Vacant Throne — 042.004

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Tether

Sneakers


The prison tent was just that, effectively. A tent to hold a captive. It didn’t have a big wooden crate or even a metal cage, however. A wooden post had been driven into the ground right in the center of the tent. Alyssa poked her head in to find Volta sitting, chained to the post.

Or, to be more accurate, Illuna’s court arcanist was chained to the post. The court arcanist had both arms in manacles. Someone had put a heavy iron collar around his neck. His arms and legs were covered in bruises. The clothes he had been wearing were torn. One of his eyes had swelled up, turning a fairly nasty purple in the process. Whatever spell cards he might have had were missing entirely. Destroyed or possibly just moved to a different location. The court arcanist looked to be in awfully dire straits.

On the other hand, Volta sat just to the side, arms crossed with a glower on her face. She looked completely unharmed. Irritated, yes, but unharmed. Which… really made Alyssa wonder just how Volta actually worked. The bodies that Volta created were far more tangible than the illusions that Kasita produced. Volta could lift weights with her duplicate body.

But… did she cause the bruises to appear or was the body real enough to actually form bruises? Kasita would have been able to manage that easily enough—though extensive shifts to her illusion did cause a small distortion effect that someone might notice. But what about the torn clothes? Kasita wouldn’t be able to manage that. Did she do something illusory to make people think that they were tearing clothes? Was the clone wearing real clothes? Alyssa had seen Volta form clones fully dressed, but it wasn’t out of the question for the court arcanist to be wearing real clothes. It would certainly help sell the illusion a little more if she could hand a coat to some servant at the start of a meeting. Alyssa wasn’t sure that she would have bothered while out and on her own with only Red around. Which might beg the question of whether bits of her actually came off when parts of the clone were torn.

Unfortunately, Alyssa couldn’t just go up and ask. Volta was not alone. People didn’t tend to leave prisoners completely unguarded. Not even in proper prisons with bars and walls. In a tent with only a wooden post keeping Volta in place, there would obviously be more than just a single guard.

There were four. Two men and two women, all seated around a table. Playing cards, of course, because there was apparently very little to do in this world as an idle activity. She had to wonder what it was like back on Earth. Would a military outpost out in some desert let its guards just sit around playing games on their phones? She doubted it. Then again, a military outpost was probably significantly more likely to be attacked than this camp out in the middle of nowhere.

Still…

She wasn’t quite sure what to do about the guards. Nothing she could do was all that… quiet. Spectral Chains didn’t make noise, but they also didn’t stop who they captured from making noise. Most offensive magic that she knew would instantly alert everyone. Even a little fireball was probably too much. She did have a few Fractal Locks. Four of them, in fact. Enough for each of the guards.

But she was somewhat hesitant to use them on the guards. It wouldn’t hurt them—not that she cared about hurting a bunch of kidnappers—but it would consume valuable resources. Fractal Locks were not easy to draw. And they were one of the few things that Alyssa had on hand that could completely stop anything that might be about to harm her. If another apophis popped out of nowhere and started slaughtering this entire camp, she would likely need one just to avoid getting crushed randomly. And it was the one spell that could buy time if something did happen. If Red did go crazy and attacked the draken, Fractal Lock might save Izsha long enough for Alyssa to figure out how to heal properly.

She was pretty sure she should be able to do so. As long as the wounds were superficial enough, anyway. She could probably heal a human a whole lot better given the focus of her research as of late. A draken body was a bit more unknown at the moment. It would probably be a good idea to do some research on all her companions physiologies. Shame the internet didn’t have videos on draken, mimics, and hellhounds.

At least she had confirmation on Volta. Given that Volta did not seem to be in immediate danger, and given that it didn’t look like anyone knew about her true nature as a monster, Alyssa felt she had the time to look around for an alternate option. Even just waiting for nightfall might provide an opportunity if they relaxed the number of guards. Burning all her Fractal Locks might be a bit much, but two would probably be acceptable.

She had, just a week or so ago, sent a text to Jason asking him to reinvent the printing press for use with spell cards. If she could just print off a few dozen of the most complex spells, that would solve a lot of issues. But for now, she was stuck hand drawing everything.

He had responded by saying that it was already on his list.

Technically speaking, she could probably conjure up copies of spell cards. The real problem was accuracy. It took a lot of practice to get things right, she had learned. Being so focused on Irulon as of late, she hadn’t even tried to conjure up a spell card. All her research and practice went into the construction of bodies. With Annihilator, she had learned to not test unproved methods of doing anything out in the field. She wasn’t sure how much could possibly go wrong if she messed up or got unexpected consequences of creating a spell card, but for the moment, she wouldn’t risk it.

Really, getting Volta out probably wouldn’t be a difficult endeavor. Starting a fire at the opposite end of the camp would probably get at least a few of Volta’s guards out there if only to see what all the commotion was about. If she was feeling risky, she could probably just run up to Volta, make sure she got underneath the invisibility shroud, and run off before any guards could do anything about it.

But Alyssa had decided on another objective, if she could manage it.

Someone was behind this attack. Alyssa had a feeling that it was related to the two men having a silent stand-off a few tents over. The arcanist clearly didn’t fit in with this group. Perhaps he was making business for some other reason, but at the moment, he was the prime suspect for who might have directed this group of brigands toward Volta and Red.

It made Alyssa wonder how many other targets that this particular group of brigands had been assigned. They were obviously too large a group to survive off the supplies and goods of a handful of merchants that might be passing on the road. They definitely had funding. They would fall apart otherwise.

Fela looked about ready to rush in there and tackle all the guards. She could certainly do that, but Alyssa was still wary of their chances of escaping once the entire camp became alert. Even under invisibility, getting boxed in wouldn’t go well.

Taking the hellhound’s hand, Alyssa nodded back toward the leadership tent. Fela didn’t look too happy about abandoning a monster in chains. Still, she didn’t protest as Alyssa dragged her back to the other tent.

Through the tent flap, still slightly ajar, Alyssa found that someone else had joined the arcanist and the bored leader. An older man stood to the slouching man’s side, looking rather like a pirate with an eye patch and a wooden leg. When Alyssa poked her head inside, he was just righting himself as if from having leaned down to whisper into the other man’s ear.

For his part, the slouching man still spun his dagger around his finger over and over again.

Alyssa debated slipping fully into the tent. It wasn’t a giant tent, but it was large enough that she and Fela could sit in one corner without accidentally bringing one of the other people into their shroud. It would disturb the tent’s flap a whole lot more than might reasonably be believed of a passing breeze, however. If the opportunity presented itself—a distraction for the three inside the tent, perhaps.

Setting fire to some far off tent was looking more and more appealing. Though that would interrupt the conversation that was taking place here, she supposed.

If what was going on could be called a conversation. Though she suspected that the pirate had been whispering to the leader, all three of them were just glaring at each other. The mild smile on the arcanist’s face was a whole lot more strained now than it had been before. Something told Alyssa that he wasn’t getting his way.

Eventually, the leader stopped spinning his knife, gripping it tightly in his hand. “Your offer has been considered, weighed, and found wanting.”

The last vestiges of the arcanist’s smile slipped into a tight-lipped frown. “Your renegation on our agreement is noted, Chief.”

“I was asked to abduct people. There were no people among the party specified,” he said, making Alyssa wonder just what he thought Volta was. If he knew she was a monster, he really wasn’t taking any precautions in preventing her escape. If given a chance, Volta could probably clone some random guard and simply walk out of camp. The chains certainly wouldn’t hold her to that post. “I lost eight men,” he continued. “Five more are injured, three of whom may never recover.”

Had that all been Red? Probably not. Volta could use spells, so it stood to reason that she had managed to fend off some of her captors as well. In addition, Volta masqueraded as the court arcanist of Illuna. She was probably considered fairly highly ranked.

“I warned you about the arcanist,” the arcanist said with a casual shrug, mostly confirming Alyssa’s thoughts. “It is hardly my fault if you failed to take proper precautions. As for the other… How much damage can a sword actually cause? Just stay away from it. It’s just that easy.”

Spoken like a true arcanist.

And it was apparently the exact wrong thing to say. The leader, this Chief, stopped spinning his dagger once again. He gripped it with the point facing downward and slammed it into the wooden table at his chair’s side.

Alyssa couldn’t help her jump. The pirate jumped as well, as did the arcanist.

Fela started growling until Alyssa elbowed her. Thankfully, it seemed as if no one noticed. The tension in the room was too high for a muffled bit of noise to alert anyone.

The Chief stood, slowly rising to his feet. From his formerly slouched posture, Alyssa wouldn’t have expected him to be a full head taller than she was. He wasn’t as tall as a cyclops or minotaur, but he could cast quite the intimidating shadow.

Not that the arcanist seemed all that worried. His hand did drift down to rest near his stack of spell cards, but he didn’t actually make the move to grab any of them.

“Half again the agreed upon amount,” Chief said, glowering. “Or I’ll show you just how much damage a sword can cause.”

The arcanist simply sighed. “I’ll contact those who hired me, but… I hope you don’t regret this, Chief.”

So he is just another middle-man, Alyssa thought with something of a scowl. People hiring people to hire people to send people out to kidnap her friends. Irritating. If someone wanted something done, they should just do it themselves.

Pulling Fela back with her, Alyssa moved well out of the way of the tent flaps. The arcanist emerged a second later, striding off with a grim frown on his face. For a moment, Alyssa considered sticking around to listen in on the Chief, but decided against it. The arcanist was clearly higher up on the ladder of people of interest. And if he was going to go off and contact his superiors, he was probably going to go send a Message. A Message that would instantly tell Alyssa the name of whoever he was trying to contact. A random name in this world might not mean much to her, but perhaps Irulon, Volta, or Martin would know.

However, following the arcanist didn’t take them to a private area where one might send a Message. Rather, the arcanist headed directly toward a ring of wagons at the far back of the camp. Which, Alyssa decided, must have been their primary way of transporting all the tents and cots and other stuff that made up this camp. There were a good two dozen wagons—some with canvas covers, some that looked like they could have covers, and some completely without. They were all arranged in a large ring with rope tying them all together.

They created a… pasture, for lack of a better word. Horses, oxen, donkeys, and a few cows all meandered about.

Alyssa guessed what was going to happen well before the arcanist walked around the loop of wagons to a dusty brown horse that had been hitched to a wheel. He wasn’t going to send a Message at all. He was going to ride off to find his superiors. Did that mean they were nearby? Alyssa had half a mind to follow him. If they were close enough to reach by horse in such a reasonable amount of time that sending a Message was superfluous, they were probably just off around a hill.

But that would mean leaving the camp and Volta behind and unsupervised. Which probably wouldn’t be an issue—Volta didn’t seem to be in much danger at the moment—were it not for this little disagreement between middle-men. Alyssa didn’t think it would be out of the question for the Chief to have Volta moved somewhere else just in case the arcanist returned with a few friends to trash the place until they got what they came for. Fela could probably track Volta anywhere they could take her, but it felt a little dangerous to leave that up to chance.

For the moment, she just stared, watching as the arcanist rode off. A small part of her kind of hoped that he would turn toward where Red and the draken were, but that wasn’t the case. He headed straight toward where the road to Illuna should be, assuming Alyssa hadn’t gotten all turned around. For a moment, Alyssa considered sending a Message to Izsha to intercept or follow the arcanist. That idea disappeared as soon as it came, rejected for too much risk and too little to gain. Izsha would have no way of communicating back to Alyssa anything that happened and… well, he was an arcanist. He probably had spells to deal with threats at range. He had already dismissed the sword as a threat. The draken might be faster than Red, but they still only had their bodies as weapons.

Shaking her head, Alyssa headed back toward the Chief’s tent. Maybe he did have something useful to say.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t in the tent when Alyssa got back to it. Neither was anyone else for that matter. Alyssa did a quick check of the nearby souls, worried that they had gone straight to Volta, but found nothing to be concerned over. Volta was still where Alyssa had last seen her and there were still only the same small group of guards in the room. Still playing cards, judging by their position. No one looked like they were heading toward the tent either, though that was a bit harder to make out. She would have to keep an eye out.

“Well,” Alyssa said as she slipped into the tent with Fela at her heels. “Ideas?”

“About what?” Fela said, keeping her voice down. “Where that guy is going? Trashing this place? Getting the monster out of here alive?”

“Any of them. All of them?”

“Don’t know about the first, but the second and third are easy enough. Let’s just do it. You and I can take them all. And our friends will back us up once they notice.”

That was probably true. Though not in the way Fela was thinking, certainly. Alyssa wished she had Fela’s confidence in her abilities, but she didn’t see how she could fight off a hundred people so easily. Or casually. The part that was true was that she could probably kill them all and she wouldn’t even need to call down Red and the draken to do so. Using the power of angelic creation, she could create all kinds of nasty things. From napalm to chlorine gas. They would be far simpler than creating a human body. She could probably even create a gas mask for herself and Fela.

Of course, she didn’t know how Volta might react to a nerve agent seeping through the camp. She would have to make another gas mask and get it on her before doing anything like that. Not that she wanted to. Something about the situation made her balk. A hundred people. If she wasn’t already a mass murderer, killing over a hundred people before they even realized what was going on would surely make her one.

It might be a silly concern. These people were obviously bad people. She had already decided that earlier. They were mercenaries who would kidnap and likely enslave anyone that they happened across. It probably didn’t matter that Volta and Red weren’t human. These people probably attacked regular human merchants whenever they found a good opportunity to do so.

They were a far larger group and far more organized than Alyssa had thought brigands and highwaymen would be after hearing about attacks on travelers from Brakkt and Oz. There were so many that it really made her wonder if Oz’s group could really have defended Raugis had someone actually put a price on her head. Perhaps they were wary of any kind of trouble. The Chief seemed angry and upset that a few of his men had wound up killed and injured.

In fact, that was almost certainly it. Running a group like this would be impossible if the people here thought ten of them were going to be sacrificed with every job they took. Taking that into consideration, they probably did only attack completely defenseless caravans. A few people from the guild would likely be enough to dissuade them.

Tenebrael would say something about how silly she was being. She could almost picture the angel floating in front of her with a half a smile on her face, mentioning that Alyssa had killed plenty just with that first Annihilator and those had hardly been the only ones dead by her hand. These people were probably morally more acceptable targets too. They weren’t plotting genocide, but they didn’t even have any goals or ideals behind their kidnapping and likely murder aside from their next payday.

And Tenebrael would probably be right about all that.

Cracking her neck side to side, Alyssa glanced at Fela. “We’ll wait until nightfall. If the guards relax and we can slip Volta out, we’ll do so. Otherwise…” Pressing her lips together, Alyssa looked around the tent. “For now, let’s see if we can find any useful information.”


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Vacant Throne — 042.003

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Tether

Highwaymen


Accelero was not the best spell to use in a situation like the one Alyssa found herself in.

To begin with, casting a spell that required physical touch wasn’t the easiest thing when she needed to be touching a half-dozen people. Three draken—Red was on Musca at the moment—a hellhound, and a cursed sword all had to gather around and make sure they were touching some part of Alyssa when she cast the spell lest they be left behind in ‘real’ time. All them crowding around hadn’t been that much of an issue.

When Alyssa told Red to take her hand, however, things got a bit dangerous. It was only thanks to an unsettling wariness that came with being next to the cursed sword that Alyssa hadn’t lost her hand. Since then, Alyssa decided to be extremely careful in how she phrased things around a sword that seemed to want nothing more out of life than to cut things.

But besides all the casting issues of Accelero, it apparently played havoc on the draken and hellhound’s sense of smell. Even Alyssa had noticed it this time around. The smell around the cave was strong enough that its absence became all the more jarring. She hadn’t asked Irulon as she had only thought it up as they were traveling, but she had to wonder if the spell was providing fresh air to those under its effect.

Luckily, Red was able to direct them well enough to where the actual ambush had taken place. It happened yesterday. Red had walked for nearly eighteen hours to find Alyssa, though at least one or two of those hours had been narrowing down exactly where the cave entrance was. Eighteen hours of walking on foot translated to only a few hours of draken sprinting. Combined with the effects of Accelero, Alyssa suspected they arrived in a matter of minutes.

Alyssa didn’t need Red to let them know when they arrived. The cursed sword had told her about slicing and cutting. Red had not told her about turning a few people into a mess of red jelly. Based on the number of torsos, there were only five people that she had ended up killing. Yet there were one too many arms lying off to the side of the main road that led into Illuna for the amount of bodies around. Though even that was a bit hard to count. Several of the bodies had likely bled out thanks to missing arms. In addition to the extra arms, there was a scattering of fingers that didn’t look like it belonged on the bodies of anyone present.

Alyssa looked around for a few more minutes. She inspected all their clothes and weapons for any insignia that might lead to who they were or who hired them. Unfortunately, like the last group of mangled bodies she had come across, they did not advertise their allegiances. They didn’t even carry a convenient slip of paper detailing their orders. Their attire and weapons were not at all similar to the group of bounty hunters. That didn’t mean they weren’t bounty hunters, just that they were a different group, maybe from somewhere else in the land. Or they could be legitimate highwaymen. For as legitimate as a highwayman could be, anyway.

She considered using a Retrograde Cognition spell—a full day was a fairly long time, but she might have been able to spot something. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like any of their companions had come back for the bodies and the trackers in their group should be able to find out where they were going without needing to spot them coming or going with that spell.

Once she was satisfied that she wasn’t going to learn anything from looking over the bodies, Alyssa deactivated Accelero. The draken and Fela wouldn’t be able to follow the trail otherwise.

Some hound or coyote-like animal yelped at their presence, scampering off. It had likely been about ready to have a little feast.

Fela and the draken immediately set to their duties with no prompting needed. Each split apart, going to different bodies for a few quick sniffs. They prowled around, sniffing at the air and occasionally sniffing at other bodies. After a brief meeting of the four, which mostly had Fela talking and the draken nodding along, Fela announced that they were ready. Red with Musca, Fela with Dasca, and Alyssa with Izsha, they took off. Although Irulon had feared there would be some backtracking involved, they mostly headed off in a straight line directly away from the direction from where they had arrived.

The trail was old, but not apparently not nearly as bad as tracking the apophis had been. The land here wasn’t marshy or otherwise wet. It hadn’t rained to dampen lingering trails of the horses they had made off with either. The area they were in was fairly close to the Plains of the Dead, which didn’t receive much water at all, so that was likely to be expected.

Just how far they had to go was, sadly enough, not a question that could be asked of a scent.

Alyssa kept her eyes peeled, though she doubted she would see anything. If this kidnapping had been done by highwaymen, they wouldn’t have their hideout obvious. It would be, much like the cave Alyssa and Irulon had commandeered, something that looked entirely natural from the outside. No neon signposts or even exterior stables. Even the water well at their cave didn’t look like what most people pictured when they thought of a well. It was more of a hole in the ground.

If this wasn’t simple brigands, they might have had a camp. That would have been more obvious, most likely. At the same time, it would probably be packed up at this point. Assuming Volta had been their objective the whole time. If they accomplished their objective, there was no need to stick around. But a camp, even a small one, took time to pack up. It involved gear that had to be carried. A large group couldn’t move as fast as a small group or an individual. And even a small group couldn’t outrun draken unless they had their own monsters.

They would catch up. One way or another, she would find Volta.

It took four hours of riding at near top speed before Alyssa saw anything. They had left the main road behind a while back, not long after finding the ambush point, to follow a faint trail in the dirt that had to have been left behind by the group. A few more days and there likely wouldn’t have been anything left of it. Even just a particularly breezy hour would have destroyed it. But it did act as a suitable backup in case the scents left behind had thinned too much. And, when it came time to leave, it could help them find the road again. Though so long as they headed directly south, they would eventually find it anyway.

The scene they happened upon was a camp, much like the one Alyssa pictured when she theorized on the possible abductors. It was not, however, torn up with the assailants moving on because their objective had been complete. Rather, it looked like a temporarily permanent dwelling, much like what the monsters had erected just outside Illuna. It was even about as large, which had Alyssa worried. That meant there were a few dozen of them in there. At least.

Closing her eyes, Alyssa concentrated a bit. She didn’t count, just made a rough estimate, but she highballed a hundred at least. A hundred people could probably overwhelm her. She didn’t have that many Spectral Chains spells in her inventory. Obviously an Annihilator would make short work of them, but Volta might still be down there—she couldn’t tell just through soul-sight alone at the moment.

Alyssa glanced to the side. Red sat atop Dasca, staring down with an inscrutable look on her face. Eagerness, perhaps? The fingers clutching her sword twitched, tightening. She was clearly itching for a fight.

Could Red take them all? She was strong. The bodies they had left behind were evidence of that. But she had already been overwhelmed. The sword had been separated from the body. If they did that again… A sword was useless without someone to wield it.

Fela was strong. As were the draken. With all six of them, they could probably fight a hundred armed men. Probably. And that assumed that Red didn’t get too… enthusiastic and harm anyone on her side. Something that Alyssa could not guarantee wouldn’t happen.

Of course, while Red might want to charge down there and start slashing away at anything that moved, it wasn’t the most intelligent way of going about things. Alyssa was an arcanist. She had spells. A little invisibility would get her into the camp. She could attempt to locate Volta and maybe even extract her without anyone noticing. Anyone with a working brain wouldn’t want to charge into a group of a hundred people and start a fight.

Still looking at Red, Alyssa had to wonder just how well a sword’s brain really worked.

“Alright,” Alyssa said from beside Izsha. As soon as they spotted the camp, they all quickly got off the draken in order to make themselves less visible on the horizon. The terrain here wasn’t flat, though it was much flatter than the area around the cave this close to the Plains of the Dead. But it was flat enough that they could probably be spotted without too much trouble from a fairly large distance. Nobody in this world had something like binoculars though, which was how Alyssa had spotted the camp. An arcanist might be able to use something like Tineye to spot them from afar. Maybe even something less irritating to use that only affected sight. Because of that, Alyssa felt the need to take some precautions, but not to dive to the ground and cover herself with brush like a ghillie suit.

“Red,” Alyssa said, looking the cursed sword directly in the eye before wondering if she shouldn’t actually be staring at the actual sword. It probably didn’t matter. “You stay here. Izsha, Musca, Dasca, you—”

“Stay. Stay? But—”

“Fela and I are going to find Volta. If Volta is there.” There was always a possibility that Volta had been taken away by only a few of the number here, which would heavily complicate matters. But that was something they would have to deal with if it came up. “If we just rush down there, they might hurt Volta.” True. “Remember, we’re here to protect. Not to cut and stab.”

It looked as if Alyssa had just called off Christmas. Red probably didn’t even know what Christmas was—no one in this world would know—but the look on Red’s face was abject horror mixed with disappointment. Probably the only real emoting that the cursed sword had managed to do. Most of Red’s default expressions involved something between vacant staring and vacant grinning.

But she doubted that Red could be subtle even if absolutely necessary in order to get to stab and cut even more later on. As such, she needed Red to not follow her into the camp. Not that she had any sympathy at all for kidnappers and likely murderers. It was simply about pragmatics.

Glancing toward Izsha, Alyssa dropped the volume of her voice. “Try to keep her here, but don’t get hurt doing it. Can you let the others know that?” Dasca and Musca were well on the opposite side of Red and Fela.

Izsha nodded though. It just reminded Alyssa that she wanted to come up with a proper way to talk with the draken. Just being able to talk to someone she had long considered a friend sounded worth the effort on its own. She could probably do something about it now… if she understood language a little better. The draken communicated using scents, body language, and a few other nuances such as the way they looked at each other. That was about as deep as Alyssa’s draken-language knowledge went. And she felt like she barely understood English half the time.

She could try a request to Tenebrael like she had done every time she manifested Tenebrael’s power the last time they had been connected, but…

It just didn’t feel right.

Doing things herself was harder. There was no doubt about that. But it felt more accurate. More natural. Like knowing how the world worked in order to make changes to it was how the power was supposed to be used in the first place. Besides that, it felt a lot less like she was relying on Tenebrael when she did everything on her own. They were still connected. The source of that power was still Tenebrael. But it was more like Tenebrael had just left the phone off the hook, letting Alyssa shout requests directly to the cook instead of having Tenebrael relay the message while probably changing her words around because she was lazy. Or something.

That was probably a horrible analogy, but who was counting.

Alyssa slowly started walking, motioning for Fela to follow. The entire time she moved, she kept an eye on Red. Just in case. She didn’t know how well the draken would be able to handle an angry cursed sword. Maybe the sword would have a hard time cutting their scales. Maybe they were completely outmatched. Hard to say.

Thankfully, Red didn’t move to try to follow. The cursed sword just stood, staring into the distance with that same canceled-Christmas look on her face. Probably mentally warring with herself about her desire to do what a sword was designed to do and her goal to protect Volta. Alyssa had a sinking feeling that the sword would charge straight into the camp if left staring at it for too long. She could only hope that they would be able to find Volta before then.

As they got further from the draken and Red, Alyssa pulled out her spell cards and cast a quick invisibility spell that would cover both herself and Fela. Empty Mirror was just a bit out of Fela’s ability to cast. They wouldn’t be able to split up while keeping Fela in stealth, but Alyssa was hoping that wouldn’t be necessary. Between Fela tracking and Alyssa’s sense of souls, they could probably find Volta without too much issue.

Invisibility really made it almost too easy. It took just over a half hour to walk to the camp—it had been a bit further away than Alyssa had thought. Once they did finally arrive, Alyssa just waltzed in with Fela at her side. The camp was occupied and it did have lookouts… for a given value of the word lookout. It was more like they had a handful of gambling groups going on along the edges of their camp who might occasionally, out of the corners of their eyes, spot something approaching the camp. They were all playing that card game that Alyssa had seen around various taverns. At least the ones she passed were. Perhaps there were some actually alert guards on the opposite side of the camp.

She doubted it, but still…

There were an array of tents set out in the place. Large sheep-herder’s tents made from some kind of animal leather by the looks of things. Some were smaller, big enough to fit maybe six cots with a reasonable distance between them. Others were larger. The three biggest could have fit a good six of the smallest tents inside them. Peeking her head inside one, Alyssa found it to be a barracks of sorts. Lots of cots. Eight rows of five. Forty. If the other large tents had the same, that was one hundred twenty beds. And at least some of the smaller tents also had cots in them.

She might have underestimated how many people were active in this camp.

And that also assumed that each cot was personal and not shared between two or three people. Something Alyssa knew wasn’t uncommon.

She had no idea how they transported it all. She hadn’t spotted any wagons or even all that many horses. Perhaps they were under one of the tents.

There weren’t over a hundred people around at the moment however. Whether they were off kidnapping more innocent monsters or raiding traveling merchants was yet to be decided. Still, this looked like a much larger operation than she had expected. If this were Yora, they committed a great deal of resources into this. Which seemed silly. As much as Alyssa hated to admit it, it probably wasn’t that difficult to get a hold of monsters. The group camping on Illuna’s doorstep was not the only such group. She knew that for a fact. If Yora really wanted monsters for any reason, they could probably find more around their land that they could acquire with far less opposition.

Not only that, but if Volta’s kidnapping could be tied back to Yora, it would surely raise tensions. Maybe Yora didn’t care, but Alyssa still thought it was stupid to make unnecessary enemies when they could just go find another group of monsters to harass.

Unless there was something specific about this group of monsters that they wanted. Lueta came to mind. Really, Lueta was the only thing that came to mind. Rokien and Fezzik were strong, yes. But not strong enough to be considered all that special, in Alyssa’s inexpert opinion. The rest of the monsters in the camp went downhill from there—in terms of interest to outside parties, not in personality or anything Alyssa would disparage them for.

Using her sense of souls, Alyssa tried to find Volta. Fela was constantly sniffing at the air as well, but had yet to drag Alyssa off in any one direction. Figuring that Volta would be chained down somewhere—tents likely didn’t have permanent holding cells, though she supposed there could be some wooden crate that they shoved prisoners into—Alyssa went around to the tents that didn’t have a lot of people in them. One to five people at most. That left one soul for Volta and a few for guards.

Most were more barracks. Not much to see in any of them aside from what Alyssa assumed to be a night shift taking a break during the day. One, however, was not.

A man lounged on a wicker seat, slouching as if he owned the place. Which he might, for all Alyssa knew. In his hand, he held a dagger with a little ring at the end of the hilt. Finger in the ring, he spun it and caught it. Spun it and caught it. Spun it and caught it.

Another man stood in front of the first.

Most of the people that Alyssa had seen around the camp were dressed for a fight. Lots of studded leather, weapons at their hips, armor pieces covering vital areas. A few had scaled equipment while others looked like they were in regular old cowhide leather. Nothing quite so fancy as the dragon-hide armor that Alyssa and Irulon had, but serviceable nonetheless. Even the slouching man in the chair wore somewhat dirty brown leathers.

This man did not dress like any of them. He wore cloth. Comfortable cloth, by the looks of things. And it was far cleaner than any of the people around. He didn’t have even a little dirt smeared on his face, let alone his clothes. While he didn’t have a weapon, he did have a number of cards dangling from a ring at his hip.

Alyssa had to wonder if she had walked into some kind of stand-off. Slouching-man stared up as he spun his dagger, irritation mixed with boredom set into his features. The arcanist stood, back straight with a smile on his face. Out of context, he would have looked just like any well-to-do passing someone on the street while offering a polite smile. In the situation, it looked far more like he had just said something that he knew was offensive yet knew that the man on the chair could do nothing about.

She wanted to keep watching, to find out what was going on, but Fela started tugging on the sleeve of her tunic. Glancing at the hellhound, Alyssa found Fela pointing at her nose then pointing off in the direction of a tent they had yet to visit. A quick check of the souls found five inside.

One of those souls was ever so slightly different than the definitely human souls around.

With one last look at the stand-off, Alyssa turned away.

Volta was waiting.


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Vacant Throne — 042.002

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Tether

Knock Knock


The body’s design had finally been finalized. Irulon has sketched out an almost disturbingly detailed image of what the dragon wanted from a whole variety of angles. And it wasn’t just the outside that Irulon had drawn. Alyssa had a skeleton drawn out. Another series of sketches laid musculature over the top. Irulon had even gone all out in drawing circulatory and nervous systems. Understanding that Alyssa needed accurate information to create things, she had gone all out in the sketches.

Of course, the most detailed of the drawings were the ones of it whole.

It was a female body. Alyssa was honestly not sure whether or not the dragon was female. Or had been female. Technically, it was just a spooky ghost at the moment, possessing Irulon’s body. At this point, she was somewhat afraid to ask. Would it be rude? Irulon only ever referred to it as ‘my companion’, ‘the dragon’, or simply ‘it’. It could just be that the dragon was used to Irulon’s body and, not caring, had chosen for familiarity.

In keeping with the familiarity theory, the new body was roughly the same size as Irulon. Not quite as tall as Alyssa was. The face had almost the same sharp and pointed features that Irulon had along with her straight brown hair. The similarities ended there. Irulon was not a twig, but she definitely didn’t have the same muscles that Alyssa had. Her biceps were far less defined and her core was almost nonexistent. Being able to have a completely designer body, the dragon had opted to go for more of Alyssa’s style of musculature than Irulon’s.

Though the dragon wouldn’t really look like either of them. Mostly because of the scales. The titanium scales were really the only inhuman element of the new body, but they were quite a large and obvious element. They didn’t cover the entire body. The arms and legs were scaled, but the hands and feet were not. Both were much more human than some of Alyssa’s earlier experiments. The hands were slightly clawed, but only at the fingertips. Aside from the limbs, the scales were mostly around the shoulders and back, with some extending about halfway up the neck. Unfortunately for the dragon, the face just had too much intricacies to cover in hard scales and still be workable. Same with most of the torso. Perhaps if Alyssa had more time to experiment more, she could find out a solution or find a monster with a similar scale pattern to examine thoroughly, but the fact was that they were running out of time.

Not completely. Technically, they could have months or maybe even years yet. Tenebrael herself wasn’t even one hundred percent positive that the tangled souls would have a negative overall impact. But Irulon and the dragon both wanted to separate sooner rather than later to avoid any potential complications.

In Alyssa’s private opinion, she had to wonder whether or not the dragon was getting excited about having a body of its own. According to Irulon, it was quite happy with the current situation. But having its own body had to be enticing.

Alyssa, Irulon, and the dragon all wondered about the possibility of alterations after a soul was inhabiting the body. That would let Alyssa learn more and make more interesting alterations. Maybe even give the dragon wings. Or other people. Alyssa felt fairly comfortable in her own skin. There wasn’t much she thought she would change about herself. But maybe Irulon, because of having a dragon inside her for so long, would like some scales.

Probably not, but it was amusing to consider.

Unfortunately for scaled Irulon, modifying bodies seemed… difficult. She had yet to make it work on any of their experimental creations. Alyssa had no doubt that Tenebrael would be able to modify a person’s physical body. But she had extreme doubts whether she would be able to modify a person’s physical body. The rules she was bound to would probably stop her before she even thought about it.

Glancing at her phone, Alyssa decided that it was about time her break came to an end. Though it wasn’t really a break. Just a brief time when she swapped from creating bodies to studying the sketches. She folded up Irulon’s notebook as she headed up the path to their cave hideout. Four of her last five creations were perfect in Irulon’s examinations. Unfortunately, Alyssa wanted ten of ten perfect before they actually began.

Halfway up the hill, she had to stop. A moving light off in the distance caught her eye, backgrounded by the rings of the planet. It took her a moment of squinting to realize exactly what she was looking at. It helped that it was getting closer.

A thousand boiling eyes stared back at her.

A Kindness.

The Astral Authority.

Just one. Not a giant swarm of them. Alyssa knew they were in the area. Brakkt had sent her a Message about spotting one a few days back. There probably wouldn’t even be more than the one nearby.

Taking her pistol from her holster, Alyssa raised it, aimed, and fired without a word. A beam of black-white light fired, curving slightly to account for her poor aim at this range. A husk of eyes spiraled down to the ground, leaving a trail of black smoke in its wake. Alyssa didn’t bother hiking out to inspect the corpse. If it wasn’t dead, it would probably continue to try to observe her. She would just shoot it down again.

Figuring out a bit more about Tenebrael’s power was handy, to say the least. Not having to speak a request to Tenebrael before obliterating a pesky Kindness was nice. Nicer still was the fact that their cave had a door.

A large sheet of solid metal covered up the entire entrance to the cave. It was broken only by a smooth metal door. Alyssa flipped the latch and immediately grimaced. It wasn’t an air-tight door, but it did help some. Or, more accurately, it helped restrict airflow, making the inside far more stagnant than it had been a few days before. For that reason alone, Alyssa was considering tearing it out.

But they shouldn’t actually need to be here for all that much longer. Now that the body had been finalized, Irulon was spending a great deal of time adapting the ritual she had created to the body’s dimensions. Once she was done and once Alyssa was happy with her work, they could leave. Maybe even blowing this place up in their wake just to spare anyone else from stumbling across it.

Wondering how difficult it would be to make a gas mask, Alyssa trudged into the cave, breathing from her mouth only. Today’s task was a simple one. Practice making the same body over and over again. Some might find it boring. With all the concentrating that she had to do, it was almost more meditative. A peaceful endeavor.

At least, it should have been. Just as she sat down in her room, ready to try again, she heard something. A repeated banging. Metal against metal. It took Alyssa a long moment to figure out just what it was. At first, she thought it was Irulon doing something. But Irulon didn’t want to disturb Alyssa’s meditative work any more than she wanted to be disturbed herself.

The door.

Someone was knocking at the door. That had to be it. With wary steps, Alyssa headed back down the cave to the entrance. Her spell cards were in her hand. She wasn’t positive that she needed them anymore. Not while connected to Tenebrael. But she actually had no idea how Spectral Chains worked in the slightest which meant that she wouldn’t be able to replicate the effect using Tenebrael’s power. For most beings, mortals especially, steel chains would probably work. Still, there was the possibility that Tenebrael’s power would vanish at an inopportune moment. It probably wouldn’t, but Alyssa wasn’t willing to take the chance by throwing away her spell cards.

On her way, she passed Irulon coming out of her wing of the cave system.

“Brakkt?” Alyssa asked with a raised eyebrow.

“He didn’t send me a Message,” Irulon said, falling in step alongside Alyssa. “And he probably would have just walked in.”

The same was true for Fela and Kasita. The door had a latch, but it didn’t really have a lock. Aside from those three and the draken, no one else really knew about their secret laboratory.

Bright light highlighted the edges of the door. Unfortunately, Alyssa hadn’t thought to put a window in it.

“Who is there?” Alyssa called out.

The knocking stopped. There was a long pause that made Alyssa more nervous than anything. Someone she knew would have answered right away. This was clearly no one she knew.

And she was standing an obvious position. Alyssa had learned from the Taker that obvious positions were easy to hit, even if the actual target wasn’t visible. Regular people using Annihilator didn’t have quite the power that Alyssa did, but she would still die if someone like Lumen aimed that spell in her direction. Even with the door in the way. It would melt almost instantly.

Alyssa slammed her shoulder into the door, hoping to surprise any would-be assailants on the other side. Spectral Chains were already forming in the air before she even saw a target for them.

She hadn’t been inside the cave nearly long enough for her eyes to adjust to the dim, potion-lit chambers. Even still, she found herself blinking a few times before her eyes focused on the person standing in front of the door.

“Red?” Alyssa said as the chains wrapped around Volta’s cursed sword companion. Even after recognizing who it was, she still didn’t undo the chains. The cursed sword made her nervous. “What are you doing here? How do you even know about this place?”

Red didn’t answer right away. With a look on the human puppet’s face somewhere between amused and vapid, she looked down and tugged slightly on the chains. Not enough to count as an escape attempt. Just enough to give a little test. Without looking back up to Alyssa, she giggled. “Knew you were in the area. Just had to follow the smell.”

Alyssa opened her mouth, about to ask if cursed swords had enhanced senses. She stopped when she realized that she honestly had no idea how far away someone would have to be to detect this place. It wasn’t just the corpses inside the cave either. There was a whole mass grave fulled with rotting bodies.

Perhaps it would be wise to fill the grave with water and weigh down the bodies. That should reduce the odor coming from there. With Tenebrael’s power, it was something she could do as well.

But that was something to discuss with Irulon—who had taken to leaning up against the cave wall just out of sight—later on. For the time being… “You still didn’t answer why you are here. Where’s Volta? Did something happen?”

“Mhgm… So many questions,” she grumbled under her breath with a grimace set on her face. The cursed sword tried to lift her non-sword hand. The chains were still firmly in place.

Irulon sighed. Quietly, she said, “I’ve got work to do. You can handle this.”

“Gee, thanks,” Alyssa grumbled as Irulon started back further into the cave. She had work to be doing too. Sure, it was just more practice, but this was the dragon’s body and it deserved a little more practice. But Irulon didn’t care about her thoughts. After shooting a glare over her shoulder that she was positive Irulon noticed despite the other woman’s back being turned, Alyssa refocused on the cursed sword. “Red?” she tried again, voice far more firm. “Why are you here?”

A shudder wracked the cursed sword’s body. Her eyes snapped up, glaring at Alyssa with obvious hostility. If not for the chains, Alyssa was sure she would have been attacked. As it was, the cursed sword barely moved. Whatever anger—or eagerness—overtook the sword for the moment died off with a heavy breath. “I protect Volta,” the sword ground out as if each word stung the insides of her lips. “I… didn’t protect Volta.”

Alyssa instantly tensed, looking around for any sign of trouble. “What happened?” she asked, feeling that the cursed sword needed additional prompting.

“They… knew,” Red bit out. “They were ready. Separated me,” she said, eyes turning to the sword in her hand. “Couldn’t cut. Couldn’t slice. Reunited. Sliced. Cut. Couldn’t find Volta.”

“Volta is missing.”

“Missing,” Red said, bobbing her head.

Frowning, pressing her lips together, Alyssa asked just one question. “Who did it?”

“Humans.”

“Did they say who they were? Were there icons or emblems on their clothing? Did they have any unique colors on their outfits or horses? What kinds of weapons did they use?”

She should have continued to limit her questions. With every one, Red’s grimace intensified as if being physically pained by having to think about them. All until Alyssa asked the final questions. At that, Red perked up with a lopsided grin.

“Swords,” she said. “Bad swords. Not like me. They weren’t sharp. Couldn’t cut me. I cut them. Destroyed them. And their hosts. But some were already gone. Volta too.”

Hosts, Alyssa thought, wondering if there actually had been another cursed sword among them or if all swords had hosts in the mind of a cursed sword. But that wasn’t really relevant at the moment. Volta was missing. Kidnapped, it sounded like. And not by regular highwaymen and brigands that attacked travelers out in the Plains of the Dead. They wouldn’t have been prepared for Red. She supposed that it was possible that they had disarmed Red without knowing what she was, but it sounded more like Red’s sword had been specifically targeted.

If only Red were a little more articulate.

There were a lot of reasons to want to go after Volta, the fact that she was a monster aside. Volta was a public figure, likely quite wealthy on her own. She was a trusted adviser to Martin and the rest of Illuna’s nobility. She was a moderately powerful arcanist. Or played one. Alyssa hadn’t ever asked what rank Volta claimed to be, but suspected at least four. Possibly five. Besides all that, Volta had been a proponent of the monsters integrating and allying with Illuna.

Something like that was sure to piss some people off. Yora, for instance, probably wasn’t too happy with that.

And if people did know that Volta was a monster, there were a whole slew of other reasons why they might want to capture or kill her.

Alyssa had a flood of questions she wanted to ask, including all the ones she had just asked that Red had decided to ignore in favor of talking about swords. But she narrowed it down. “Did they know Volta was not human?”

The answer could inform the actual amount of danger that Volta was in. If they didn’t know and one of the kidnappers tried slicing Volta’s throat, Alyssa imagined that it would be possible for the body double to ‘die’ while the hidden real body just stood by and watched only to escape later unnoticed. If they did know…

Unfortunately, Red shook her head. “Don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.”

Useful. “When were you attacked? How long ago did this happen?” Alyssa asked. She immediately frowned at having asked two questions, even if they were the same question phrased in different ways.

Surprisingly, Red didn’t seem to mind this time. “One night passed. Was walking the entire time, heading here. Don’t know where Volta is. I want to cut. To slice.” Red twitched a bit as she spoke before calming. “Don’t know where to cut and slice. Needed help. Here is closer than the Oasis. Volta trusted you. So show me. Bring me to Volta so I can cut and slice and stab and rend and—”

“Okay.” Alyssa let the chains fall. She was a little nervous about the way Red acted when she got agitated, but she couldn’t just keep the chains up permanently. It made it much too difficult to move around for one. When Alyssa inevitably called for Izsha, she couldn’t just keelhaul the cursed sword around either. “Stay here for just a minute. I’ll be back soon. Then we’ll find Volta.”

Half turning—Alyssa did not want to expose her back to the cursed sword even if Red seemed to be following orders—she headed back further into the cave. Away from the entrance, her shuffle turned to a hasty powerwalk. Arriving in Irulon’s chambers, Alyssa didn’t even bat an eye at Irulon holding an eye in her hand, examining it under a glass lens.

“Might be taking the day off,” Alyssa said. “It seems as if Volta has been kidnapped.”

“Sounds like something I’ll be leaving to you. Good luck. Try not to be gone for too long.”

“Yeah. I know. Not optimal timing for this.”

“It’s fine. Assuming your progress continues at the same pace, you’ll be ready with only a little more practice.”

“Still, I feel bad.”

“Nonsense. My issue still has plenty of time left. Being captured by subversive entities is less temporally forgiving.”

“I don’t suppose you might have ideas on how to rapidly locate a kidnapped individual? I was planning on having Izsha or Fela follow the trail like we did for Oxart, but anything to speed up the process would be welcome. Once I get close enough, I can probably just look for them,” Alyssa said, tapping her temple. Since she had reconnected with Tenebrael, she could close her eyes and concentrate a bit to observe souls. It didn’t really have a range, so theoretically, she could find them right now. But beyond a certain point, the lights all blurred together like one giant star field.

Closing her eyes now, she could see the warring souls in Irulon, Red, and Izsha, Musca, Dasca, and Fela off in the distance. They had taken to hunting in the hilly area around the cave. Mostly, it was an excuse to not have their sensitive noses nearby.

Opening her eyes, she found Irulon considering the question, having set the eyeball down on the table. “Your solution would work adequately enough, though you’ll likely have to follow the monster’s tracks back to where the kidnapping took place to pick up Volta’s trail. Depending on which way the abductors fled, that may require inefficient backtracking… Hm. Tenebrael can find you no matter where you are, correct?”

“That… would probably be accurate.” Angels were not omniscient, but Tenebrael did pop up around her an awful lot. The idea that she appeared in all sorts of random locations before actually finding Alyssa was amusing to imagine. But it probably was not accurate. “I’m not sure how I would use that ability though. A lot of using Tenebrael’s magic comes from understanding. And I don’t understand how she finds me.”

It probably had to do with the soul sight. Irulon stood out with her twin souls, but she was really the only one. Human souls all looked roughly the same to Alyssa and monsters, while slightly different, weren’t different enough that she could simply look around the entire world and pinpoint Volta. To Tenebrael, someone who had years and years of experience, it was probably a simple matter to differentiate souls. Alyssa had seen Volta’s soul before, but not for quite some time. She couldn’t recall its exact feel.

“I suppose I could lend you yet another Accelero spell. They are tedious to draw. I would appreciate if you would not go through them so quickly.”

“I appreciate your help,” Alyssa said, watching as Irulon wiped her hands on the rough tunic she had taken to wearing during her work in the cave. When her fingers were mostly clean, she handed over the spell card.

Alyssa accepted it and immediately headed out, sending off a quick Message to Kasita, just to see if the Yora intelligencer had any information on what had happened. She then sent a second Message to Fela, asking for the hellhound to return with all haste, along with the draken.

Once they arrived, she would be heading out to find a kidnapped doppelganger.


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Vacant Throne — 042.001

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Tether

Rip and Tear


Alyssa stood over a long wooden table set up in a small cave a half-a-day’s draken ride out from Illuna. Both hands were hovering a foot above the table, making her look like she was about to slam them down on the keys of an organ as she played some creepy music fitting for an old horror movie. Haunted organ music wouldn’t have been out of place for what she was currently doing either. A bit of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken soundtrack would have fit perfectly. She was in the middle of some real mad scientist stuff at the moment.

Or mad arcanist stuff.

A bright glow emanated from her palms. The luminous darkness that was common to all of Tenebrael’s magic flooded the cave. Between the table and her hands, something started to form.

It had two legs, two arms, a single head, and a torso holding it all together. Humanoid, though not perfectly human. The feet were more like bird feet, similar to the talons of a falcon. Three toes faced forward. One backward. All four were tipped with black, razor sharp claws. The hands were more human-like with five fingers including a thumb, though it too had claws rather than proper fingernails. They were shorter, but would probably have to be filed down further. The ears were another big difference. They looked like large fish fins slapped onto the side of the otherwise humanoid head. Mostly humanoid head. The teeth were a bit sharper than normal human teeth, though they couldn’t be that large or they wouldn’t fit into the mouth properly. The eyes were wide open, vacant as they stared up at the cave’s ceiling. There were no whites, just speckled green with vertically slit pupils. Titanium scales covered most of the body, though the face was plain. They gleamed silver underneath the light of the magic.

As soon as the body was complete, Alyssa allowed her hands to drop to her sides.

The body on the table before her, formerly rigid, lost all tension in its muscles. It couldn’t really slump while lying on the table, but it did sag. Its head lolled to one side, blank eyes staring at nothing despite being open.

There was nothing inside it. No software piloting the hardware, to use Tenebrael’s analogy. It was technically alive, though it wouldn’t be for long. So far, no body Alyssa had created had actually tried breathing on its own. They just asphyxiated after a few minutes unless she intervened. The first few, she had kept alive as long as possible through CPR. Not so much the chest pumps. As far as she and Irulon could tell, the heart beating was something that went on without outside stimulus needed. But breathing for the body seemed to be required.

She hadn’t bothered to keep them alive in the last few weeks. It was more effort than they really felt necessary.

The hope, at the moment, was that breathing would be more or less automatic for the body once someone actually got put inside it. Irulon theorized that breathing, since it was possible to control manually, required higher brain functions to work. The heart didn’t. It wasn’t possible to hold a heartbeat like it was possible to hold in a breath. It seemed logical and Tenebrael hadn’t discounted the theory, so that was a minor concern.

The biggest fear at the moment was that long-term bodily functions wouldn’t work. It was hard to test such things given the short lifespan without someone literally breathing for the body. If Alyssa somehow messed up and connected the digestive system backwards, she imagined that the dragon would not be all that happy with her.

Alyssa started out with a few preliminary tests. She wiggled all the joints, making sure they were connected. The fingers flexed properly, as did the toes… she was pretty sure anyway. The toes were a bit more alien to her than the hands. But they were all connected and didn’t feel like they were floating around, only contained by the skin. That had been an issue in some of the earlier iterations of the body.

The spine was another thing she had to pay careful attention to. Especially when she started trying for bigger alterations. Pushing the body over onto its back, she found three large errors. Two wings and a tail. The additions themselves were not errors. She had meant to create them. But it was obvious she had created them incorrectly. The wings were… not at all attached to the body. She could tell that much just by looking. They were small. Vestigial, almost. Even if they were somehow attached to the skeleton, she doubted that there was enough musculature attached to them to get some flight. Not to mention the fact that their size would probably have to be increased to the point where most of the body was wing just to get the lift necessary to get off the ground. Real dragons could apparently fly despite their massive size. Alyssa didn’t know how big their wings actually were, but she suspected they would have to be huge. That or they just used magic to fly.

Probably the latter.

There was a tail. It felt attached to the spine—humans had a vestigial tail in the tailbone, so extending that wasn’t a huge issue. But the way it meshed with the back and butt was completely wrong. She wasn’t sure that a creature with a tail like that would be able to walk, let alone defecate properly. There were monsters with roughly humanoid forms that had tails. Fela, for example. But Fela’s tail didn’t start right where the human tailbone came out. It was just a bit higher up.

Cutting off the feet and making them bird talons wasn’t that difficult. Slapping scales onto it had been easy as well. But adding things that just weren’t supposed to be there was nearly impossible.

Alyssa had tried to create a hellhound body with modifications, but that had wound up with far more failures than this one. Just the base skeleton had been completely wrong. Although Fela looked human at a glance, the failure made Alyssa think that something at least slightly strange was going on underneath her skin. Something she didn’t understand.

And, as she had discovered, understanding what she was doing was key to creation.

Leaving the body on the table, Alyssa headed out to a larger side-path in the cave. Irulon’s experimental station. It was similar to Alyssa’s spot except quite a bit larger. Much… fouler smelling as well. The bodies were organic and living. Even if they weren’t actually real people, they still decomposed like one. When they got too rancid, they took them out to a deep grave that would probably confuse future archaeologists for centuries. It was filled with all sorts of failed creations. From humans to humanoids like the one Alyssa had just created to malformed entities that really just didn’t have names but looked like they belonged in some eldritch horror movie.

At the moment, Irulon had her hands deep in the chest cavity of another body. One that Alyssa had created a few hours prior. It was a regular human body. No taloned feet, clawed hands, or scales. Just a practice human. Its ribcage had been split straight down the center and pried open. A stomach, lungs, heart, liver, and several other internal organs were sitting on large plates nearby. Irulon was currently extracting several feet of intestine from its abdomen.

Alyssa tried not to gag. The first few times had been beyond nauseating. She had conflicted feelings about being able to say that she was used to it now. It really looked like a horror movie scene. The place the teenage protagonists would wander into unsuspectingly twenty minutes in. The place that revealed both to them and the audience that they were really in trouble. If this were a movie, Irulon would probably slowly turn around with a maniacal grin as she brandished some common tool as a lethal weapon.

As it was, Irulon merely glanced over her shoulder, acknowledged Alyssa’s presence, and went right back to work.

“This body,” she said, “is consistent with the previous seven. I dare say you’re improving.”

“It looks functional too then?”

“Quite.”

“Good. I’ve got another one for you. One of the… other types—” Alyssa grimaced as Irulon gave a sharp tug on the intestines. The ripping and slop sounds were not pleasant on the ear. “I’m honestly not sure it will work well,” she said, hoping to disguise her discomfort by continuing strong. “The human body just wasn’t meant for wings or even really a tail. And I’m still skeptical about the feet being able to support the rest of the body’s weight. Will the ears be able to actually hear things with them being all fin-like?” Alyssa shook her head, genuinely uncertain. “We should probably just stick with a human body. Sorry, dragon, but maybe if we had a few years to experiment further. Maybe we could modify the body after it is made.”

“You’ve made a great amount of progress in only a few weeks,” Irulon started. Setting the tangled mess of intestines down in a large wooden bucket on the floor, she stopped and turned to fully face Alyssa.

And once again, the horror movie tropes were in full force. She wore a large leather apron completely covered in blood, both fresh and old browned stains. Her arms, completely bare, were dripping from her elbows down to the tips of her fingers. For a moment, she stared, eyes flicking between their black and white form and their usual violet. Conversing with the dragon, likely.

After a long moment, she finally spoke again. “We suppose that there won’t be an issue with a more humanoid form. Scaled skin is not a problem you listed, however. Would that be doable?”

“I mean, possibly? Given how long the bodies last, we don’t know if there are long term problems with it. Will new scales grow in if the old ones fall out? Will the body shed properly? Gangrene? Necrotizing of the skin? Who knows what kind of problems there will be. The amount of research I had to do on the human body to get it working was absurd. Such research doesn’t exist for monsters. Not even poking and prodding Fela and Kasita has helped. I’m basically having to invent everything as I go and I don’t know if it is all working.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Irulon said, splattering a bit of blood around the room as she waved at the corpse. Not that the blood was really noticeable. The entire room was essentially painted in the stuff. Which probably contributed to the smell. The whole place would need a healthy dose of Annihilator when they finished. “I owe a great deal to my companion. It would mean a lot if we could grant at least part of this request.”

“I mean, I’ll try. I’m just worried that something is going to go wrong. It would be best if we only have to do this once.”

“Believe me. None of us want to make this a regular thing. That’s why we’re spending so much extra time on it, making sure that everything is perfect the first time.”

“Do you want to take a look at the one I just made? Or shall I just toss it with the others?”

“I’ll trust your judgment that it won’t work. It might still be interesting to look at, however. I’ll come get it in a few minutes if you want to just leave it on the side.”

“Might take a brief breather.”

Irulon sniffed the air for a moment before shrugging like she didn’t smell anything. Or rather, she was probably just used to it. Even Alyssa didn’t find it nearly as offensive as she had a week or two ago. The area she spent most of her time in was, after all, part of the same cave. They didn’t even have doors on the chambers to act as mild barriers. Not that doors would help. The stench of rot and death permeated thoroughly through the entire cave. Even outside it, the smell was present unless the day was particularly windy.

“I would join you, but if I stop, I’m going to want to get cleaned up. No point in getting cleaned up while I’ve still got another body to tear into.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll be back soon to try your new suggestion.”

Nodding her head, Irulon turned back to the open chest cavity of the cadaver on the table. Alyssa left her to the corpse, heading out of the cave. It wasn’t that big of a cave. She wasn’t even sure if it counted as a real cave. It might just be an alcove, carved out by an ancient stream that had long since dried up or maybe pure wind over who knew how many years.

Or maybe Tenebrael had hand crafted it. Alyssa honestly wasn’t sure how the formation of worlds went or who was responsible for it. Creating a world seemed like a significantly larger task than merely managing one, but who could say when angels were concerned.

The cave led upwards until it met the surface, coming out on the side of a small hill. Although the interior looked mostly natural, wooden supports had been put up at various points and the entrance had clearly been crafted by hand. Irulon speculated that it had, at one point in time, been used by criminal elements. Either to hold goods or to act as a hideout from where they would ambush travelers. There wasn’t any evidence that it had been used recently. Just some minor grooves in the land around it that had come from wagons being pulled around. They were so faint that Alyssa didn’t notice them even after having them pointed out to her. Irulon had followed them all the way to the cave’s entrance.

Further evidence of former human habitation came from a well that had been dug down in the valley between two rolling hills. A fairly even path led down to it, which was where Alyssa was headed. Musca and Izsha should be down there if they hadn’t gone off hunting. They usually did leave, though. They weren’t too impressed with the smell around the cave either. Fela hadn’t wanted to come since the first day or two. Kasita didn’t even like it and she didn’t have a real nose.

Alyssa found none of her companions down at the well. But she didn’t find it completely empty. One person stood around like she had been waiting for Alyssa’s arrival.

“Hey,” Alyssa said. “Did you make that cave up there?”

Tenebrael looked over like she hadn’t known Alyssa was on the way. A notion Alyssa found absolutely ridiculous unless Iosefael had fallen down the well or something equally unlikely. She blinked twice before flicking her eyes up the hill. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean this whole world. Did it already exist when you became its Dominion or did you make it yourself?”

“Ah. No. The Throne crafted everything that exists.”

“Are we like… in the universe? The same one as Earth, I mean. Like can I look up at the night’s sky and find Earth if I had a powerful enough telescope?”

“You would be correct in that assumption, though I believe Earth would actually only be visible from the northern hemisphere. Maybe during some parts of the year, but this world doesn’t have as much axial tilt as Earth does, so probably not.”

“I had been wondering about that,” Alyssa mused to herself. “I’ve been here for a few months now and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of seasons. Food is grown year round too.”

“There are seasons, but nothing so drastic as what you are used to.”

“Huh. Well, I think things are progressing well. Haven’t managed to make a monster of my own that doesn’t look like it would die instantly or be in constant excruciating pain. The dragon seems to have given up on that aside from maybe some scales. Don’t know why. It’s lived in a human body for a few years and has expressly stated that it doesn’t care if it gets a human body or not.”

“I look forward to your end result,” Tenebrael said with a smile. She had offered to create the body herself—it was something she thought she could do given her ability to create a duplicate for the Earthlings—but Alyssa had rejected it. If she had been completely unable to craft a body on her own, Alyssa would have agreed. But her skills in manufacturing creations had gotten much better after some tutoring from Irulon and Tenebrael. She even had a brand new pair of sunglasses on at the moment.

The biggest reason that Alyssa wanted to do this was because she had said that she would. The more she learned about how to work Tenebrael’s magic, the better off she figured that she would be. This was a perfect opportunity to get instruction on how to use it during a time when Tenebrael was being helpful. In the future, a situation might arise where Tenebrael was less likely to want to help her out. Especially if her rulebook said she couldn’t.

Relying on Tenebrael was a secondary concern. Although she had been helpful in showing exactly where Alyssa had been going wrong, she still might up and disappear for days or weeks or even months again. If Alyssa had accepted Tenebrael’s offer, she might still be under the misguided impression that she would have to look up the exact process of how a human formed in the womb, from conception to birth. The whole growing process was another ordeal—the dragon wasn’t interested in being stuck in an infant’s body, especially not a human infant—that Alyssa did not need to fully comprehend in order to craft an adult human body.

That wasn’t to say that the process was simple. For an inanimate object like sunglasses, the process of construction did help some. For a body, she had discovered that knowing the anatomy of a human was far more important. She had taken an entry level anatomy class back in the early days of her college career, but that hadn’t been nearly good enough. Over the past few weeks, she had studied and studied and watched videos and even dove her hands into the bodies she had created alongside Irulon. Even with all that studying, Irulon’s presence was invaluable. The princess had some experience with taking apart human bodies and had been able to point out all sorts of errors that Alyssa had made during construction.

“Irulon hasn’t specified a date yet. She and the dragon want to be absolutely certain that everything is in order before they commit. Despite all the time they’ve been spending taking apart bodies, they’ve still got a few details of the spell to rearrange. A good portion of that is because parts of the ritual will change based on the physical dimensions of the body. Once they finalize how they want the body to be, I have to be able to make consistent bodies over and over again. With them checking it out, I imagine there won’t be any problems. Still… I would appreciate it if you would check my work before they actually start.”

“Of course, Alyssa. I would be happy to.”

“Good. Great. That’s a small weight off my mind. I’m glad you showed up though. I had a few questions about some things I noticed while using your power the other day and was wondering if you might help enlightening me.”

“I’ll answer if I can.”

Alyssa didn’t ask right away. She put her hands behind her back as she walked around the well, considering what to say. Eventually, she decided to simply start at the beginning. “You almost always say something when casting a miracle. Or whatever you call whatever it is you do. Like ‘creating portal to Earth’ or something.”

“It’s usually a bit more involved than that, but continue.”

“Since creating matter doesn’t seem to require me talking to myself, I started trying to do other things without making any requests to you or other verbalizations. Much like how I do regular human-style magic. And I think figuring out how to create a human body has given me a few clues I needed to do other things as well.”

“Such as?”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, wondering if she should actually tell Tenebrael or not. But… she needed more information. Tenebrael was really the only supply of information regarding this particular topic. So, Alyssa held out a hand. A blinding ring of light appeared, hovering above her outstretched fingertips. Almost identical to Tenebrael’s halo. The light wasn’t quite the same. It didn’t produce that warmth that came from true angelic halos.

Even still, Tenebrael stared at it with wide eyes. “How did you do that?”

“I understand a lot more about light than I did a few weeks ago. Even with how shoddy my rushed knowledge is… well…” Alyssa waved her hand forward. The halo followed her movements. “Let there be light.”

“So you’re creating light much like you would create sunglasses? Clever, but—”

“I don’t think so. I think this is more akin to a real spell. Or miracle. Whatever. It is a subtle difference, but…”

Tenebrael hummed. One gloved hand stretched forward to touch it before she paused, drawing back and swapping to her ungloved right hand. “Interesting,” she said, tapping it with a black-painted fingernail. “Interesting,” she repeated.

“Understanding is the key to using your power, isn’t it. I have to know not only what I want to achieve, but at least most of the process to get there. But once I know, I can do it. So, if I wanted to visit Earth…”

Tenebrael glanced up, looking not at all angry or upset that Alyssa had suggested going back there. Being there had been what set off the Astral Authority in the first place. Who knew what going back might do. Instead of upset, Tenebrael smiled. “You recall that mathematics lesson I tried to give you?”

Alyssa grimaced, making Tenebrael chuckle.

“Maybe some day,” she said, reaching out to pat Alyssa on the head.

“I’m not a dog,” Alyssa said, batting the hand away after the third pat. “But… if not teleportation, perhaps you could help me understand some other things.”

“What is it you wish to know?”

Alyssa paused. “Would local portals be too impossible to understand how to create? Something just from here to Illuna. Or Illuna to Lyria,” she asked, deciding to start small. It was related to going to Earth, but different enough that Tenebrael might be willing to offer some insight. And if she did…

Perhaps she could expand on that knowledge later.


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Vacant Throne — 041.001

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Interlude

Brakkt


Brakkt strode forward, undaunted by the group of infected before him.

The group was relatively small. Twelve. No. Thirteen. One was occluded by a larger body in front of it. None looked particularly dangerous. Surely none were as aware as the infected Taker had been… or even his infected younger sister. They were the same low-level infected that he had been killing for the last week.

So far, they didn’t know where the infected were coming from. One or two might have been missed by the Astral Authority. Two or three dozen? Alyssa had a low opinion of the monsters, but even that seemed like too many. There was a theory that the Astral Authority had been interrupted. Trik suggested that Alyssa and Irulon taking down their leader had forced the rest to retreat before they had fully cleared all the infected that had crawled out of the pit.

That was the best theory he had heard so far and was definitely the one he hoped was true. The other ideas were far worse. There hadn’t been any evidence of a new pit opening—Alyssa had confirmed to him that the pit at Owlcroft had been closed. If these things were crawling out, they were coming from a new pit.

Brakkt had ventured close to the pit while going after Alyssa and Izsha on their first excursion just after arriving at Illuna. He knew well the overbearing sensation of despair that grew stronger the closer he was to the pit. The enchantments on his sword that calmed his mind and focused his will had helped to ignore it, but it had still been there.

Here, out in the wilderness a few days out from Illuna, he had yet to sense anything even remotely similar. If the pit started small, maybe even the size of a single person, it could be understandable that he wouldn’t sense much. But he still felt that he would have sensed something.

It was definitely something they were on the lookout for.

Trik had posited another possibility. While fighting the Astral Authority, the demon in charge had sent out a call for assistance. The call could have been global for all anyone knew. New infected might be arriving for weeks or months as they tried to reinforce a position that no longer held any value for the demons. That was a fairly plausible theory that, unfortunately, meant that Illuna would be dealing with infected for some time, possibly from all different directions. Though if they were heading to reinforce the former pit at Owlcroft, a great many would bypass Illuna completely as they came from different directions. Illuna’s guard were well trained and experienced in dealing with infected. Smaller towns and villages around… potentially clear to the coasts… they might have a harder time dealing with infected. No. Rather. There was no might about it.

Infected wandering through a town with no guards and no warning was a recipe for a ghost town.

Assuming that Trik’s theory had any merit at all, Brakkt had sent word back to his father regarding reinforcing towns, villages, and outposts. Despite the haste with which he had acted, it might even be too late now. There were numerous small villages. A single infected could depopulate one. This was an emergency of utmost concern.

But not a concern he could deal with at the moment.

Brakkt raised his sword, gripping its hilt with both hands. The shimmering edge of the enchanted blade came down on the nearest infected. An arm fell to the ground as the former human’s upper half split from armpit to hip. There was resistance at the bones, but his sword glided through far easier than it had on the Taker. Brakkt didn’t stop moving just because one foe had fallen.

Twisting his grip, he continued moving his sword in a wide sweep. Three legs fell from their torsos and the latter body lost half its hip. He stepped forward, crushing the skull of one of the fallen infected beneath his boot, thrusting with the point of his sword. A thrust was a dangerous attack to commit to. He had seen plenty of otherwise well-trained knights fall in battle because their sword got stuck inside the body of a dead or dying enemy.

His sword was different. Even if the bones of these infected were strong enough to withstand the enchantments on his sword, he would still be able to remove it without much effort.

As it was, Brakkt didn’t need to pull it back at all. It pierced the infected’s heart. Dragging his sword upward, he spit the thing’s chest in two.

Brakkt continued forward. He slashed, struck, and progressed through the dozen infected without a single scratch on his armor. The infected were being torn apart. Literally. Blood and body parts rained around him. They didn’t know when to retreat. They lacked the cognitive functions required to organize themselves in anything but a horde. Overwhelming numbers would be a problem, but there would have to be a lot more of them to overwhelm him.

The last infected fell, head neatly removed from its shoulders. Brakkt stepped back, slowly surveying the area. A few of the infected were still moving, sill alive. Their bodies were torn apart. They likely wouldn’t survive for long. There was no need to test that.

Brakkt methodically went around, skewering each of their skulls.

Pentagrams were already springing up around the fully dead. A few months ago, he would have paid them no mind except to destroy them shortly after they were created. Now, however, Brakkt stared at the latest one. It was… unnerving to know that there was a monster there. An invisible monster harvesting the souls of the deceased stood mere sword lengths away from him, watching him. He considered trying to slice his sword through what looked like empty space where he suspected the true demon to be.

But he held back. The true demon had fought with the Justice. Perhaps had even come out ahead against it. Even if it hadn’t, it had fought for weeks. From Irulon’s account of the Astral Authority’s leader, he had no doubt that his sword wouldn’t be able to top its damage, no matter how good its enchantments were.

So he simply watched, observing the manifesting pentagrams to ensure that all the infected were accounted for and truly dead.

Only when the last pentagram cooled did he finally return his sword to its sheath. He let out a shuddering breath as he turned his back on the battlefield and started walking back to the others. They were out a short way. Off at a small camp that they had erected specifically for burning the bodies of infected that they came across. A small temporary outpost.

He had to wonder how the other teams that were supposed to be reclaiming bodies were doing. Had they run across several living plagued individuals? Had they dealt with them? Or had they been wiped out? The reclamation teams did have a small contingent of guards with them. After he saw what this team had to deal with, he had sent a Message back to Illuna requesting that all the other teams be reinforced. The guards were well versed in dealing with infected. A dozen of them? Brakkt wasn’t sure how well they could handle what he just fought through.

Ensou met him halfway to the camp. Normally, he would have fought with the draken at his side. Ensou could handle infected. But that was part of the reason he had left the draken behind. If more of the plagued came up on the camp while he was out, he wanted someone who could handle a similar situation to be ready to fight.

But that seemed to not be a concern at the moment or Ensou wouldn’t have come to him. Patting the large draken on the side of the neck, Brakkt climbed on its back. They made it back to camp in only a few seconds from there.

Trik was waiting for him, standing just outside the ring of tents that had been set up. Hands clasped behind his back, he gave a respectful nod to Brakkt as the draken approached. “Back faster than expected,” he said once Brakkt dismounted.

“Whoever counted did a poor job. There were half as many as I was told.”

“No sign of any fleeing or otherwise hiding?” At Brakkt’s shake of a head, Trik shrugged and said, “Hard to count when they’re all meandering about randomly. Better to overstate the threat and go in prepared for worse than to find yourself overwhelmed after getting bad information.”

Brakkt couldn’t really argue with that, though he would really prefer accuracy in all circumstances. In this particular instance, no harm came of the error. Still, he would give a stern talking-to to the guardsman who had been on watch.

“Nothing amiss in the camp?”

“No other sightings of active plague carriers. Shall I gather up the men and head out to dispose of those corpses you just created?”

Taking a deep breath, Brakkt nodded slowly. There had been no sign of other infected. This area, quite a bit north of Illuna, was fairly flat and unobstructed terrain. He would have been able to see anyone that wasn’t crouched down in hiding. He supposed it was possible that an infected had done so… “Ensou will escort you. Just in case I missed one.”

Trik turned to the draken with a respectful nod. “I’ll take care of it. Go take a break. You’ve earned it.”

Brakkt didn’t argue. Leaving the cleanup to everyone else, he headed back toward his tent. Trik split off to go toward what was the current communal tent. Most people had been standing by, waiting for Brakkt to finish anyway. It didn’t take much to organize them and get them out to where the fight had taken place. His tent was a smaller thing that he had brought himself. Just large enough to fit him and Ensou with a single small bedroll inside.

He sloughed off some of his armor. Not all of it. At the moment, he was the primary defender of the camp and didn’t want to be completely defenseless. Even still, he was fairly exhausted. Fighting always took a decent chunk of energy out of him. Being out on the hunt for infected didn’t help. Same with living in a tent and eating military rations. When outside a city or town, he much preferred to hunt for his own food. Not really an option at the moment unless he and Ensou wanted to leave the camp to their own defenses.

Most draining of all was knowing what he was missing out on back in Illuna.

Alyssa had found the apophis. It was apparently much larger than Rokien had implied…

“Ugh…” he grumbled to himself. I want to go back. Duty called, but his personal interests were calling just as hard.

He knew in his mind that the apophis wasn’t even around Illuna anymore. It was somewhere else. Probably at the oasis, but maybe not even there if Volta thought to move it. Even still, his heart wanted to rush back and find the monster just to see what it might be like. It couldn’t speak according to Alyssa, but perhaps it could use its tail to write. What questions he had for such a monster… He could spend weeks conversing, he was sure.

Just thinking about all the things he might ask made him long to leave even more. He had to put it out of his mind.

If the apophis was going to stick around the city, it wouldn’t have been that bad. He could have been patient knowing that he would be able to meet it upon his return. But the thought that it might vanish into the wilds forever hurt.

Brakkt shook his head as he took a seat on the ground near his bedroll. Some of his armor was covered in bodily fluids that he did not wish to get into his bed. The cloth he had been using to keep his armor tidy was in desperate need of replacement, but there wasn’t much out here to clean it with. No nearby rivers or lakes. The water they carried was for consumption, not for cleaning. In a day, the camp was going to continue moving around the perimeter of Owlcroft. There would be a river then, but…

To take his mind off other topics, Brakkt focused entirely on maintaining his armor. His sword could use a little work as well. Its enchantments kept it sharp, but they did not extend to its cleanliness. So far, he had never spotted a flake of rust upon its blade. No need to test whether or not that would persist if he left it coated in infected innards.

Brakkt kept his eyes closed as he cleaned, relying on his experience to guide him. It was a peaceful and relaxing exercise. Almost meditative. The smooth curves of his armor under his fingers were familiar enough that he could tell exactly which piece he had in his hands. For the sword, there weren’t multiple pieces to it. Yet his hands glided over it in carefully practiced movements without any danger of accidentally cutting himself.

“Sir.”

Brakkt glanced up, wondering why Trik was at his tent so soon. He just about asked until he noticed a few things. Trik’s outfit was coated in a fresh layer of dusty brown dirt. His boots in particular were far muddier than he normally kept them. Behind Trik, outside the tent, the sky had changed as well. The light was a much harsher orange.

Looking down at his gear, Brakkt found it all spotless. Or as spotless as it could get without clean cloth to maintain it. Taking care of his gear was not a short task. It had been… hours. Three? Four? Brakkt didn’t ask. He simply looked back to Trik, setting his sword aside as he gave the commander his full attention.

“No issues?”

“Pentagrams have been destroyed and bodies are being carted to the disposal point.”

“Good.”

Trik nodded, but he hesitated in leaving. Both his hands were clasped behind his back as he looked down on Brakkt.

“Was there something else?”

“There was a monster observing us. The Astral Authority creature with numerous eyes.”

Brakkt tensed, getting to his feet. The tension drained slowly. Trik was fine. He looked messy, but that came from work, not combat. Whatever happened had not been a concern. Still… “You didn’t Message me?”

“It’s gone now,” Trik continued. “Flew off toward Owlcroft. I thought to send you a Message but hesitated, remembering how they acted back at the wall. They ignored us completely except when we started interacting with them. They didn’t fight us, but the way they looked at us when anyone mentioned attacking them had me ordering the men to ignore it and pretend that it didn’t exist. It seemed to have worked.”

“Understandable,” Brakkt said after a long breath. He was just glad that no one had gotten hurt. “Alyssa did say that the Astral Authority might still be around, but they are locked out of their transit and should be far less numerous as a result. If the few that are around want to come take care of the stragglers, that’s fine with me. Takes away some of my work.”

Still, it was mildly concerning. He would have to send a Message to Alyssa sooner rather than later. He meant to send her one a day ago. Then again a day before that. But every day, he kept hoping that he would simply return home and give her a debriefing in person. However, this could be a problem. Especially if their leader returned. A Message would have to be sent.

A part of him hoped that the Astral Authority would come back. At least in smaller numbers. Them cleaning up the infected again would let him go back to Illuna all the sooner.

“Keep an eye out for more. I don’t imagine we’ll need to double the watch, but have everyone on guard be aware that they should search the skies just as much as they are watching the ground. Ensure that no one tries to interact with them. They should leave us alone even if they are here in force.”

“Understood. I’ll let the men know.”

Trik started to turn away, but Brakkt stopped him with a gesture.

“The other camps,” Brakkt started. “Has there been any word from them yet?”

Slowly, Trik shook his head. “I can check again with the Messenger, but since the last time you asked…”

“I see. How well do you think the men here would be able to fend off an attack by infected?”

“Our group is the smallest. Others would have an easier time than we would. Their training seems roughly on par with the Lyrian plague containment team. A gathering like today’s may prove difficult, but if we can scatter them, draw them apart, or otherwise pick them off one by one, I imagine we wouldn’t have too much difficulty. Planning on going to investigate on your own?”

“We haven’t received Messages thus far. I imagine it may already be too late. Illuna was supposed to send reinforcements. Perhaps the Messengers of the groups were the only ones harmed. But someone should investigate. Ensou can get me around the area of operation far faster than anyone else would be able.”

“When will you be leaving?”

“Tonight. Just after a meal. And I may make a short stop at Illuna to resupply and see if their reinforcements have contact information. I want you to send a Message directly to me before and after every engagement with hostile forces. During if you are ambushed. Failure to do so and I will have to assume that you’ve been wiped out.”

Trik pressed his lips together, nodding. “I understand. I’ll order the cook to prepare tonight’s meal now so that you may leave sooner.”

“I appreciate it.”


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Vacant Throne — 040.011

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Ritualistic Research

Formation


Although she had agreed to not do anything that might draw the attention of angels to what they were doing, Irulon was not content to simply sit and watch the panels of the Endless Expanse like they were television channels. She had watched for a while. A good hour, even. Irulon could not see the angels—not even the massive wheel-like ones—but she had been able to see the Throne. Or it’s housing structure. The tall tower that was simply there from every angle.

She had commented on the shape of the structures, the materials she suspected they might be made from, the shifting nature of the entire world beyond—which she suspected related to Fractal magic in some way or another. Alyssa hadn’t been able to offer much commentary. She had already told Irulon basically everything she knew about the Endless Expanse. Which, sadly, wasn’t much. Adrael, Iosefael, and Tenebrael had all spoken quite a bit about the Throne, its nature, and some of the Endless Expanse as well. Yet despite all that, Alyssa felt like she knew nothing.

In reality, and upon further consideration with some helpful insights from Irulon, Alyssa was starting to suspect that it wasn’t just her who knew nothing. The angels didn’t have a good grasp on their own nature either. Adrael was trying to discover more. Or she had been before being imprisoned. As far as Alyssa knew, the archangel was still stuck inside Tenebrael’s black box.

It made her wonder if reconciliation was impossible with Adrael. Having someone dedicated enough to trawl through whatever archive the Throne had and bring back information would have been a good start toward getting a deeper understanding of things. Unfortunately, Alyssa doubted that would happen anytime soon. Adrael loathed Tenebrael. Even if her exploration into angelic lore had shaken her out of her need to follow orders, Alyssa doubted that loathing would go away anytime soon. And Alyssa had stolen the archangel’s staff multiple times.

No. Adrael probably would never willingly assist them. But maybe Tenebrael could convince Kenziel to fulfill the same task. Alyssa doubted that they would get the same results. From the one real conversation she had with Kenziel, Alyssa got the impression of a somewhat air-headed angel. She had appeared thinking Tenebrael wanted help only to be immediately cowed into complete submission. She didn’t have the drive that Adrael had, the drive that would have her seeking out answers when opposition reared its head. In fact, if anything did oppose her, she would probably change allegiances once again.

Next time Tenebrael showed herself, she would have to talk about that. Maybe it would be best keeping Kenziel off doing meaningless tasks. While Tenebrael had been inactive, she had apparently been trying her hand at the duties of a Principality by taking over Iosefael’s job on Earth while Iosefael filled in for Tenebrael on Nod. But if Kenziel could be more useful, that would be nice too.

As for Irulon and the Endless Expanse, her idleness came to an end with a sketch book. An hour of staring turned into an hour of drawing. Irulon sketched out basically everything that she could see. The spires. The ornate walkways. Even the sky, which seemed to have multiple planets or very large moons occupying it. Alyssa couldn’t really see them as the turning Ophanim were even larger.

“Don’t you have perfect memory?” Alyssa asked quietly, not really wanting to interrupt but still wanting to know.

“Might not always have perfect memory,” Irulon said, pen not slowing in the slightest as she spoke. Her eyes didn’t even break contact with the mirrored surface. “We’re really not absolutely positive how our solution to our issue will work out. We know the big picture of it, but the finer details are… difficult to pin down. It is an entirely experimental… treatment and we have no prior examples to work from nor do we have any test subjects to test things on before performing the experiment on ourselves. I’ve been taking precautions recently to ensure that my work is not lost should I… forget some things.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together. Irulon hadn’t said a word or voiced a single complain about how Alyssa was handling things, but she couldn’t help but feel a sick sensation in her stomach. She had promised Irulon that she would help to figure out a solution to her issue. So far, the work had all been done by Irulon. Alyssa had nothing to do but go about her usual routine. The only thing she could really do…

“I’m going to practice some more,” Alyssa said softly. The two hours spent watching the Endless Expanse had been a waste of time for her. An interesting waste of time, but a waste nonetheless. For some reason, despite objectively being more boring than a daytime soap opera, watching the Endless Expanse was enrapturing. If not for her phone’s clock, she would have hardly noticed the passage of time.

But she wasn’t learning anything from it. Nothing that she hadn’t already known, anyway. Irulon might be, but Irulon knew more than anyone how much time she could spend on side projects.

“I think I made a breakthrough last night,” Alyssa added. Irulon hadn’t said a word, only continued her drawing. “After talking a bit with Lumen, I managed to make a marble containing two different materials. They were mixed together chaotically, but I think I can get them organized. If I can get them evenly split down the middle, I think that will be a good first success. Maybe I can try shaping the creation after.”

“Good work. I appreciate the effort you’re putting into this.”

Alyssa winced, but couldn’t actually detect any sarcasm in Irulon’s tone or words. Simply choosing to nod her head, Alyssa slid over to the bed to let Irulon carry on in peace while she tried making new materials. The princess didn’t seem to take notice of her movement in the slightest.

She got started practicing right away. The first hour, she didn’t have any repeats of her success with two materials in a single item. None leaked, which were the ones that Alyssa considered the worst failures, but they were all solid metal or glass. Ten minutes into the second hour, she managed to do it. Another swirled ball of metal and glass. Even though it wasn’t what she had set out to do, it was more of a success than she had managed for a while, so she was happy with it.

“How much do you know about what you’re doing?”

Alyssa blinked, looking up from the swirled marble in her hand to find that Irulon had managed to tear her eyes away from the Endless Expanse. “What do you mean?”

“Do you understand the difference between this try and the previous?”

Frowning, Alyssa slowly shook her head. She had said the same things both times, clasped her hands together in the same way, and thought about the same thing. There might have been minor differences in her posture, how she held her arms with her hands together, or how quickly her hands moved apart, but… except maybe that last one, she didn’t think they mattered all that much.

“Did you notice something?” Alyssa asked.

“How well do you know those materials you are creating?”

“Uh… I’m not sure what you mean. I mean, iron is a natural element and glass is like… silicon? Probably with other stuff mixed in.”

“Sand and wood ash. Heated to the point of melting and allowed to cool. Iron, when forged from raw material, undergoes a similar process. It is heated, shaped, and cooled. Keep the materials used to make up the material in mind as well as the process said materials undergo during formation. I think that might help you out.”

“But I’ve made several marbles of only iron and only glass,” Alyssa said, gesturing toward the litter she was leaving on Irulon’s bed. “Without thinking about that stuff,” she added, just in case Irulon didn’t get why she was questioning the advice.

“Indicative of the magic allowing you to not fully comprehend every element of the process. But I believe that the more complex your intended outcome, the more of its baseline components you’ll have to know and understand. Did you not say that Tenebrael Herself had to list off elements of a human body in order to create doubles of those you brought from Earth?”

“Well, yeah.” Tenebrael said a lot of things. Still, she supposed it couldn’t hurt to look into the idea a bit more.

Advice dispensed, Irulon turned back to the Endless Expanse.

Alyssa just about started trying to make more marbles before pausing as an idea occurred to her. Pulling out her phone, she ran a few searches. The molecular structure of iron was apparently a few hexagons all connected together by lines. She didn’t understand it at all and just about set down the phone on the spot. But a glance toward Irulon steeled her will. She took a breath and doubled down.

She spent a good hour just trying to understand what she was looking at. There were tutorial videos on the internet about making sense of chemical structures. It had to do with how various elements bonded together. Which raised a new concern that she had looked up something incorrect earlier. Iron was an element and didn’t have a molecular structure in the same way that glass did. Glass was apparently silicon and oxygen in a fairly chaotic pattern. Both silicon and oxygen, along with iron, were clusters of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

It went deeper than that. She had taken high school level science classes and had seen the table of elements before. But then it got into quarks and leptons and other nonsense that almost seemed to be theoretical according to what she was reading. Already feeling mindflooded, that was where she had to pause. Maybe Irulon could make sense of it. But Alyssa wasn’t sure she needed it anyway.

When Tenebrael had been creating the body in the alley on Earth, she had listed compounds and elements. Water. Carbon. Ammonia. Lime. Other things that Alyssa was forgetting at the moment. If Tenebrael didn’t need to get down into particle physics, Alyssa wasn’t sure that she needed to either.

Impromptu science lesson over for the moment, Alyssa decided to start practicing again. She felt like she learned something, but whether or not she could apply it to the iron and glass mixed ball was just something she would have to test out on her own.

Her first ten attempts over the course of a half hour were failures. Three of them were even those leaking messes that she still wasn’t sure why they happened. They all went into a bucket Irulon had fetched the previous night after one such failure.

But the next three attempts in a row were all successful. All the swirled mess, but all still successes.

That trend continued. A few successes followed by a few failures. She tried a few different techniques to get the half-and-half solution that she wanted. For one, she tried changing from thinking only of metal to thinking only of glass halfway through. It was a tactic that she had tried a few times in the past, expecting to wind up with an iron core and glass outer shell, but like all those previous failures, she wound up with a leaking lump in her hands instead.

She really hoped those things weren’t toxic.

Glancing to Irulon, Alyssa almost asked if she had any further advice before getting an idea on her own.

Although looking up the composition of metal and glass seemed to have helped with the consistency of being able to make swirled marbles, it hadn’t been exactly what Irulon had spoken about. Irulon had mentioned the materials, yes, but she had also mentioned the forging process along with it. Metal, sand, and wood ash heated to a melting point and allowed to cool.

Alyssa spent a few minutes looking up videos more in line with that. From iron ore to a cleaning and refining facility to another facility that threw it all into a large crucible to form it into large ingots. For thoroughness, she checked out a few similar videos, even delving into steel production. Huge swaths of the actual production process were simplified or skipped entirely. Most of the videos that she had found seemed to be the kind of things they would air on weekend morning television. It had to be just interesting enough to hold the average viewer’s attention without boring them to death.

She hoped that it would be enough to fill in the gaps.

Feeling slightly more prepared, Alyssa tried once again. She didn’t expect her first attempt to be a success. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t a complete failure, but the swirled marble was no longer what she was aiming for. Setting it aside, she tried again, focusing specifically on the manufacturing process of both glass and iron. Her second and third tries went in the same way.

The eighteenth, however… Alyssa opened her eyes expecting the same result, only to feel the marble break apart in her hands. It was the first one to actually fall apart. She just about tossed the pieces to the side in disappointment only to notice that they had fallen in two distinct halves. A metal half and a glass half. They weren’t fused together and there wasn’t any glue. So without the metal and glass swirled together keeping them one piece, they couldn’t stay together. But… It was a success, right? She had created metal and glass in the same casting of the spell. The two sides being apart was an engineering error, not a manufacturing error.

Setting the two halves aside in their own section on the bed, Alyssa tried to replicate her feat. It didn’t work right away. She had to put a few more swirled marbles on the bed before she got another split one. From there, she managed to get five in a row. Though she would have to do more tests to be absolutely certain, it seemed as if the harder she concentrated on the manufacturing process, the more likely she would get what she wanted.

Which gave her yet another idea.

Alyssa pulled out her phone once again. This time, she started searching for manufacturing process of sunglasses. From a machine that bent wire into the shape of the eyeglass frame and fused on the nose and temple pieces to the shaping and molding of glass to fit inside. It seemed like a lot of glass was actually plastic, which she knew beforehand—her old sunglasses lenses had been plastic—but Alyssa hadn’t even started looking up plastic manufacturing processes. From what little she knew of petroleum refining, she had a feeling that plastic would be far more complex than glass, which had been around for centuries before plastic had even been invented. It was why she had chosen to use metal and glass in the first place. For the time being, she decided to stick with glass.

She had to wonder if she was jumping the gun a bit. It was a large leap to go from a sphere to sunglasses. But there was nothing to lose from trying.

So Alyssa closed her eyes and clasped her hands together. Most of her previous attempts, she had started the spell almost instantly. This time, she waited. There was a whole lot more to concentrate on now. From the manufacturing process of iron and glass to the formation of lens frames and glass lenses. She tried to keep it all in mind without being distracted by any outside thoughts.

Opening her eyes this time, Alyssa wound up with a tangled mess of wire and glass. She had to grin at it. While it wasn’t glasses, it was close. Some of the wire was bent in the shape of eyepieces. The glass were almost the right shape and thickness. A few wires did go right through the glass, but presumably that would be solved if she could get the frame right.

Figuring that she must have been focusing too much on the glass and not enough on the metalwork, Alyssa set the fragments aside and tried again.

An hour of attempts later and Alyssa finally had something serviceable. The lenses didn’t start in the frame, but Alyssa managed to pop them in with little effort. She had eyeglasses. Not sunglasses and it wasn’t her smooth sports sunglasses that she had before, but perhaps she could look up ways to at least tint the glass later. For now, Alyssa sat back and admired her handiwork. And all the scraps of metal and glass that came of her failures.

“I did it,” Alyssa whispered. More to confirm to herself that she actually had made progress and had created results.

Irulon still heard her. “It’s far from what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“This was the design that I looked up the manufacturing process for. Perhaps with more practice I’ll be able to tweak it, but I’m… not content with this, but pleased with it nonetheless.”

“Hm. So discovering the history and materials manufacturing techniques worked?”

“Honestly, I presume so given that I was able to do this after looking all that up, but it could have just been pure practice.” Alyssa set the glasses on her face. They were a bit too big for her and the lenses did have some minor refraction going on. Like prescription glasses. Not ideal, but something she could work on for next time. Taking off the glasses, she handed them over to Irulon for inspection.

As Irulon turned them over and over, tried them on, and bent the frame enough to break the brittle iron, Alyssa had a thought.

“Oh. Oh no.”

“Hm?”

“If I have to know the process of creation…”

“Ah… Well, a living body is created through—”

“I know how a baby is formed,” Alyssa cut in with a glare, noticing a slight smile tugging at the corners of Irulon’s lips. Taking a deep breath, she sighed. “But I suppose I’ll have to do a bit more in-depth research into the topic.”


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Vacant Throne — 040.010

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Ritualistic Research

Cracks


Yora was gone. Alyssa had watched from Illuna’s walls as the entourage disappeared over the horizon, the tips of their banners being the last thing to go. It had made Alyssa wonder whether the bannermen were supposed to carry their banners the entire way back to Yora—a location roughly two weeks out from Illuna—or if they could be collapsed and attached to their horses in some manner. Regardless, after ensuring through Kasita that they hadn’t caused any incidents on their way out, she got some sleep.

After waking in the early evening, Alyssa started off with the usual morning rituals despite the time of day. She started a meal, ate, and considered going out to the bathhouse for some much needed relaxation before what surely was going to be another night of testing and failure with Irulon.

But just as she was finishing her food, a heavy thud shook the entire building. Alyssa tensed, fearing the worst. To her surprise, however, nobody else in the guild of mercenaries seemed all that alarmed. Silence came over the other tables, of course, as should be expected with any loud noise interrupting their meals. But none of them grabbed their weapons or rallied for a fight. A few shot exasperated glances at the ceiling.

Alyssa looked around, but none of her crew were around to offer any explanation. Since her eyes had started glowing again, most others tended to avoid eye contact unless absolutely necessary.

Which was basically never unless she was the one addressing them.

So she leaned over to an adjacent table to ask, but was interrupted by another heavy thud. This time, slightly more prepared and with a little hint from all the other patrons looking upward, she identified its source. Somewhere up above, unsurprisingly enough.

“It’s that princess.” The man she had been about to ask answered her unasked question of his own volition. “It’s been happening all day.”

“All day?” Alyssa scowled as she glanced upward again. Irulon was supposed to have gone to bed. Not only that, but… Alyssa wouldn’t have slept through that. She wasn’t Irulon, after all.

Maybe she had been more exhausted than she had thought.

Standing from her table, Alyssa marched straight toward the stairs.

She found herself at the door to Irulon’s room. The door had been wide open upon her arrival. When she woke up, she had feared that she would have to wake Irulon, but that obviously turned out to not be the case. The sleeping beauty was wide awake with her back to the door, staring while her hand pinched her chin between her thumb and index finger.

The room had changed a bit since Alyssa had last seen it.

Every wall, once planks of roughly cut wood, were now smooth and glossy mirrors. The same kind of mirrors created by various Fractal spells. There were only seams at the corners of the room where one wall met the next. The bed, desk, and Irulon were all reflected in the otherwise seamless surfaces. With some of the mirrors set up opposing each other, it created the infinite tunnel illusion. It looked like there were thousands of Irulons in the room, all just staring.

“Is something… wrong?” Alyssa asked.

Irulon didn’t turn. But her violet eyes did move, reflected in the mirror a thousand times over, to spot Alyssa. “You’re awake. Good.”

“Yes. I’m awake. Why are you awake? I thought you were getting some rest.”

“I slept for a few hours. More than enough,” she said, finally turning around. “I considered going straight to you, but decided to experiment with a little unrelated project while I waited.”

“The guy downstairs said you’ve been up to something all day. That doesn’t sound like more than enough sleep.”

“All day?” Irulon scoffed. “I’ve been at this for an hour. If that.”

Alyssa stepped into the room, looking around a little better. Her first step just about broke her neck when she slipped over a marble on the ground. Reaching down and picking it up, she immediately recognized it. One of her many marbles she had created for Irulon to examine. There were more marbles strewn about the room. One of the metal ones was split clean in two, revealing that it indeed was a solid ball of metal with no glass core. Though the glass ones were lying about as well, most in multiple pieces. “Unrelated?” she said with a raised eyebrow, glad she had her boots on at the moment. The glass should really be cleaned up before someone less prepared stepped on it.

Irulon dismissed the question with a wave of her hand. “Tools of convenience, nothing more.”

Picking up the split metal marble, Alyssa looked it over. When she had created it, it had been a perfect sphere. Now, however, even aside from half of it being missing, she noticed that a chunk of it had been flattened. Looking around the room at the mirrored Fractal surfaces, Alyssa put two and two together.

“You were trying to break the mirrors?”

“Hm. Indeed.”

“It didn’t work?”

Irulon gave her a flat look before waving a hand around the room.

“Right. Obviously not.”

“No matter how much force I put behind a physical object, it doesn’t seem to do anything to the spell. I could escalate further, but it would likely become dangerous.”

“You’re already causing the building to shake,” Alyssa said, glad that she hadn’t gone overboard yet. “Maybe we should go out in the middle of nowhere to try more.”

“From your testimony of the events with the Astral Authority, I do not believe such a force would be required. Not if the true demon and the sword acted as proper physical objects. If I raise the power of the marbles much further, the shockwave produced could rupture my internal organs. Such a fate did not befall you, so…”

“I was under the effects of Accelero, the time slowing spell? That probably had something to do with it.”

“It doesn’t slow time. It accelerates your personal speed on the arrow of time, enhancing your perception to the point where the world around you appears slower than normal.”

“Yeah, time slowing spell. Not only that, but those monsters were moving incredibly quickly even with that spell active.”

“I believe I’ve taken that into account in my calculations. But perhaps you are correct. I did not see their speed for myself, so I can’t estimate such things. You are also correct in that we would have to move locations if I wish to escalate further. Though,” Irulon turned away from Alyssa, considering the mirrored walls again. “It would be a shame to tear this down before trying one last thing.”

“Am I going to like this last thing?”

“I don’t see why not.” Irulon turned back to Alyssa. “Would you mind retrieving the staff?”

“Staff? Adrael’s staff? You’re going to try to look into the Endless Expanse?”

“If it works. We can also have you attempt to damage the spells using marbles, just to see if there is anything you can do about it that I cannot.”

Alyssa sighed, wondering if it was really a good idea to try to spy into the Endless Expanse. At the same time, she felt a giddy sort of excitement. Irulon hadn’t had a chance to really examine the fractured dome. The Justice and Astral Authority had them distracted, then exhaustion and a need to leave the ash-filled snow globe had taken precedence. A more controlled experiment would give Irulon a much better idea of just what they were dealing with.

Fracturing the mirror to the point where Earth was visible might just be her way home. She couldn’t leave just yet. Not until she had a sure-fire way of dealing with angels. But simply having the option open to her would do wonders for her morale. And looking into the Endless Expanse, spying on the angels, just might help in dealing with them. Even if it didn’t… well, Lumen had said that looking into where a spell came from could help in using it.

Having convinced herself thoroughly, Alyssa gave Irulon a curt nod. “I’ll be right back.”

The staff was down in her room. Given that she had lost the custom holster for it during the excursion out to Owlcroft, it was too unwieldy to carry around everywhere. With her mother, Lumen, Fela, Kasita, and occasionally Oz and Catal going in and out of the room on the regular, she wasn’t too worried about it being stolen like Irulon’s notebook had been. Besides that, Irulon had offered a trap spell to assist in protecting it. According to her, the only people capable of retrieving it should be Irulon, Alyssa, and Kasita. Everyone else would suffer… some unspecified and likely unpleasant punishment.

With her mother and the rest of the Lyria guild members leaving soon, Alyssa would probably change rooms. Irulon could probably make arrangements for her to stay, but taking up such a large room with only herself and Fela really needing the space would feel… awkward. The guild dormitories were intended for traveling members of the guild, which Alyssa was not a part of. Perhaps Irulon would be willing to move into Martin’s guest house. She hadn’t wanted to, not wanting to get drawn into large communal meals or other ‘social activities’ expected of a princess interacting with a member of the great houses, but it had looked comfortable.

As for the staff, she might have to find a way to carry it around with her if there weren’t going to be people in and out of the room it was kept in on the regular. A makeshift sling made from cloth, maybe. Or just higher security from Irulon’s spell tome.

Regardless, for the time being, the staff was right where Alyssa had left it. Tucked away in a long box beneath her bed with some other gear of hers. Feeling its warmth as she grabbed hold of its haft, Alyssa marched back to Irulon’s room with renewed vigor, excited to see if they could do something with it.

Arriving, Alyssa found the room shifted around again. The table had been upended on the bed and the desk shoved right up next to it as well, leaving one clear wall. Presumably to stand and swing the staff like it was a baseball bat. The marbles, whether thrown or launched with magic, wouldn’t have needed all the extra space.

Irulon backed up as far as she could, standing right next to the door. She was really only technically inside the room. A definition that could change by leaning one way or the other. “If you wouldn’t mind putting those muscles of yours to good use,” she said, gesturing to the far wall. “Please try to avoid damaging the other walls. They are meant to act as a control.”

Although everything had been shoved aside, Alyssa took a quick glance around the room just to ensure that she wasn’t about to destroy a priceless decoration. Satisfied, she gripped the haft like a baseball bat. It was a lot longer than a real bat. Much heavier at the end as well, in part because of its length, mostly because of the large ruby attached to the end. She did hesitate for a moment. If the staff did end up damaged… it was definitely an irreplaceable object. Even if Tenebrael could get Adrael’s shield and hand it over, it still wouldn’t be the same.

But her hesitation vanished as she remembered what Iosefael had said. The staff could only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom. That in mind, Alyssa wound up, held the pose for just a moment, and slammed the bat down as hard as she could.

Vibrations ran all up Alyssa’s arms, stunning her momentarily. It felt like she had… well, like she had just struck a brick wall. Except a brick wall might have had a bit more give to it.

The wall was completely unblemished. Not even a scratch marred the smooth mirrored surface of the Fractal spell. Given how fast the demon and the sword had to have been moving when they struck the dome, Alyssa couldn’t find it in herself to be surprised. Still, she couldn’t help but feel disappointment. Like she should have been able to shatter it simply because she was… special?

She didn’t like being called anything but a regular human most of the time, but it would have been advantageous here.

“You alright?” Irulon asked.

“Might have a few aches later, but yeah.” Alyssa rolled her neck as she spoke. “Shall I try again?”

“If you wish, but after watching that, I don’t hold much hope for a change in the outcome.”

Alyssa’s grip tightened on the staff’s haft as she looked it up and down. Like the mirrored surface, it looked entirely undamaged. Gold was an extremely soft metal, but even the smallest and finest decorative carvings hadn’t been harmed by the sudden impact with a solid wall. The ruby was similarly unmarred. “I assume you have another plan?” Alyssa asked, loosening her grip. Irulon was probably right. No need to injure herself trying to damage the wall.

“I have a magical way of launching an object. I believe it will produce much more force than your swing.”

Alyssa held out the staff, letting Irulon take it from her. The princess stepped into the room, but didn’t get much closer to the wall than the doorway.

“You might want to step out,” Irulon said, looking down at the staff as she turned it over in her hands. “Some of those marbles were bouncing all over the place. I would hate for this to strike you on accident.”

“What about you? Will you be alright?” Irulon had been the one originally skewered by the thing after all. Having it fly around the room at high speeds sounded like a bad way to repeat that incident.

“I can keep myself safe,” Irulon said, dismissing Alyssa’s fears. “Just stand back… and you may wish to cover your ears.”

Alyssa was pretty sure that she was half deaf from firing a few too many gunshots without ear protection, but the advice didn’t go unheeded. If little marbles had been able to shake the building and make a noise that could be heard all the way downstairs, she wasn’t too interested in finding out just how loud a sound the staff might make.

Hands over her ears, Alyssa watched as Irulon pulled out a few spell cards. She couldn’t actually hear what the spell was, but it was definitely a Fractal spell as a curtain of glass shards appeared between Irulon and the target wall. Holding the staff out, poking the bottom side through the curtain aimed toward the wall, Irulon raised a spell card in her other hand. The card burned up with another unheard spell.

Irulon removed her hand from the staff.

It clattered to the ground. Judging by the expression on Irulon’s face, that clearly wasn’t the intended effect.

“Something wrong?” Alyssa asked, removing her hands from her ears for a moment.

“Magic doesn’t work on this.”

“Ah… yeah. You knew that, didn’t you?”

“I thought I could get around it,” Irulon said, bending to pick it back up. She waved it through the curtain of Fractal glass in front of her, frowning as it passed through without any resistance. “If it had worked, this would have been dangerous for me… Good to know. Though odd that it doesn’t just dissolve the mirror.”

“The mirrors are strange. I don’t imagine that showing the Endless Expanse is a very typical thing. An abnormal spell has abnormal reactions. Maybe?”

“Hm.”

“Any way of getting around the magic nullification?”

“Perhaps. Attaching something that we can affect with magic may work… In fact, yes.” Irulon nodded to herself, looking around the room. She immediately grabbed the wooden chair that was pushed underneath the desk. She simply set the staff on the chair, then lifted both and pushed them through the curtain. Or tried to. While the staff penetrated it easily enough, the back of the chair got caught on it. Parts of the seat, where the staff was resting, made it through, but even that was only a small section of it. “This will work. Would you mind fetching some rope from the stables?”

“Sure.”

It was a rather straightforward request that Alyssa completed in a straightforward manner. Despite only taking about as long as it took to go down a flight of stairs and back up, Irulon had managed to accomplish a lot in the time that it had taken. The chair no longer looked like a chair at all, but rather a wooden sled with the staff resting on top, all of which had been placed on the desk, aimed right toward the mirrored wall.

Irulon wasted no time in lashing the staff to her sled. It looked quite haphazard. Brakkt could probably have done a much better job of it. But, after she was finished, Irulon tugged and pulled on the staff and it didn’t come loose, so it was probably good enough for their little experiment.

Instead of standing right next to it, Irulon backed out into the hall along with Alyssa. She motioned for Alyssa to cover her ears once again before pulling out a spell card.

Alyssa felt the staff slam into the mirror through the building. It was an earthquake far larger than any she had felt, though she wasn’t sure if that came from the proximity to the spell or because the staff was just that much more massive than marbles.

Regardless, Irulon stood frozen in the doorway, just staring. Alyssa knew it worked before she even leaned around the corner.

The formerly smooth and rectangular mirror had a spiderweb of cracks running from the center to the edges. Much like the dome, each fracture showed off a different view. All of the iridescent city filled with spires and shifting dimensions. Once again, despite them all showing off different locations, Alyssa could still see the Throne in all of them.

The golden staff was lying on the floor, completely unharmed. The wooden sled that had propelled it into the wall was lying on the floor as well, but in splinters.

Irulon took a step forward. Alyssa stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.

“Be careful,” Alyssa said. “Kasita managed to put her arm through like it was a portal. It alerted at least one angel to our presence. Something we should avoid. Besides that, multiple angels have told me in no uncertain words that a mortal cannot survive in that world.”

“Observe only,” Irulon said, confirming that she got the message. “I understand… What wonders,” she mumbled, more to herself as she slowly entered the room. She stopped a full three feet from the fractured mirror, crossing her arms as her eyes shifted to black and white. “Fascinating.”


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Vacant Throne — 040.009

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Ritualistic Research

Further Experiments


Alyssa took a deep breath. “Sorry I snapped at you,” she said after a long moment of holding it. “I’m just a little frustrated. I expected this to be…”

“Easy?” Irulon said, handling a glob of dripping… something. Alyssa’s latest failure. The princess didn’t seem concerned in the slightest that whatever it was leaking might be toxic. Rather, she looked at it like she wanted to dissect it. Not that it was living. At least, Alyssa was pretty sure it wasn’t living. Alyssa wasn’t even sure that it was organic.

“Something like that,” Alyssa mumbled.

“What you are doing is definitely impossible.”

Blinking, Alyssa looked up to Irulon. “Impossible? Magic can do all kinds of things that I thought was impossible.”

“No magic that I am aware of can create something physical. Or, if it does create something physical, it is a temporary object and will vanish in time.”

Frowning, Alyssa went through her mental library of all her spells. As far as she could tell in her limited experience with magic, Irulon was right. The only ones that she could think up that actually created something were the Spectral style death spells and anything to do with fire. The Spectral spells disappeared as soon as she dismissed them and, while fire did not, it was entirely possible that the original magical flames vanished and were replaced by regular flames as the fire spread. Fractal spells did create lots of mirror-like constructs, but they vanished as soon as the effect ended.

“I wonder if I can use what I see on your hands when you create these,” Irulon paused to heft up the leaking green glob, “to craft a whole new school of magic. Even something simple like creating a metal ball would be revolutionary. I could be known as the greatest arcanist to have ever lived. My name would be taught in the Observatorium until the end of time. I could—”

“Shouldn’t we focus on you first? You know, the whole soul problem?”

Irulon blinked, looking over the wooden desk covered with various creations to stare at Alyssa. If Alyssa hadn’t known better, she might have thought that the princess had forgotten about the whole reason they were doing this in the first place.

Perhaps forgotten was the wrong word. Perhaps it was more that she was debating between saving her and the dragon’s soul and the possibility of having her name in every history book ever made going forward. To Alyssa, the choice seemed obvious. To Irulon?

“Of course,” she said after too long of a minute.

Alyssa sighed, wondering if her supposition was correct. Then she reconsidered. Irulon would surely focus on saving herself first. If only so that she could claim this new magical field for herself and secure her name instead of being merely the footnote to someone else who would complete her research in the future should she die.

Fiddling with one of the marble-sized ball bearings she had created, Alyssa decided to focus on her own problems. Irulon was a grown woman. She could decide how to live her own life. Though if she did decide to do something hazardous to her own health, Alyssa would have to have some words with her.

“Any real ideas on how we can fix this? Unless the dragon wants to live inside a ball of metal or whatever that thing is—” Alyssa pointed toward the leaking glob in Irulon’s hands.

“It doesn’t.”

“Then we’ve still got a lot of work to do it seems.”

“Indeed. There are a few more tests I would like to run. However… our results seem to have been declining as of late. It may be time for a break.”

Alyssa’s eyes flicked to the window in the room. Their experiments had gone on for a few hours now. Night had fallen a while ago. But… it didn’t seem like it had been that long of a session since. However, upon looking at her phone, she realized that it was almost morning again. “My sleep schedule is so messed up,” Alyssa groaned.

“We’ve been at this for ten hours, give or take.”

“With nothing to show for it. But we have to keep trying, right?”

“No sense being so down. It is unreasonable to expect you to have mastered a new skill in such little time, especially when you have little experience in similar tasks.”

“I created a towering statue in Teneville…”

Tenebrael created a statue. You merely acted as a proxy for her body. This is something you are doing entirely on your own, albeit using her power. My evidence for this theory is that you do not need to speak any words to generate this effect. As such, you are likely failing to frame your mindset in the proper patterns. If you were a classically trained arcanist, you might find this task easier. However, such an education would take years. Most arcanists are identified and begin their education from a young age. We… I do not have that much time. So we will have to take a different approach. Were I you, I would not be expecting Tenebrael to come along with all the answers to turn this task into something easily accomplished. Not unless she meddles with your mind. Knowing you, you would object to that.”

“Object. Yeah. That’s one word for it.” Messing with my mind? Alyssa bit her lip as Irulon turned away. The princess kept her back straight, bending only at the hip as she leaned forward to make a few notes in a notebook. Her face was poised, as usual, and she had remained that way for their entire meeting. While Alyssa had lost her patience more than once, Irulon had kept perfectly calm.

If it came down to it, would she allow Tenebrael into her head? It wasn’t a question that she had an answer to. It wasn’t a question that she thought she would have an answer to unless it came down to it. Assuming Tenebrael could do something like that in the first place. For all Alyssa knew, that would count as harming a mortal.

Maybe that was why Tenebrael had disappeared. She had known that using this ability wouldn’t be easy and, rather than answer questions, had simply vanished for a time until Alyssa realized the scope of the actual problem. Checking her phone again, Alyssa frowned. Still no response to her text message to Tenebrael. It was entirely possible that something else had happened. Iosefael apparently was not ready to fulfill a Dominion’s duties and had caused quite a mess as well.

“In any case,” Irulon said, turning back to Alyssa—who tried to act as if she hadn’t been staring. “I haven’t slept in three days now. With all this excitement, I am not sure when I might find time to sleep in the future. My companion is encouraging me to rest for a time. So we will be taking a break regardless of your wishes.”

“Three days? Irulon… you have to sleep more often than that. It’s bad for your body.”

“I’m fine. I’ll be better once this stress is behind me.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, wondering if she should press the point more. Before she could, Irulon spoke again.

“If you wish to continue trying variations on what we have already done, that is your prerogative. But you’ll have to do that in your own room.”

“No. You’re probably right. I don’t feel tired yet, but I should probably sleep soon. If only so that I can wake up when you get up… Though knowing you, I could wait as long as I wanted as long as no one came around to wake you up.”

“I imagine my sleep will be quite light with all the excitement going on.”

“Imagine all you want. Light sleep for you is still heavy sleep for everyone else.”

“Hm. We’ll see.”

Leaving the created material behind on Irulon’s desk, Alyssa headed out. She first headed down to the guild’s main tavern, only to find the room completely empty. Not even the receptionist was at the desk with all the jobs and requests posted behind it. A bit of an eerie scene, but it wasn’t the first time Alyssa had gone in while it was empty. While the guild’s taverns tended to stay up later than anything else in this world, even over regular taverns, it did shut down relatively early on into the night. Relative to Earth, anyway.

In fact, someone would probably be along shortly to open up its doors to the public as they did every morning.

Alyssa considered heading up to her own bed, but she didn’t quite feel tired yet. She had only been up for ten hours, plus a bit extra. The entirety of that time had been spent with Irulon.

At the same time, she really didn’t have anywhere to go. Although Illuna was, overall, safer than Lyria, she still didn’t really want to go wandering the streets alone for a little early morning walk. Kasita hadn’t stopped by, so she was probably watching the people from Yora. Brakkt was gone. The monsters down in the camp were fine on their own.

Alyssa took a seat down at the usual table. The room was still well lit. Jars of light potion couldn’t just be turned off with a flick of a switch, so they remained on more or less permanently until the magic of the alchemy waned to the point where they had to be replaced.

She started off with another text message to Tenebrael. It was… mildly awkward. She felt like she was in high school again, sending a message to someone who hadn’t messaged her back after the last one always felt like she was nagging or just being annoying. But in this case, she really didn’t care if she was annoying Tenebrael.

After, she decided to pull up a movie on her phone. A little relaxation went a long way, and it had been a long time since she had a real minute to relax like this. It was a shame that Kasita wasn’t around. Kasita always seemed to enjoy movies from Earth. Especially when they had monsters in them. She didn’t seem to like Alien that much though. The xenomorph reminded her a bit too much of a much more aggressive gaunt. Still, it meant that now was the perfect time to watch the second one in the series.

The movie failed to capture her interest. Part of it was that she had seen the movie before. Maybe too many times. The other part was that her mind kept wandering. She was trying to give herself an hour or two of freedom from thinking about being connected to Tenebrael. Instead, she just felt like she was procrastinating. It was the same sensation that she got when she had a school assignment to do and wasn’t doing it.

Halfway through, Alyssa put the movie on pause and stopped pretending like it was distracting her at all. Instead, she closed her eyes and decided to try creating something again. This time, she kept in mind something Irulon had said. She was thinking about it wrong. Her mindset was wrong. A classically trained arcanist would be able to use the ability. Alyssa couldn’t because she… took shortcuts? She didn’t have to speak spells before casting them. She didn’t even have to know what a spell did as long as she more or less guessed right. She had proved that when she killed the old woman at the Juno Federation’s outpost using Irulon’s tome. From what she understood, that was highly abnormal. A normal arcanist had to know the spell’s activation name and its intended effect or the spell would fail.

She didn’t know what kind of activation phrase would work. She knew her intended outcome, but wasn’t sure if that was the same thing. Rather, she was starting to think that she couldn’t just focus on a picture of what she wanted. Tenebrael, while performing the same spell, had listed off components of the human body individually until she got lazy and wrapped up the rest. Tenebrael had not verbally identified any shape or order of composition. Just the material that made up a body.

Hands together, Alyssa decided that there was no downside to verbally stating what she wanted from her experiment in the relatively private room. “Iron and glass,” she said, deciding to not go for anything more complicated than two separate materials. She slowly pulled her hands apart, wanting nothing more than a simple sphere.

The lump settled into the palms of her hands. Cold. Metallic.

Opening her eyes, Alyssa found just what she feared. A ball of solid metal. At least, she assumed that it was solid. With the metal being opaque, it could have glass in the center. Instinct, or perhaps just pessimism, told Alyssa that it did not.

Still, it hadn’t been worse than any attempts up in Irulon’s room. Undaunted, she set it aside and tried again.

And again.

And again.

And…

Alyssa held up a small marble. There were eleven failures on the table around her. Eleven marbles that were either metal or glass. But this one, this twelfth attempt, was… a success? It was a marble like all the others. But this one was different in composition. Metal and glass swirled together in a way that Alyssa thought would be impossible through traditional manufacturing techniques. It was quite an interesting design, one that caught the light with the glass portion.

Excited by something being different, she had half a mind to rush upstairs and show off her creation to Irulon. Reality tempered her excitement; the thought of having to wake up Irulon right after she had gone to bed was daunting. Besides that, she wasn’t sure that this was really worth getting too complacent with. Although it seemed to be some kind of progress, it was still essentially worthless unless she wanted to play a game of marbles.

She put her hands together again, ready for another attempt, only to be startled out of it by light footsteps. Her hand dropped to her side where she kept her pistol and her spell cards entirely out of habit. Alyssa paused as she saw who was coming down the stairs.

“Lumen,” Alyssa greeted. They didn’t really get along, but that was no reason to not be cordial.

For her part, Lumen just stared for a long moment. Alyssa thought she heard a soft groan coming from the woman as she slowly approached. “Your eyes are glowing again.”

“Yes,” Alyssa said, making some effort to avoid rolling her eyes. “Very observant.”

Lumen either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the heavy sarcasm. She turned her eyes to the table and the many marbles lying on top of it. One of her hands twitched like she considered touching one of the marbles before thinking better of it. “What’s all this then?”

“A little science experiment,” Alyssa said as she spun the swirled marble. It didn’t spin perfectly, possibly because the iron was weightier than the glass. After practically flipping over, it did steady its spin, but it still wasn’t smooth. “Say, you were trained and educated at the Observatorium, weren’t you?”

“Yeah?” Lumen said, suddenly defensive. “What of it?”

“Just wondering… If you came across a spell to do something you had never seen or heard of before, how would you go about experimenting with it to figure out exactly what it does and how it can be used?”

Lumen raised an eyebrow. After what appeared to be a long mental debate with herself, she sat down at the table across from Alyssa. She didn’t speak for a long moment, choosing to simply stare at Alyssa. “I suppose it depends,” she said slowly. “The method that I would have acquired a spell would account for a great deal of my investigation. If I found the design among some ancient ruins, I would likely start looking up the history of the area, finding out what magic the people who once lived there were known to have used. If, for example, the ruins were known to be from some ancient ‘Kingdom of the Sun’ and were known for pioneering a great many light-based rituals, I would probably start looking there. Many spells of a similar type will have common identifying features. Though ancient spells would more than likely be rituals, which are a bit harder to discern exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Rituals are far less refined arcanery than modern spell cards.”

Alyssa nodded along, finding Lumen’s lecture interesting but not all that relevant to what she needed. This wasn’t exactly a spell, first of all. Not in the same way that rituals and spell cards were. Secondly, she knew where it came from. The Endless Expanse. But she wasn’t sure how that might help her. Not unless the mathematics Tenebrael had showed her were the key to this.

Given that she had made some progress here at the table, it might simply be a matter of practice.

Lumen continued on, discussing a few other scenarios and how she would go about trying to identify a random spell. From spells developed in a contemporary time outside the Observatorium to a theoretical ancient ritual discovered by a hostile group that the guild had been sent to take down with no known origins. Many of her scenarios ended with heading to the Observatorium to seek guidance from those more experienced than her.

Thanking her, Alyssa collected the marbles and headed back upstairs. This time to her room. Fela looked to be just waking up, making Alyssa wonder if the hellhound had spent the entire night asleep. Shaking her head, Alyssa looked over to one of the other beds in the room. Since arriving in Illuna, Alyssa had been in the same room as Lumen, Fela, and her mother. Kasita as well, though the mimic didn’t really sleep much.

Her mother was up as well, looking like she had woken not long before and had just finished getting dressed.

Alyssa paused, then smiled softly. “Hey mom. You got a minute to talk?”

Lisa looked over, pursing her lips as her eyes flicked to Alyssa’s. She didn’t comment, however, looking back down to her own belt where she was tightening it around her waist. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, really. Just wanted to talk. Not even about anything in particular. Just… a bit of talk before you head back to Lyria.”

Raising an eyebrow, Lisa stared. Perhaps looking for something that might be bothering her daughter. Whether or not she found anything went unsaid. Instead, she nodded. “I’ve got nothing pressing on my schedule.”

“Thanks,” Alyssa said, taking a seat on her own bed. She didn’t say anything right away. In fact, it was several minutes before either spoke. But eventually, Alyssa started talking, mentioning the minotaur brothers and hoping that she might get a little closer to her own mother by the end of their chat.


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Vacant Throne — 040.008

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Ritualistic Research

Quick Experiments


Alyssa woke up much too early. She had a headache. Her throat felt a little sore and her eyes were dry.

The woes of having stayed out way too late. Perhaps she should have expected it, but Rokien and Worrik had sat around talking with each other for hours. The topics they covered ranged from joyous assurances that they were both alright to mournful recounting of the deceased—names Alyssa hadn’t recognized, for the most part. She really felt awkward listening in on them. Most of the time, she sat off to the side, resting on the ground with Fela and the draken while trying to avoid falling asleep. The only times she contributed to their conversation were when Rokien or Worrik directly addressed her. Usually by way of thanks.

Nothing that she really needed to be there for, but she stuck with them anyway. Mostly to ensure that, when they went back to camp, there wouldn’t be any troubles with the guards because of a second minotaur appearing out of nowhere.

They could have gone back to the camp to talk were it not for Lueta hovering over them.

Alyssa could tell even without anyone saying it. Neither minotaur wanted to part ways with the giant snake. For Rokien, Alyssa imagined that any familiar face was a welcome sight. Even if Lueta was, in his own words, stand-offish. Simply seeing that his community had more survivors might have filled him with hope that some of the others who had been unaccounted for had escaped alive. Worrik, Alyssa imagined, had it even worse. Lueta had been his hunting partner before. In recent weeks, Lueta had been his only tie to the world. The giant snake had been his protector, had brought him food at a time when he was unable to acquire some on his own, and had been his only companion.

That had been the part of the conversation when Alyssa had felt the need to speak up. Namely, she had felt the need to ensure that Lueta did not get closer to Illuna. Volta should be able to help. Volta should be able to assist in reuniting them on a more permanent basis. Until then, Alyssa didn’t want to jeopardize or otherwise panic the currently peaceful situation between the humans and the monsters.

By the time Lueta was off to find the oasis, the minotaurs safely back in the camp, and Alyssa in her room getting ready for bed, her mother was just starting to get up for the day. Alyssa remembered her promise to herself to say something to her mother, but… she was just too tired to have even a moderately long conversation. Collapsing on her bed, she went right to sleep.

Only to be awoken halfway through the afternoon by an excited Irulon.

“Your eyes are glowing,” she said, clearly pleased.

Alyssa just sat on her bed, blinking several times to try to get rid of the sleep in her eyes. The sun was coming through her window, bright and yellow. Strange because the sun didn’t shine through her window in the mornings. Which, Alyssa’s sleepy mind said after a moment of confusion, means that it isn’t morning. Her room was empty save for Irulon and a slumbering Fela, the latter of whom was thankfully not cutting off circulation to her legs for once and was instead sprawled out on a separate bed. As far as Alyssa could tell, Fela had taken no notice of a certain princess despite Irulon making no attempts at hiding her presence.

“So, you encountered Tenebrael again, I presume?”

“Yeah, I… Can I have like five minutes to splash some water on my face?” Trudging through a marsh all night, even though she hadn’t really gotten down into it all, left her wanting to take a bath as soon as possible. Unfortunately, she doubted Irulon would let her have the spare time for that at the moment, judging by how she was practically hopping from foot to foot in excitement while making an attempt at keeping her stoic expression in place.

“No.” Irulon’s tone was flat and final.

Alyssa couldn’t disparage her for being excited about this given its relation to her very mortality, but…

“I hate to break bad news,” Alyssa started. “I spent a few hours last night trying to create simple sunglasses and wound up with nothing to show for my efforts aside from some lumps of metal and glass. A living body is a lot more complex than sunglasses. And Tenebrael disappeared again immediately after we connected.” Which reminded her… With all the reunion and subsequent exhaustion, Alyssa had never tried calling the dumb angel back. “She didn’t even leave a note,” she added, dragging her phone off the tabletop. Alyssa typed out a quick text message to see if the angel would respond before focusing back on Irulon.

The princess did not look daunted by the bad news in the slightest. Rather, her eyes lit up. “But you did manage to create something?”

“Yeah, I guess. You, uh, want to see?”

“Please.”

Alyssa nodded, closing her eyes. She found it really hard to reopen them. Her eyelids were just sticking together so pleasantly that she could easily see herself flopping back down to her pillow. What is the time? How many hours of sleep did I actually get? But she knew that Irulon was still standing over her. After showing off a ball of glass, Irulon would leave and she could go back to sleep.

So she forced her eyes open again. Irulon had taken a few steps closer, clearly intent on watching the process. Alyssa clasped her hands together. For a moment, she thought to simply make a ball of glass. But that wouldn’t really prove anything one way or another. Even with as tired as she was, there was no point in doing something if she wasn’t going to do it right. So Alyssa focused on glasses again. Simple glasses this time. A metal frame. No flexible joints. Clear, untinted, and unrefractive glass. Metal and glass. Something that her grandfather might have worn in old photos of him. That was all she saw in her minds eye.

Pulling her hands apart, she could feel something between her palms.

Something round and decidedly not glasses-like at all.

Alyssa sighed as she opened her eyes and looked down at the ball of metal in her hands. It was about the size of a softball, but weighed a good deal more. She turned it over in her hands, checking its uniformity. As expected, it was all metal. She supposed there could be some glass on the inside. Cracking it open would be the only way to check. Even with her spells, she wasn’t sure that she would be able to do that. And if it was a solid ball of metal, it would probably ruin most tools that tried to accomplish that task. Maybe Guillem’s workshop piston thing could do it. But that was a long way off.

Wan expression on her face, Alyssa held up the ball of metal for Irulon’s inspection.

To her surprise, Irulon looked absolutely thrilled. Her eyes were wide and she had a ravenous smile on her face as she accepted it from Alyssa. She clearly wasn’t expecting the weight as she had to readjust her grip before lifting it up.

“It was supposed to be sunglasses,” Alyssa said, just in case Irulon thought she had intended to make a hunk of iron.

“Fascinating. You didn’t speak a word. Nor did you have any spell card, runes, or other magical elements around you.”

“There might be something on the inside of my palms? Not inside my skin, but just on the palms of my hands where you couldn’t see. I can’t see for myself. Keeping my eyes open doesn’t seem to work at all. Possibly because I have to visualize what I want to make. If my eyes are open, I get too much visual information and it doesn’t work? Not really sure. Only experimented for a bit last night.”

“It’s fine. It’s fine. We can test such things.” Irulon looked up from the metal ball. “Create another for me.”

Nodding as she closed her eyes, Alyssa decided to try something different. Instead of a pair of sunglasses, she decided to go with something that was roughly the same shape. A baseball had a strange pattern to the ball and the stitching, so she decided against that for the time being. But a racquetball ball was smooth and all one material. She pictured a blue rubber ball.

Taking a breath, she slowly pulled her hands apart. Glass and metal were both cold to the touch. This, however, wasn’t. That wasn’t to say that it was hot, but it didn’t feel like metal or glass. And it didn’t feel like it was leaking either, so she got a bit excited.

Opening her eyes, her excitement diminished. It wasn’t a blue ball, that was for sure, but rather a midnight black. It was extremely smooth too, more like a super bouncy ball than the relatively rough surface of a racquetball. But, giving it a squeeze, she found that it gave. It was hollow. And it felt like rubber. So… partial victory, she decided. Holding it up for Irulon’s inspection, Alyssa said, “This one is almost what I had in mind. The color and texture are wrong though.”

“Hm. It’s light,” she said, weighing it against the metal ball.

“It’s used for a game. You use these rackets to smack the ball against a wall. It bounces off and you have to hit it again. The rules and objectives are a bit more complicated than that, but…” she shrugged. Irulon was probably less interested in Earth sports than she was interested in the ball and its creation.

Irulon carefully set both the iron ball and the rubber ball on the side of the bed, lowering both down with far greater care than Alyssa thought they deserved. At least in the case of the racquetball ball. The iron ball might damage the bed, or Alyssa’s feet, if dropped from too high.

“Again, please. This time, if you would try to keep your hands as far apart as possible so that I may see the actual creation process.”

“Another rubber ball?”

“Something simple. Whatever you feel comfortable with.”

Nodding, Alyssa closed her eyes again. This time, she decided on a simple glass ball. She had made them before so it shouldn’t be difficult. The clarity of the glass might help Irulon see something as well.

Keeping her hands apart was tougher than it sounded. It was just her natural instinct to clasp them together. But, she supposed that it wouldn’t be possible to continue making things as she was doing. Not if she eventually had to make a full living body. Unless she was going to make a child-sized body, she wouldn’t be able to stretch her arms wide enough to create the whole thing between her palms. Alyssa tried simply putting one hand on the back of the other and then push her creation out.

It worked. She could feel it working. But it didn’t feel nearly as smooth. Opening her eyes, she found herself surprised to find a crystal ball clinging to her palm. The moment she recognized that it was essentially ignoring gravity to stick to her hands, it fell into her blanket-covered lap. She picked it up again, glad it hadn’t slammed into her kneecap or something equally painful, and turned it over. Despite how strange it had felt coming out, it was a neat sphere of glass. No deformations like she had expected from the feeling.

Shrugging, she handed it over to Irulon. “It looks about like how I wanted it to look.”

“Fascinating.” Although Irulon took the glass ball, her eyes lingered on Alyssa’s outstretched hand for a moment before looking to the ball.

“Did you see something on my hands?” Alyssa asked, looking at them. There didn’t appear to be anything strange, but she hadn’t seen herself actually create the ball.

“Indeed. Your supposition was correct. Magic circles formed on your palms, but there was something off about them.”

Alyssa frowned, glancing up from her hands. “Off? What was wrong with it?”

“Not positive, exactly. It would help if I saw a proper one. All I know is that something about it just didn’t seem like it was done correctly. Give me a few minutes to think on this. I suppose you may eat now. Come find me after you’ve finished.”

“Thanks for granting me permission, your highness,” Alyssa said with only mild sarcasm.

Irulon didn’t respond save to pick up all three of the material balls. She had a bit of a difficult time. Both the glass and metal spheres were heavy. They were all sized just awkwardly enough that holding two in one hand wasn’t that easy. Keeping in with her prideful nature, Irulon decided to avoid losing her dignity by juggling and instead pulled up her spell tome, flipped through it, and cast a simple Levitation spell on them. With them trailing behind her, Irulon headed out of the room and down the hall toward the stairs.

For just a moment, Alyssa considered flopping back down into her bed, dragging the blanket up over her head, and going back to sleep. Creating matter hadn’t increased her exhaustion, but it hadn’t lessened it either. She could feel her eyelids drooping as she stared at the open door. Sleep was so enticing…

But she knew that, if she didn’t head up to meet with Irulon soon, the princess would come looking for her. At that point, she could kiss a meal goodbye for half the evening. Given that she hadn’t had anything upon returning to Illuna after dealing with Lueta and the minotaurs, she was feeling pretty hungry. So she mustered up enough willpower to throw her legs over the side of her bed and get to her feet.

Fela snorted, rolling over but staying asleep. Alyssa saw no need to wake her given that she wasn’t related to Irulon’s inquiries. The hellhound, and the draken too, had done well the night before. They deserved whatever rest they got.

After splashing some water over her face, Alyssa headed down to the guild’s tavern.

She found Kasita waiting for her at the usual table. There didn’t seem to be a vital emergency going on. Kasita would likely have woken her up before Irulon had done so if that were the case. As such, Alyssa didn’t feel bad about grabbing a quick meal before heading over to say hello.

“Your eyes are glowing again. Have a fun night out?” Kasita asked as soon as Alyssa took her seat.

“Met a giant snake. Reunited a pair of brothers. Met a certain someone,” Alyssa said, pausing to tap at her temples. “Didn’t create new problems for myself as far as I can tell. I’d say it was an enriching and productive time. How about you?”

“Bored myself to death listening to conversations. I don’t know how Claire does it. Most humans, even ones that are supposed to be important, are really really boring for the majority of their day.”

“Anything to worry about?” Alyssa said between bites of roast on bread.

“All the Yora people are going to clear out by morning.”

“Anything to worry about?” Alyssa said again, this time with a bit more concern in her voice.

“I don’t think so. Not as far as I could tell. They have apparently lost enough resources here already and don’t want to lose more. Will Yora be back in weeks or months? Possibly. But for now, they are retreating with nothing to show for their efforts.”

Alyssa felt her muscles relax in her neck and arms. She hadn’t even realized just how tense she was. They hadn’t ended up being that big a problem, but the fact that they weren’t going to be causing even minor distractions going forward was a relief. Still… “Would you keep an eye on them until they really do get out? Just to ensure that nothing changes between now and then.”

“They were packing up when I left. Apparently, they’re going to have one more meeting with Martin. Some kind of farewell. A customary farewell, likely over a meal. Nothing dangerous like usurpation.”

“The fact that you felt the need to clarify is not reassuring. You have spell cards, right?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Make sure you’re in that meeting and make sure nothing happens to Martin. Both for his sake as well as that of the monsters.” Martin and Volta were the best bets for the monsters. Maybe for humanity’s long-term acceptance of their inhuman counterparts. Having either harmed would be a disaster.

With the pit sealed, demonic activity at an all-time low, the monsters settled, Yora out, and the Astral Authority gone, things in Illuna looked to be settling down. They still needed to hear back from Brakkt, but he had yet to Message her so there probably weren’t any major worries with the infected they had found. It was entirely possible that the Astral Authority had simply missed one. Angels weren’t omnipotent so the Astral Authority couldn’t be.

Kasita stood, stirring Alyssa from her thoughts. “Well, better get ready for this meeting. It’s supposed to start soon. Maybe I should check in on the food. Claire was worried about poison being a thing.”

“Good idea. And good luck. Let me know how it goes. I’ll probably be up all night helping Irulon if you get some time to join us.”

“After the Yora guys go to sleep, I probably will. They’re boring enough while awake,” Kasita said with a mild groan as she started walking away. “Can’t stand being there at night. See you later.”

Offering the mimic a parting nod, Alyssa focused on her meal. She had to eat quickly before Irulon came to find out what was taking her so long.

Though that wasn’t the only reason Alyssa focused on her meal. If Irulon really could offer some ideas as to what she was doing wrong, she might finally be able to make some sunglasses. Getting everyone in the guild’s tavern to stop staring at her would be worth it.


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Vacant Throne — 040.007

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Ritualistic Research

Embrace


Clasping her hands together in front of her, Alyssa closed her eyes and concentrated. She could picture what she wanted. A nice, tight-fitting pair of sports sunglasses. Not goggles, but something that concealed her eyes fully even from the sides. And something that wouldn’t crack or chip easily.

Sunglasses. She had worn them tons of times, donning many different styles over her life. She knew what they looked like. Her mental picture was as perfect as could be.

Pulling her hands apart from each other slowly, she could feel something that hadn’t been there before. A hard lump, hot to the touch, but not quite hot enough to burn her skin. Like a cookie sheet that had been in the oven a few minutes prior, but was just barely able to be held steady while removing the cookies. Unfortunately, it was a lump. The fact that it was a lump told her that she had failed long before the process finished. Even still, Alyssa kept her eyes closed and continued to pull her hands apart until they were about a foot apart.

The lump settled into her hands. Its weight, which had barely felt like anything before, now felt almost as heavy as a bowling ball.

For a moment, Alyssa considered tossing it over her shoulder without even looking at her failure. But that wouldn’t help much. She wasn’t sure if discovering what she had done wrong would help at all, but at least seeing the result might give some clue. Instead of sending it off to join the others, Alyssa opened her eyes.

It looked like a crystal ball. A perfect sphere of clear glass. The exact kind of thing fortune tellers would have sitting on their purple-clothed tables at a carnival.

Aside from being glass, it really had nothing at all to do with sunglasses. The glass wasn’t even tinted. As far as she could tell, there was no metal or plastic in the ball. There was a glow deep within, but it wasn’t a magical glow as far as she could tell. She had seen videos on the internet of glassblowers and this looked just like molten glass straight from a furnace. It didn’t feel that hot, but perhaps the outside had formed first… as… she had pulled her hands apart? That didn’t make much sense, but she really couldn’t explain it otherwise.

It was definitely the most interesting failure she had created, but heavy and quite useless otherwise. Perhaps she could sell it back in Illuna for some quick cash, but that was about all it was worth. A paper weight.

Walking around the frozen marsh, Alyssa moved to the pile of other failures and gently set the glass ball down with the others. A similar ball of metal, though it felt hollow when she knocked against it. A flat strip of flexible metal that might actually come in handy for something. A rod of metal. A rod of glass. A few smaller balls of various materials. And a cancerous amalgam of plastic and… something that she couldn’t quite identify but leaked oily green nastiness all over her hands. She really hoped that one wasn’t toxic or radioactive.

Aside from that last one, which she really wasn’t sure what she should do with, nothing she could create could have more than one material. It seemed, anyway. Without sending the metal and glass off to a laboratory, she couldn’t be sure that they were a uniform substance. But this world didn’t have labs like that, so what she saw was as good as it got.

Even if she could only create one thing at a time, it wouldn’t be that bad. She could create lenses, frames, and even little screws for the joints all separately and simply assemble it all by hand. Unfortunately…

Shapes were another hard thing. She could change the shapes somewhat, as evidenced by her spheres, bars, rods, and strips of metal. Anything more complex than a cone seemed impossible, however. Or, at least, she had yet to succeed with anything that wasn’t a simple shape. Even bent or curved rod like what the ear pieces of glasses didn’t seem that easy. Spheres were the easiest and most common thing she had made.

Which she found extremely strange. It had been a very long time since Alyssa attended a math class. Back in high school would have been the last time. But as far as she knew, a cuboid was an extremely simple structure, mathematically. A sphere was not. A sphere had that whole pi thing to worry about. Then again, considering all the math that Tenebrael had put up on the whiteboard back on Earth, perhaps pi was as simple as two plus two to angelic magic.

Sighing, Alyssa leaned up against Izsha. The draken was still frozen, as was the rest of time. It had taken her a good thirty minutes to discover that, much like interacting with souls, she didn’t seem to need a verbal request to Tenebrael for this matter generation. Which was another strange thing. Souls were one thing that angels naturally interacted with. But even Tenebrael had verbalized her intent to summon fake bodies.

It really felt like there was some rule, some cosmic law that she was ignorant of that would have solved everything. But without Tenebrael here to ask, she had to simply continue fumbling around in the dark.

At least she had finally made something. The first sphere of metal had taken a good hour just to form. Perhaps she could create matter with interesting properties that armor and weapons could be crafted from, even if she couldn’t make a simple pair of sunglasses. She would have to speak with Brakkt and Irulon about fantastical adamantium or mithril or whatever they surely had here.

Unfortunately, creating material was well and good, but it didn’t solve the true issue. Alyssa doubted that Irulon wanted her soul shoved into a spherical lump of uniform flesh. Or a rod of flesh. Or really anything but a humanoid body.

Perhaps it was just practice that she needed. If that were the case, she had a feeling that she would be locking herself away as Irulon had done to practice for hours upon hours a day. But maybe Irulon would have some ideas as to how to improve quicker. Irulon had helped back in Teneville, after all.

And maybe Tenebrael would decide to show up and give some pointers.

For the time being…

It was probably time to get back to Illuna. After spending so much time working on the failed sunglasses, it was quite clear that Tenebrael was not about to return soon.

Glancing to the pile of failures, she wondered if she shouldn’t destroy those before leaving. At least the leaking one. The rest seemed fine. But if that was some radioactive or toxic substance… Tenebrael would cure her, probably. She doubted the same would be true for someone randomly happening across the junk pile.

The big question was how. Annihilator would work, but… Alyssa really needed to stop going to that spell as her first thought for everything. While it was true that it would solve nearly every problem she had come across, it would usually create a million problems in the process. Maybe with time stopped it wouldn’t actually destroy any land.

There was something strange with that, Alyssa had noticed. The marsh wasn’t nearly as… marshy as she would have expected. She wouldn’t say the ground was perfectly hard, but it wasn’t as soft as it should have been. And the water… She had gone over to the edge of the water upon first noticing the strangeness with the ground and ran the tip of her boot through it. It moved out of the way, but only barely. Like pushing through a bowl of honey.

But it did push through. Which meant Annihilator would probably cause some damage.

Instead, Alyssa pulled out several Fireball spells. They weren’t the most destructive things around, but they didn’t necessarily need to be. She really only wanted to burn up the leaking creation. The rest were just metal and glass and she really didn’t care if someone found them.

A ball of burning fire seemed to do the job well enough. Alyssa put four of them into the leaking material and the surrounding area before she was satisfied. Glad it hadn’t been more hardy, she moved over to Izsha. It was a bit awkward hopping on Izsha’s back while time was stopped. Normally the draken did move a bit to help Alyssa get on. She didn’t need the help as much as she used to, but it was still nice. Besides the missing assistance, Izsha was mid-jog, partially up in the air. That more than anything made the process awkward.

Not impossible. Just awkward.

Once on Izsha’s back, Alyssa clasped her hands together. For this one, Alyssa did think she would need a verbal request.

“Tenebrael,” she started. “I don’t know where you went, but leaving me in this stopped time is quite rude, is it not? It violates the natural order of things. Ophanim continue to spin. So too must time continue to turn.”

As with most usages of Tenebrael’s power, an almost holographic diagram of mathematical geometry expanded out before Alyssa’s hands. It grew larger as she spoke, weaving in more lines and forming Enochian script. It grew right up until she finished speaking. With a pulse of additional white-black magic, the pattern vanished.

Alyssa was ready for the lurch forward. It was a bit unpleasant, like her stomach had been left behind, but was otherwise not an issue. It was a good thing that Izsha wasn’t going much faster. It probably would have been even less pleasant.

As they rode forward, no one stopped to look behind them. Fela did sniff at the air a few times, glancing around as she did so, but she didn’t comment. After a few moments of riding forward, she seemed to ignore it. That was probably the fireball and residue, but she didn’t look over to Alyssa. And Alyssa didn’t call attention to what she had been doing. There just was no point. Especially not with Lueta and Worrik with them.

“I see,” Worrik said, tone somber.

Alyssa blinked twice, confused. “Sorry?”

“It’s fine. I expected it. Your condolences aren’t necessary.”

Alyssa blinked three times, trying to figure out what he was talking about and wondering if she should ask. With how serious he sounded, he must have been talking about something that meant a lot to him. Coming out and admitting that she had no idea what was going on would possibly hurt the tenuous rapport she had built up. Alyssa decided to keep her mouth shut and hope that the conversation, if that was what this counted as, moved on.

It didn’t. But it didn’t start up again either. Which Alyssa was also fine with.

Though Lueta kept glancing in her direction. Every other slither seemed to involve its head twisting around and those nuclear green eyes facing toward Alyssa. It took a few moments for her to realize what it was staring at. “Just a spell that helps me to see in the dark,” she said, not really caring to go in-depth on talking about Tenebrael. Lueta didn’t say anything, because it couldn’t talk, but it did nod. Since it stopped glancing back, she figured it accepted that as a good a reason as any for her suddenly glowing eyes.

They continued on. The draken and Lueta were making good time for all that they weren’t sprinting across the land. Alyssa didn’t do much in the way of directing their movements, trusting the draken to be able to follow their own scent back to the city.

Although it took a while, Illuna’s silhouette eventually popped up on the horizon, standing out only because of the rings that surrounded this planet. The morning was still a way off. Thankfully. It gave Alyssa a chance to direct Lueta back behind a hill hopefully without being seen by the city guards on watch. Martin would be extremely disappointed if she caused a panic for no good reason.

But reuniting Worrik and Rokien seemed like a pretty good reason even if it caused a minor panic.

Directing both Worrik and Lueta to remain hidden for the time being, Alyssa, Fela, and the draken headed off toward the monster camp. On the way to the city, she had been thinking about leaving Lueta behind, heading into camp with Worrik, and then coming back with Rokien just so the two could meet. But shortly before actually spotting the city, she had changed her mind. First and foremost, leaving Worrik with Lueta might help convince the giant snake that she didn’t have any ill intents. Secondly…

“Rokien,” Alyssa whispered, poking her head into one of the larger tents inside the camp. “Rokien?”

Her second call was a bit louder. It was that second call that got a disturbed snort in the darkness. It was nearly pitch black inside the tent, but Alyssa could still see the large form of Rokien rise up on his cot, silhouetted in the faint light Alyssa was letting in at the tent’s entrance. “Who is there?” he barked out.

“It’s me. Alyssa,” she said, adding her name just in case he was feeling a little too groggy to remember her by her voice.

His hand, which had been reaching for the axe on the floor, slowed. “Alyssa? What? I didn’t recognize you with your eyes like… What are you doing here?”

“I was out looking around outside Illuna and came across something you might find interesting.” Alyssa was deliberately being vague, not wanting to cause a loud scene this late into the night by mentioning his brother by name. She could only imagine that he would get a lot louder. Rightfully so, but not something she wanted him to do if they could help it.

“Now?” he said, slumping his shoulders. “It’s still dark out.”

“Observant, aren’t you? But seriously, you’ll want to come for this.”

“Is this an emergency?”

“Not a dangerous one.”

Despite the darkness, she could see him considering rolling over and going back to bed. It was a feeling that she could empathize with. How many times had she been woken up early in the morning for something she hadn’t wanted to do? But for this…

“Can I have a minute?”

“Yeah. Just meet me down at the southern side of the camp when you’re ready.”

Leaving him behind to take care of whatever he needed to take care of, Alyssa rejoined Fela and the draken. They were hanging out with a guard who wasn’t all that happy being disturbed this late in the morning. It wasn’t that he was sleeping or not paying attention to his job. Just the opposite. A bunch of monsters showing up out of nowhere was distracting him. And slightly unnerving him. As a regular guard of the camp, he wasn’t unused to monsters. It was the fact that Alyssa had shown up at all that was making him wonder if there wasn’t something to worry about. Normally, Alyssa would have been concerned about herself showing up unexpectedly as well. She was something of a harbinger of problems.

But tonight, she wasn’t approaching with problems.

Rokien showed up after a few moments, large axe in hand as if he were expecting trouble. Alyssa thought about telling him that it was unnecessary, but decided against it. It wouldn’t hurt anything and would probably make him feel safer. In the event that they did run into any trouble, it would certainly come in handy.

“Ready to go?”

“Go? Where are we going?”

“Just a short trip out of camp to meet up with someone.”

“Someone?”

“Nothing to worry about. I imagine you’ll be interested in meeting with them as well… You don’t have a problem with that, do you?” she said, adding the last part on with a look to the guard.

The guard just shrugged. “No orders to stop anyone from leaving.”

“Good.”

“He might not,” Rokien said, “but Alyssa… I do trust you—you haven’t given me a reason not to—but this is all… irregular.”

“Yeah. And I apologize for that. But… Well… let’s just get out of camp before I mention what this is really about.”

“Alright,” he said with only a small amount of resignation in his tone.

Though he moved with some trepidation, Rokien followed along. He moved on foot—the minotaur was just a little to large to ride on a draken, not that Musca would let him ride along at all. They were just not the right size for a giant. As such, the walk out to where Lueta and Worrik were took a bit of time. Much longer than it took to run into the camp.

Rokien, surprisingly enough, did not actually ask many questions on their walk. Looking at him in the light of the planet’s rings, Alyssa had to wonder if it was because of exhaustion. It was hard to tell from his facial expression, given is bovine anatomy, but his body language was one that screamed ‘I’m putting one foot in front of the other under great protest.’ That silent protest only grew as they started up the slope of the hill Lueta had hidden behind.

But once they crested the top, he froze. His brown eyes went from half-lidded to fully open. His axe landed on the hilltop with a hefty thud, but it wasn’t until he spotted his brother leaning against Lueta’s side that he actually made a noise.

It wasn’t speech. It wasn’t a bovine noise either. It was a deep and emotional “Ah!” that came from the back of his throat.

He stepped forward. One foot. Then the other. Hoof down. Hoof down. Each step was faster than the previous until he was practically sprinting down the hill. “Worrik!” he called out.

The other minotaur’s head snapped up. He took a step away from Lueta, but didn’t get much further before Rokien barreled into him. Rokien’s arms wrapped around him, pulling him into a tight hug. His arms moved up and down as if using his hands to make sure that Worrik wasn’t a figment of his imagination. Even though he was blind, Worrik quickly reciprocated, hugging him back just as tightly. Their heads knocked against each other. The long portion above their noses pressed against each other, pressing tightly. It was a visceral, emotional experience.

Alyssa watched from the top of the hill, smiling faintly. She didn’t go forward. She waved off Musca when Musca started down the hill. Fela, mindful of the overly large axe, picked it up and simply held it as she watched as well. It felt… good. Really good. Watching them reunite like this was worth any annoyance should Lueta be discovered so close to the city.

There was a bitter-sweat taste in her mouth though. Nothing to do with them. The situation reminded her that she might never have the same experience with her own brother. To begin with, they didn’t have that close of a relationship. She couldn’t even imagine grappling each other like that for a minute, let alone five. She had reunited with her mother, but even that hadn’t been quite so… intense. After a few minutes, it felt like business as usual.

Alyssa made a mental note to talk with her mother some before she left for Lyria.

But for now, Alyssa watched the minotaurs’ reunion in blissful silence.


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