Shards of glass hung in the air around Alyssa, swirling in a languid tornado. Each facet of each shard displayed an image. With her heightened knowledge of how the first high level spell she had ever used actually worked, she knew that it wasn’t displaying literally every possible action she could be taking at the moment. Had that been true, the shards would have been overwhelmed by different images of her standing around in ever so slightly different positions. There would be so many infinitesimally small variations in action that would result in roughly the same outcome that Fractal Mirror would never end up displaying anything actually useful.
No. There was a focus to the images in the shards of glass. Some did show her standing around, of course. Some showed her doing rather… unpleasant things to her companions. Even if throttling Irulon sounded cathartic at the moment, she didn’t need the memory burned into her mind as if she had actually done it. Months after her other two uses of the spell, she could still remember so many things that she hadn’t actually done.
It was one of the main reasons why she hated this particular spell. It could be handy, but the lasting consequences of using it were almost a price too high.
Alyssa brushed the shards to the side as she sought something a little more useful.
Thankfully, the vast majority of the shards showed her running around outside their little sliver of reality, directed by her desire and intention to somehow get the demon or the Justice under control. A few showed rather painful-looking deaths. Really painful in the case of the one where an Equanimity skewered her with its scorpion tail before bashing her against trees and rocks over and over again. Luckily, those didn’t actually imprint into her mind. The shards were destroyed the moment she died, negating whatever caused that particular problem. Several showed her getting hurt, but she didn’t exactly feel the hurt, even if she could remember it happening.
Many shards showed her pointing Irulon’s tome at either the demon or the Justice. Not much often happened in the case of the former. Most spells seemed to slide right off the obsidian skin. Shards that would otherwise split the world into tiny chunks might cause a small rash of glowing red lava to appear on the demon’s skin, but nothing more. Even that quickly sealed back into the thin cracks that lined the demon’s skin. That seemed to be the most damaging of all the shards, depressingly enough.
For the Justice, any time she tried attacking it, she generally got ganged up on by the rest of the Astral Authority. They were far less impervious to harm than the demon was, but their numbers were their true problem. An Equanimity eating a bit of fractal glass to the face would kill it, but even Irulon’s tome didn’t have enough spells to kill them all. And while the Justice got injured, its size meant that most spells ended up being nothing more than little paper cuts. In some possible futures, it seemed as if the Justice got hurt a whole lot more than others despite the effect of the spells she used being roughly the same as any other shard. She couldn’t tell why it seemed so injured in some of them. Maybe if Fractal Mirror showed a bit more time… but that probably wouldn’t help. The Astral Authority invariably swarmed her the moment she attacked, destroying the shard in almost every case.
She wasn’t quite sure how long she had been sitting inside the spell, watching the shards. Time went a little strange with a few Fractal type spells. Enough so that Alyssa had to wonder if there wasn’t some relation to the regular Time magic that the Pharaoh used. However, despite all the time she had spent looking at possible futures, Alyssa still wasn’t seeing a solution.
The Justice was definitely far more vulnerable than the demon. That she had learned. The demon was significantly less likely to try to kill her, but she somewhat already knew that, and there were no infected or other demonic entities around to gang up on her. As much as she hated to admit it, teaming up with the demon might be the best option at this juncture.
The real problem was just the minor members of the Astral Authority. In all futures Alyssa had seen, the Justice itself had completely ignored her. Back at Owlcroft, it had mostly ignored her, even when she had been doing Tenebrael stuff like messing with Izsha’s soul. Collateral damage was still an issue, but one that could be mitigated a few dozen times with more Reality Slivers.
With a sigh, Alyssa tapped one of the shards that showed her doing not much of anything. All the shards pressed in on her, squeezing her, crushing her, drawing her into them. And then… they were gone. Alyssa stood in the bubble of separated world, standing among Catal, Fela, Kasita, Irulon, and the draken.
She immediately sucked in a breath, filling her burning lungs.
Kasita was at her side in an instant, clearly worried.
Alyssa waved her off. “I’m fine,” she said between breaths. “Just decided to hold my breath for some reason.” She should have been a little more careful in selecting a course of action. At least she was still on her feet. The sweat slowly beading up on her forehead was easily ignored.
“Any ideas from the future?” Irulon asked. The princess was seated on the ground, cross-legged with her hands on her knees. Her eyes were closed, as if she were in deep meditation. They were probably black and white at the moment rather than her normal violet. Alyssa knew her well enough to guess that. “I have had a few thoughts, but I’ll wait to share them until I learn whether or not you tried them.”
“Nothing much,” Alyssa said with a shake of her head. “We might have to give the demon the assist, reverse our original plan.”
Irulon nodded slowly, as if she had considered a similar thing and had come to the same conclusion. “How easy is it to achieve victory?”
“I didn’t get to see any such situation. The Astral Authority aren’t actually that strong. Fela can tear them apart one on one without problem. It’s just their numbers that are the issue.” Hefting up the leather-bound tome, Alyssa flipped it open. “I don’t suppose there are any spells in here that might cull the herd a bit? I will say that I did not notice any extra Astral Authority angels portaling in. This sliver might hamper them. Or they just haven’t figured out how to get inside just yet but will soon. Either way, if we can get rid of most of them here and now, we’ll at least have a minor advantage.”
“No. Nothing in the book that could eliminate an army.”
“Nothing in the book? So something outside it?”
“Counter-army magic might work. All of which is Rank Six and can unleash wide-scale destruction. One particular spell comes to mind that might vaporize everything underneath the outer sliver.”
“Does that include us?”
“If we cannot create another smaller sliver fast enough, very likely yes. This particular spell is traditionally used only in the most dire of situations as it generally kills the lone arcanist sent to the back lines of the enemy army to prepare and execute the ritual.”
“It’s another ritual?” Alyssa asked with a frown. “We don’t exactly have a month to sit around—”
“Izsha’s ritual was created from scratch. Well, not quite, but semantics aren’t important at the moment. The ritual I am thinking of is already created, tested, and well known—though the details are kept secret to all but Rank Six arcanists in the royal family. The last person to use it was my father’s father’s mother.”
“I see… So it hasn’t been done in quite some time and no one knows the exact details of it and you have no idea whether or not you could get everyone into a bubble in time before whatever this ritual does actually goes off?”
Irulon didn’t answer for a long moment, choosing to remain still as she slowly opened her eyes. Her eyes were black and white, as Alyssa had suspected, spinning rapidly when she finally opened them. “Most of what you say is… mostly correct.”
“In that case, why don’t we table that thought for now… but I guess we might come back to it later on. Is there anything else that comes to mind, anything perhaps a little less cataclysmically deadly to all of us here?”
“Something that stands a chance at destroying the Astral Authority? Nothing particularly comes to mind. As you said, they are just too numerous to fight conventionally.”
“Alright.” Alyssa nodded, looking around to the others. “Other suggestions? Kasita, Fela? Catal?” Turning to the man in fairly bulky armor, Alyssa had to frown again. “Are you alright?”
Catal had hardly moved or even spoke since the sliver of reality had separated them from the rest of the world. He just sat on the ground, staring down at that sketchbook he had brought with him. On it, he had started a drawing. A tiny little stick figure stood next to the much larger drawing of the Justice. Given that the stick figure wasn’t detailed at all, it was probably just there for scale. As for the Justice, Alyssa found herself quite impressed with his drawing skills. He certainly hadn’t been the one to have drawn out that map she had taken a picture of. If he ever decided to retire from the mercenary life, he could likely make a decent living in the world of art.
His drawing obviously wasn’t complete just yet, the whole lower half of the Justice wasn’t anything more than rough lines, but the upper torso and head seemed… mostly complete if not entirely accurate. Or maybe he wasn’t quite seeing everything that Alyssa saw.
The strange way the Justice appeared, with Alyssa being able to look over its arm only to find herself staring at its stomach in the same spot, would make it difficult for anyone to draw, no matter how skilled they were. She didn’t expect a perfect drawing. Such things would have been nearly impossible to represent on a static sheet of paper. But there were other, larger details that she felt should be there.
For one, the Justice had only two arms on Catal’s sketch. Alyssa saw only two arms as well, but the Justice could do odd things like grasp its sword with both hands while still holding the oversized scales out. Or grasping its sword with one hand, the edge of the portal with one hand, and the scales with one hand. All that the same time. Catal’s drawing was completely missing the scales, even though he had the sword drawn in a surprising amount of detail. It only held the sword with one hand, but the other hand was completely empty.
No scales to be seen.
Another thing that was missing were the wings and the aureole. Given how prominent both were, Alyssa had to wonder whether or not he could see them. Six great wings were impossible to miss while the glowing false-halo should have been represented somehow. Probably like old-fashioned religious art like those found in old cathedrals or monasteries.
“Do you,” Alyssa started, looking between everyone else present—they had all failed to answer her question. Pausing, she decided to switch how she was about to phrase her question. “What did the Justice look like to you all? All except Kasita.”
The mimic put on a pout, though it lacked the carefree feeling that Kasita usually gave off. “Why not me?”
“Because you see things differently than others,” Alyssa said without looking away from Irulon, Catal, and Fela. “What are some basics? How many arms did it have? Legs?”
“Two arms. Two legs,” Irulon said without hesitation, earning nods from both the other two.
“Alright. Any equipment?”
Catal and Irulon both opened their mouths, but Irulon paused, allowing the former to answer first.
“A sword the size of the palace. It swung it around as easily as I swing my mace around.”
As soon as he was done, Irulon continued. “A blindfold.”
“But it was all torn up. And its face,” Fela said, leaning forward, eyes burning a bit brighter than normal. “Looked like it had a few of my kind tearing it up for a few days.”
Nodding again, Alyssa looked around, waiting. But it quickly became apparent that none of them were going to say anything. Irulon seemed to realize that something was up. She narrowed her eyes, flicking them to black and white for a moment as she stared at Alyssa. Though her stare only lasted until Kasita started frowning, and her attention shifted.
“Anything else? Any other notable traits or aspects of the Justice that you noticed?”
With no answer forthcoming, Alyssa looked to Kasita.
“It was carrying something,” she said. “Not the sword, but something else. I couldn’t quite tell what it was and it kept shifting around her body into different places. But it was definitely carrying something.”
“Scales,” Alyssa said. “Like the ones Tzheitza has in the potion shop, but much larger ones. She also had wings and a halo.”
“Didn’t see a halo, but I did see the wings. Six of them.”
“The halo doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think there is really any part of it that is real. But the scales…” Alyssa thought back, both to her time inside the Fractal Mirror and while the Justice had the demon pinned to the ground. The first time she had seen the Justice was something of a wash. She had been too awed to actually pay attention and as soon as she realized that Izsha and Kasita weren’t where she expected them to be, she had focused almost entirely on them. But the most recent times…
The Justice and the demon were both vicious fighters. She was a little afraid of what the world outside their small bubble of reality looked like. The incoming debris that the sliver saved them from was the least of what could have gone wrong out there. And that was just the Justice and its collateral. The demon seemed to keep herself contained to damaging it and it alone, but Alyssa had only seen a fraction of their entire fight… presumably.
As Fela had said, the demon had done a number on the Justice. Not just its blindfold and face, but its arms and body as well. Just a few minutes ago, Alyssa had seen the demon slice up the Justice’s arm. Even the sword was chipped and damaged now more than when Alyssa had last seen it. Not to the same extent as the demon’s scythe, but it had definitely been targeted a few times.
It made Alyssa wonder exactly what the demon thought she was doing. Were her attacks actually inflicting appreciable damage? Was she trying to do something else? Protect her other… demon infected things. Though probably not that. So maybe she was just trying to delay until Tenebrael finished her job of kicking out the Astral Authority?
Or was she actually trying to kill it?
“The demon hasn’t attacked the scales as far as I could tell. They were completely without a single scratch. Just as pristine as when I first saw them. Makes me wonder just why that might be.”
Irulon stood, pressing a thumb to her chin as she started pacing back and forth. “A weakness that it is hiding? Or is the demon intentionally avoiding it?”
“They might be similar to the demon’s mask.”
“Damaging the scales would empower it?”
“Can’t discount the possibility, but given that none of you were able to see it… or see it well,” Alyssa added with a glance to Kasita, “I would hazard a guess that the same holds true for the demon. I don’t know why I can see Tenebrael or the true demon, but whatever that is probably lets me see the scales as well.”
“Do you think you can damage them?”
That was the real question. The scales were quite large. A simple bullet from her pistol wasn’t likely to do anything aside from a small dent. Annihilator would probably do something even though it hadn’t been all that effective on either the demon or the sword. Still, if the scales were as tough as the sword, the Justice wouldn’t need to keep them so hidden.
“Very well,” Irulon said, standing. “I think we have a plan then.”
“We have a what?”
“A plan.” Irulon dusted her hands together. “Listen here, we’ve got a shot at this. We just have a few details to figure out…”