alley exit open.

“They’re after you too!” Cid called out from behind her. “And they’ll find you. Don’t think you can hide behind your potion seller forever!”

Alyssa’s steps froze with one foot in the air. A small bit of perspiration formed on her back as she slowly lowered her boot to the ground. She stood there with her back to Cid, mind flashing through possibilities and worries.

“You’re lucky I found you first.”

It was a good thing the safety was on. Alyssa’s finger wasn’t even in the trigger guard, but her hand was shaking with how hard her fingers were wrapped around the grip. Whirling on her heel, she got her first good look at Cid’s face.

Days old cuts lined his face. Each were thick, like they had been drawn on with a pointed stick rather than a metal blade. His lips were split in several places. One of his eyes had swelled almost to the point of being shut entirely.

Curling her lip, Alyssa stalked back to him. She squatted down, not even caring that the hem of her dress brushed against the dirt. “What are you talking about?” she hissed. “Who is after me?”

“Who do you think? Waters Street.”

“Great.” Alyssa bit her lip. She had considered that the gang might be larger than Svotty and his guards, but with a week passing and having heard nothing about the gang, she had put it out of her mind. “They’re upset about Svotty?”

Cid scoffed. “Knocking off Svotty wasn’t even a big deal. He’s already been replaced. I doubt they were even worried about the loose coins. They’re… upset about you stealing their merchandise.”

“Merchan—The monster girls?”

“Unless you took something more valuable that I don’t know about, yes.”

A faint tingle brushed the hairs on Alyssa’s neck. She threw a quick glance about just to make sure that no one was sneaking up on her. “So what is after me? A few thugs like you and Bacco? How many?”

Cid put his disgusting teeth on display—now missing one or two more than he had before, but that was hardly noticeable. As he smiled, one of the cuts on his lip broke open, spilling a fresh trickle of blood down his chin. “I’ve told you enough. You help me, and I’ll help you.”

His smile slipped as the silence dragged on. Alyssa wasn’t about to agree to anything he wanted. Instead she stood and started walking away again. “I’ll deal with it myself.” Tzheitza had to have some good ideas on what to do. And she was infinitely more trustworthy.

“Please,” Cid called out as she turned her back on him, all trace of his momentary schadenfrude missing from his voice. “Help me save Bacco. He’s a good kid. Doesn’t deserve this life I’ve dragged him into. I’ll tell you everything I know. Once we find him, you’ll never have to see us again.”

Alyssa continued on for another few steps, but each one came slower than the last until she finally stopped. He had a point. She knew absolutely nothing of the Waters Street gang save for what she saw at the brothel. Tzheitza might know about the gang, but she might not just as easily. Cid was, if not a full member of the gang, a close associate of them. He had up-to-date insider knowledge. And had likely been tortured at their hands if his wounds were anything to go by.

He wouldn’t be loyal to them after that.

“Get on your feet. Keep your hands away from your sides and do not make any sudden movements. They will be your last. And quit smiling! It repulses me.”

“You’ll help me?”

“I’ll consider it. I won’t give you anything more concrete than that until I know more. But not here.” Even if they weren’t really paying more attention than a simple curiosity deserved, Alyssa didn’t like her business being aired in front of half the market square. Not to mention she was still in the same alley as that creepy tailor shop. No. She would discuss things with Cid someplace where they were safe and alone.

And Alyssa couldn’t think of anywhere safer than Tzheitza’s potion shop with the potioneer herself helping to keep an eye on the criminal.


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