Vacant Throne — 037.003

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Lost Authority

Sketched Out


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…”


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Vacant Throne — 037.002

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Lost Authority

Beneath the Dome


“Hm.”

“Hm? Hm?” Alyssa hissed, snatching the binoculars back from Irulon to find out the extent of the damage removing that mask might have caused.

So far, it didn’t look like too much had gone wrong. Both the demon’s hands were still clamped around the tip of the Justice’s sword. But every scrap of leather that had once bound her body had fallen away, turned to dust and ash that coated the molten ground surrounding her without actually being consumed. But the ash only entered into Alyssa’s subconscious as a side note.

The demon herself was far more shocking.

With her clothes and mask obscuring all skin save for a small patch around one eye, Alyssa had expected something roughly human beneath. In fact, when she had removed her mask at Owlcroft to give her bullshit speech about how much she loved life and wanted to save it all, Alyssa had seen a human mouth and chin and neck. It had hardly been notable.

But now, things were changing. A rippling motion moved underneath the demon’s skin. Muscles bulged and tightened, twisting her body into a far more bulky form. Horns grew from the sides of her head, jutting downward before curving straight up. Her smile melded into her face. The line between her lips and her teeth blurred until she had no lips… or maybe no skin at all, just sharp teeth that were part of the rest of her face. Where once her skin had been average for a human of an unclear ethnicity, an obsidian black gleam spread over her body, starting from her eyes. Red glow, deeper yet somehow brighter than the lava around her form, followed after the obsidian, making her look like a sculpture carved from fresh volcanic rock.

Her hands lengthened and sharpened in the same way that her grin had shifted into part of her face, twisting into sharp claws.

Claws sharp and strong enough to bite into the metal of the Justice’s sword.

“Sever Reality.”

Alyssa shot the princess a glare as a mirrored dome of fractal magic wrapped around the entire crater. A huge mirrored dome, several times larger than any Alyssa had seen so far. She hadn’t even thought a dome of this size was possible. It might have covered the entirety of Illuna. It was a theoretically impenetrable wall. At least Irulon claimed it to be so. The Astral Authority were beholden to most rules of reality as far as Alyssa could tell, so they might not be able to get inside or outside… without using their portals. The demon could teleport as well, but so long as neither side used their portals, the mirrored dome would contain damage such as that which had caused the crater…

But…

“We’ve screwed up.”

“Perhaps,” Irulon said, voice with a heavy tension in it. Fear. Fear that Alyssa hadn’t heard from her since she found out that her combining with the dragon might have had repercussions. Though it wasn’t quite the same kind of fear, it was around the same level. “The dome should buy us some time to figure out an alternate course of action. But… hm. I feel like I’ve seen this before.”

“You’ve seen the Justice?”

“Not the Justice. The dome with a bright light fighting against an obsidian black.” Black and white eyes tore away from the crater to meet Alyssa’s stare. Slowly, Irulon broke her gaze and shook her head. “Do you recall me saying that there was something I didn’t understand in the revelation that Tenebrael offered me? The pieces have fallen into place. This scene, something about this scene jolted my mind in just the right way. I believe Tenebrael foresaw this. Foresaw us here.”

“I’ll kill her,” Alyssa hissed through grit teeth. “I swear I’ll kill her. She could have said something to me.”

“Perhaps she knew that you would have avoided the situation.”

“Did she at least give you some hints that we can follow? Some clue to resolve the situation?”

Irulon puffed up her chest, smiling. “I don’t think so. She must have faith that we can deal with this on our own.”

Alyssa turned a harsh glare to the faith-struck princess. Irulon might believe such nonsense, but Alyssa knew better. Tenebrael was messing with them again. Maybe this was some experiment with the book. Maybe she did foresee the demon being freed and wanted to give Irulon hope so that they wouldn’t give up.

But Alyssa was keen to the angel’s tricks. Tenebrael didn’t know anything. She wasn’t omniscient.

“Alyssa…”

“Just sit still and… don’t do anything, please.” With this new information, Irulon might be compromised into acting strangely. She might think she was doing something to help Tenebrael, such as freeing the demon. That… hadn’t been intentional, right? Irulon had been trying to weaken or kill it. Nothing more. Irulon…

Would the princess betray her and throw her to the wolves—or demons—if Tenebrael asked it?

“The plan still holds true,” Irulon said, looking back down into the crater. “We just have to give the demon a fighting chance for a short time before we turn the tables.”

“Turn the tables? Turn the tables!” Alyssa thrust a finger toward where the formerly pinned demon was visibly lifting the sword off her. “I would have thought weakening her would have been tough before. What are we supposed to do about that!”

Irulon, without a hint of nervousness, simply looked back down to the crater. “I’m sure a solution will present itself. Tenebrael would not have put us… or perhaps just you in a hopeless situation.”

“The hell she wouldn’t!”

“Have faith.”

“Faith? You— Ugh.” Alyssa eyed the faith-blind princess, wondering how she might get Irulon back to her senses… or if she should just Fractal Lock her now and leave her in the corner of the dome to sit until she could do something to fix the situation.

Alyssa didn’t want to believe that her friend would betray her for a stupid angel, but it didn’t necessarily take betraying her to do something stupid.

A small earthquake took Alyssa’s attention off the princess.

The true demon managed to lift the blade up enough to roll out from under it. The sword was partially embedded in the lava and the demon was back on her feet.

Even with the Justice’s hand reaching for her, she still took a moment to look directly at Alyssa. As with almost every other time they had come into contact, the demon waved a jaunty little flick of her wrist. The Justice’s hand moved fast enough that Alyssa could feel the air pressure change, first increasing with a bit of wind before thinning out as it all rushed back down into the arm’s wake.

But the demon’s wave turned into a backflip, sending her right over the top of the hand. She brought her scythe around in that same movement, angling the chipped tip perfectly to drag a deep wound from the Justice’s wrist clear to its elbow.

“How long?” Alyssa asked without taking her eyes off the fight below, ready to Fractal Lock everyone at the first sign of the Justice’s sword swinging around. “How long can we even survive in this dome with these two?”

“Hard to say. If it swings that sword…”

Catal had hardly moved—his former bravado apparently forgotten, or perhaps he hadn’t actually believed Alyssa about the size of the Justice in the first place—not even reacting to Alyssa fighting with Irulon.

Fela was down on all fours, tail whipping back and fourth. A low growl had been coming from her throat for a while now. Every so often, she looked back over her shoulder, looking directly to Alyssa as if wondering if there was some direction coming.

Unfortunately, she would be waiting a while longer. Barring a swarm of infected appearing inside the dome, Alyssa did not want Fela engaging in combat. Not with the true demon or the Justice.

The same went for Izsha and Musca—the latter of whom as growling almost as loud as Fela.

Of everyone present, Izsha was the most steady. Not frozen in fear as Catal appeared to be. No, Izsha was still moving, but the movements weren’t those of a frightened person cowed by what was in front of them. Izsha was fluid and ready to move as soon as it became necessary.

The air pressure changed again, pulling half a breath straight out of Alyssa’s lungs.

“Split Reality.”

A shard of fractal glass struck the trunk of a tree as it careened through the air. The wood quickly began disintegrating until nothing more than a snowfall of sawdust fell to the ground. It piled up a few feet out, well away from any of their group, but the trunk probably would have kept going had it remained intact.

Irulon didn’t say anything, though she did glance toward Alyssa with one eyebrow slightly arched.

“Can we leave this bubble? They can fight it out without us here as long as they want if it isn’t going to affect the outside world.”

Irulon shook her head. “Not as far as I know. Even Message spells don’t tend to penetrate the barrier. The spell was designed to use the casting point as its epicenter. The size and shape can be changed, but we can only retreat as far as the mirrored wall. It should be some distance behind us, given how large this particular instance of the spell is. Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure it would work, but that thing is large enough that I had to try.”

“Izsha, Musca, Fela, we’re moving,” Alyssa said before Irulon had even finished speaking. “Fall back as far as we are able.” Instant action was what was required at the moment, not hesitation and gaping at the monstrous fight before them. Instant action required goals. Her first goal was to keep all of them alive. They were in the most immediate danger and needed to act quickly to protect themselves. If the Justice swung that sword while they were this close, they might as well shoot themselves now and get it over with.

Thankfully, none of the mentioned individuals argued. Musca seemed perfectly happy to turn around and start running. Izsha put on a burst of speed, just about flinging Catal from the saddle. Only a quick arm around Alyssa’s waist kept him in place.

Beyond their own personal safety, they needed to protect the people outside the bubble. Illuna was still a ways away, but that could change in an instant if the demon and Justice were allowed to move freely. Alyssa was tempted to tell Irulon to take the spell down and put it back up with only her in the center, but…

Alyssa wouldn’t abandon her friend to the Justice and the demon. Regardless of whether or not the normally intelligent princess was acting in a less intelligent manner because of her faith.

As long as the demon and the Justice were going to stay in their own section of the bubble, the situation wouldn’t get all that bad.

“Behind us,” Kasita whispered, forming herself into existence between Alyssa and Izsha’s neck, clinging to Alyssa’s shoulders.

Alyssa threw her head back to find the Justice’s sword up in the air. Not high overhead like it was going to unleash an overhead strike, but more like it was going to slash horizontally. Standing at its full height, the trees did little to hide it.

“Down!” Alyssa shouted. “Everyone, flat against the ground!” Fractal Locks were on the edge of her mind, but…

The Justice wasn’t targeting them.

It was waiting, posed with its sword ready to attack as the true demon launched herself at its face.

Izsha slid in the loose dirt, skidding to a stop. Musca wasn’t quite as fast in stopping, continuing ahead for several feet. Alyssa sprung from Izsha’s back, hitting the ground with one foot, managing to hop and keep her balance.

Catal wasn’t so lucky. The man let out a shout as he slid through the mud and brush.

Some kind of training must have kicked in for Irulon. Perhaps she had practiced emergency draken dismounts before, perhaps the dragon was helping her decide exactly how to move. Either way, she didn’t waste any time in dismounting from Musca. She landed with far more grace than Alyssa or Catal had. As she dove for cover, Izsha, Musca, and Fela all slid up against the ground. It was an awkward move for the draken given that their bodies weren’t really designed for duck and cover exercises. They wound up mostly lying on their sides.

Alyssa moved to crouch between them and the Justice. Projectile Reflection would keep debris away…

The sword flashed with blinding white light. In an instant, far faster than should have been possible, it was on the opposite side of the bubble.

For an instant, everything under the dome went utterly silent.

Dirt, trees, and rock exploded into the air, blotting out the view of the battle. They hung in the air, reaching the apex of their arc. All at once, with a rush of wind and thunder, the sky started falling.

The Projectile Reflection, Alyssa quickly realized, would not cover everyone behind her from that.

“Irulon,” she shouted. “Have you got something for that?” Alyssa had an Annihilator, but with the dome in place, she might just cook them all alive. Assuming it didn’t reflect off the mirrored surface.

Despite the tricky slight of hand that she used to pull cards out, Irulon did need to pull out the cards from her tome.

Irulon brushed off her dragon hide armor as she stood up. A motion that transitioned seamlessly into pulling up the book.

The first bits of debris started pelting the ground in the distance, the dirt and pieces of wood that hadn’t gone quite so high in the dome. Alyssa saw more than a few bounce away from her. Izsha and Musca wouldn’t be bothered by such small pieces and Fela and Catal were in nearly identical poses with their arms over their heads and necks, but the larger debris was rapidly approaching.

“I wonder…” Irulon said softly. “Reality Sliver.”

A dome, much smaller than the one overhead, formed up, wrapping around their small group.

Darkness fell around them. Not complete darkness. The ten foot area they had was lit as if the moon was high overhead. But the bright golden light emanating from the Justice completely vanished. Along with the light, the falling bits of earth, rock, and tree had disappeared as well.

Even with them out of sight, Alyssa kept tense. Something might still break through.

But Irulon didn’t seem concerned in the slightest. Letting the tome dangle at her hip, she continued brushing herself off. “Nested slivers,” she said in apparent amusement, seemingly to herself. “Huh. Wouldn’t have thought… I think we should be safe in here for a time… unless doing this has released the outer sliver. We should probably check that sooner rather than later.”

Alyssa felt a flash of irritation well up. It was just something about the princess’ tone. The mild amusement mixed with discovery at discovering some new thing bothered her. Or perhaps it was her earlier thoughts about Irulon’s possible betrayal—a complete fantasy generated in her own mind with no real evidence in reality—that made her clench her fists. “How are we going to contain, kill, or otherwise injure the true demon now?” she asked, trying not to grit her teeth as she spoke.

“I know you’re upset.”

“A little,” Alyssa said after taking a deep breath. It wasn’t actually Irulon that Alyssa was upset with. It was a certain angel. Tenebrael knew of Irulon’s devotion toward her. If she planted ideas in Irulon’s mind, toyed with her, or otherwise tried to get her to act in a way that Irulon wouldn’t normally act in…

Irulon pressed her lips together, closing her eyes.

“Tenebrael is…” Alyssa had mostly ignored Irulon’s idolization of Tenebrael. It had been mildly annoying, but ultimately harmless. But now… Alyssa really felt like the princess needed some disillusionment. Now probably wasn’t the time.

But something had to be done. The biggest question was just what. Just saying that Tenebrael wasn’t what Irulon thought she was wouldn’t likely do anything. Irulon already knew that Alyssa was less than thrilled with the stupid angel.

If only she had a recording of Tenebrael from the festival in Teneville. Her comments about her own high priest, her dismissive reaction immediately after taking the souls, practically any moment she had been there except for the actual soul collection part would surely have been damning. In fact, most any conversation with Tenebrael eventually revealed something unpleasant. The real question was whether or not Irulon would agree with that unpleasantness. Alyssa could easily see her making excuses or outright ignoring some things.

But… Alyssa didn’t have any proof or evidence of Tenebrael’s lack of worthiness at the moment. Just her own word.

“We’re going to take the demon down,” Alyssa said, no conviction in her voice despite her best attempt. “Somehow, some way, we’re going to take it down.”

Irulon, still with her eyes closed, simply sighed. Reaching down to her hip, she grasped the chain of her tome. Alyssa just about Fractal Locked her then and there, but hesitated just long enough to watch her unhook the chains and pull the tome free. With both hands, Irulon held it out, offering it to Alyssa.

“What am I supposed to do with that?”

“All my spells. All save for a dozen Fractal Locks and two more Reality Slivers. Just in case. I was thinking about it, considering how your use of magic might trump my own. What if you had cast the Split Reality spell at the demon? Would it have done more damage? Could it have hurt the demon itself? So I thought you might best be the one to put these spells to use.”

“I don’t even know what spells you’ve got in there.”

“You mentioned accidentally turning an older woman into fine red mist the last time you got your hands on it. You didn’t know what was inside then, did you?”

“That was an incredibly different situation. She was an old woman. Not a true demon in its true form.”

“Point still stands.”

Alyssa grabbed the tome, perhaps a bit rougher than she should have, and stared down at the unadorned leather cover without opening the book. Could she just point it at the demon and end this immediately? It could be worth a shot.

But she felt like they needed a backup plan, just in case.


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Vacant Throne — 037.001

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Lost Authority

Trudge


“You don’t have to come. This is a bad idea.”

“Not hearing you put forth any better ideas,” Irulon said, voice a bit terse as they walked over the top of the swamp. She had made a bridge from shifting shards of fractal glass, taking them right over the top of the knee-deep water. It was a strange spell. It looked like they should have fallen right through it. Or perhaps it looked like their ankles should have been flayed to bits. Yet it was solid enough that even Izsha, walking behind Alyssa and Irulon, got to keep its feet dry and intact.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Alyssa shot back, voice barely above a whisper.

Walking over the swamp was a nerve-wracking affair. The Astral Authority were still all over the place. So far, they were ignoring everyone on the fractal bridge, but if that suddenly changed, Alyssa wasn’t sure how much she could actually do about it. She had a few Fractal spells from Irulon’s tome that might come in handy, but there were a lot of the stupid things hovering about.

Demons were another concern. So far, Alyssa had only seen one infected since leaving the city walls. The Astral Authority had swiftly dispatched it without anyone else needing to do something. So at least they were good for that. But an infected could still pop out and get a hit in before any of the Astral Authority did something if they didn’t keep their guard up. And if an infected got close, they would have to worry about collateral damage. The Astral Authority were probably not going to attack them directly, but they probably wouldn’t care too much if a Diligence’s beam or an Equanimity’s… bulk happened to clip one of them.

“I wouldn’t even be going if you weren’t because I’m not sure we can do anything about either being. One is taller than a mountain—”

“Last time it was only taller than a building.”

Whatever. It like… shifts between dimensions or something so whatever I perceived its height to be probably doesn’t matter.”

“Shifts between dimensions? Now I’m all the more intrigued.”

The other one is a being that might or might not be on par with Tenebrael. So you better have a good plan and some amazing spells that I’ve never seen before.”

“No real plan at the moment except for what I’ve already outlined to you. Distract either one of them long enough that the other will achieve victory. The details can come later on after I’ve had a chance to observe them for a few moments.”

“Which is exactly why the rest of you don’t need to come,” Alyssa said, looking over her shoulder.

Brakkt had stayed back at the wall, both to act as a liaison between any Messages that Irulon or Alyssa might send as well as to try to keep order among the soldiers. But practically everyone else had come. Irulon was present, obviously. Izsha and Musca both came as well, though Izsha wasn’t looking too enthused with the prospect. They were walking alone with no riders. Soon, perhaps, but for the moment, Alyssa and Irulon had both been worried that riding out at top speed might aggravate the Astral Authority. Hence their rather sedate pace during this past twenty minutes of walking.

Fela prowled ahead, trying to give everyone a heads up on any approaching infected. She sniffed the air constantly, but apparently the air was a bit saturated with the smell of demons. It might end up being that she served as an early warning sign in other ways. Luckily, and really the only reason Alyssa was not arguing against her being a good dozen yards ahead of the group, Fela was strong. Empirical evidence showed that she could take a hit from an infected. Especially if they were more of a lower-level infected. Someone on par with the Taker might pose problems.

Had he died again to the Astral Authority? Was he out there, lying in wait?

Probably not. If he was alive, he was probably fighting.

Kasita walked along between Izsha and Musca. She hadn’t said much so far. Being one of the few who had actually seen the Justice, she had to be just as worried as Alyssa was. If she was, it wasn’t showing on her face much at all.

Catal was the final member of their group. Apparently, he moonlighted as some kind of monster researcher for the guild. He wanted a closer look at just what kind of a force the Astral Authority could bring to bear and just what it took to bring them down.

Alyssa wasn’t sure if he believed her claims of the Justice being the size of dragons, but he was going to see it for himself soon enough.

Catching his gaze, he shrugged. “I’m not planning on fighting if I can help it. I trust that these things are dangerous at least. But someone qualified needs to give a real report on them. Still, don’t worry about me. This isn’t my first foray into danger. I have ways of protecting myself.”

“From what is effectively a building falling on top of you? A very sharp building in a roughly sword shape?”

“Well… no. Not exactly.”

“Or hordes of infected that will probably defend their leader the moment we try to intervene?”

“I have some experience in handling those affected by the plague.”

“The Taker is back. Fully sane and probably as strong as Fela over there. Maybe stronger. Might be hard to kill too. Brakkt was unable to take his head off and that was before getting a new demonic body. All the infected might be like that.”

“Alyssa. If it comes down to it, you and I both have several copies of Fractal Lock. We have, through previous experiences, proved that angelic beings are unable to harm those affected by Fractal Lock. These lesser angels should have a harder time. It’s my fall back plan should things go drastically wrong.”

Pressing her lips together, Alyssa nodded slowly. That could work. Though she wasn’t sure that angels couldn’t harm people in stasis. Rather, it seemed a lot more likely that Adrael simply hadn’t had the opportunity to undo the effect. But the theory was sound, at least for the Astral Authority. As long as nobody was using Tenebrael’s power, the Astral Authority would probably immediately ignore anyone in stasis. And they might not be able to take people out of stasis either.

The true demon might be a bit more of a problem. She could probably take people out of stasis if she tried hard enough. The Cardinal Virtue of Justice would probably keep her busy enough that she wouldn’t be able to do anything. Besides that, the true demon was almost certainly under similar rules as to what kept the angels from directly harming mortals.

Her henchmen didn’t suffer under the same rules, but they weren’t likely to breach Fractal Lock anyway…

Though if everyone wound up inside Fractal Lock, the infected could just stand by and wait for it to wear off.

“I don’t suppose you have an Accelero card handy?”

“Actually, yes. And I have you to thank for it. Father never let me into his temporal noteroom. And ever since my… companion came to live with me, he took care to keep the cards out of my direct line of sight as well. Showing Accelero to you was a bit of a slip-up on his part. I don’t think he even conceived of the possibility that you had something like a camera. Though really, he should have considered that you might have perfect memory.”

“You can’t just use Retrograde Cognition to catch a glimpse of spells he uses?”

“And wind up disowned? No thanks. I don’t much care for being a princess, but I do enjoy the opportunities and resources my status affords me.”

“But the Pharaoh slipping up and showing off a spell is fine?”

“His fault, not mine. He should have been more careful.” From a pocket that was nowhere near the tome chained to her hip, Irulon produced a single spell card. “I only have two. It is quite time consuming to create.”

“You could say that again,” Alyssa said, offering a sympathetic nod of her head as she took the card. Her own experience trying to create that card had been… exhausting to say the least. So many cards had been scrapped because of minor mistakes or tiny angles. It had actually made her wonder if it wasn’t possible to create some kind of stencil or stamp, but both would probably be too imprecise with the current technology of this world. At least for something as complex as Rank Six Time magic spells. They didn’t have any laser cutters after all. She was a little more surprised that there weren’t stencils for things like Flame and Light.

“Shall we ride it out from here? The Astral Authority seem to be ignoring us.”

“True.” Six miles away, assuming that Alyssa’s calculation had been accurate, would be a long while before they managed to catch up to anything on foot. The draken could slim that while down to only a few minutes.

Alyssa rested a hand on Izsha’s side. “You sure you want to come? I’m not going to let what happened last time happen again… but…”

The draken gently nudged its nose against Alyssa’s hand. It wasn’t running away, so Alyssa took that as a reassurance. Swinging a leg up and over the saddle, she settled into position with a glance to Kasita. The mimic accepted an offered hand, disappearing halfway through being pulled up onto Izsha’s back. Alyssa slid a large coin into her pocket as she looked over to Catal.

“We didn’t plan well for this, I suppose.” He had no horse and no draken. Fela didn’t either, but Fela was a hellhound. Six miles at a mild jog wouldn’t even be a sweat. “Izsha can likely carry you.”

Izsha shot a quick glance at Catal before flicking an eye toward Alyssa. He was a larger man with a bit of size to his armor, so Alyssa could see why Izsha might not be too happy. Still, there wasn’t much other option aside from leaving him behind and alone.

“It’ll be fine,” Alyssa said, mostly to Izsha. “We don’t need to rush. In fact, slower might be better.”

Alyssa offered him a hand, one which he took after eying Izsha almost as much as it was eying him. He settled into the saddle just behind Alyssa. The saddle was Dasca’s saddle this time—Irulon sat in Musca’s usual saddle—which was a bit larger and had needed some good harness work to get it steady. Thanks to its extra size, he wasn’t completely crowding Alyssa out. Just mostly.

With Fela still in the lead, though at a much closer distance, Izsha and Musca picked up the pace. Alyssa spent the first few minutes watching all visible members of the Astral Authority. Just in case. A few paces forward, Irulon was doing the same thing.

One of the closer Kindnesses turned to watch them, but neither it nor any of the others did anything else.

Anything to their little party, anyway. One Patience dashed overhead through the trees, skewering an infected that had already been on its spear against a large stone boulder.

No infected bothered them either, Alyssa noted as they continued on. They were too busy being torn apart by the Astral Authority. Back at Owlcroft after the first Patiences came through their golden portals, the infected had put up a decent fight. Not just the Taker-level ones either. Larger groups of the weaker infected had been surprisingly efficient in turning the tables on anything that got too close.

Alyssa couldn’t be certain how fast they were traveling. It was far slower than draken could go and a good deal slower than their standard trotting speed. Still, Alyssa would have expected that a half-hour of running through the forest would have revealed something. Some sign of the Justice. It was the size of a building. And while she couldn’t see buildings in a neighboring city from a forest thirty minutes away, most buildings on Earth didn’t fly. Or move. Or get into slugfests with supernatural monsters.

The only evidence that there was something around were the trees. The further they went, the more the trees looked broken. Branches were snapped and the bark had been torn clean off the far sides. Leaves coated the ground, torn to shreds for the most part.

It could have been the regular infected and Astral Authority destroying trees in their fights, but there were too many. The effect was too consistent.

And the further they went, the destruction got more and more intense.

“There.” Irulon’s voice was soft, quiet, and tense.

Even still, Alyssa heard her clearly over the sporadic crashes and shouts of dying infected in the background of the forest.

Musca had already shifted direction to go in line with Irulon’s pointing arm. Izsha didn’t waste any time in following after. A quick whistle was enough to get Fela to notice their changed course. A burst of speed had the hellhound moving along right beside Alyssa.

Their new course opened into a clearing after several minutes of movement.

An unnatural clearing. The trees didn’t just thin out to an open area of land. They had been uprooted and thrown to the side, creating an almost log-cabin wall around the entire place. Dirt and rock had been torn up like the world’s largest rototiller had passed through.

It reminded Alyssa of the aftermath of an Annihilator spell. The only thing that was missing was the molten terrain.

Though even that was present at the very center, bubbling up around the Justice itself.

It was kneeling down, bent over completely while grasping its sword. Its pose certainly explained why she hadn’t been able to see it over the tops of the trees further out. But she couldn’t quite figure out what it was doing. At first, Alyssa thought it was injured. Perhaps even dead. It wasn’t moving much at all. The tip of its sword was in the deepest recesses of the crater. Both its hands were clutching the hilt, though somehow it still managed to hold its massive set of scales. The hand that held the scales was illusory, shifting in and out of Alyssa’s sight with subtle movements in the thing’s body.

Looking closer, amid the molten rock at the tip of the Justice’s sword, Alyssa figured out exactly what it was doing.

The true demon’s scythe poked out of the ground just to the side of the sword, casting a dark shadow over its otherwise gleaming silver blade. A hand clutched the scythe’s haft.

Binoculars out, Alyssa spotted it. The true demon, pinned underneath the blade of the Justice. Not skewered, just pinned. The true demon was fighting back as hard as she could, pushing against the blade with all her strength. Alyssa wasn’t sure that the demon was going to get out of this one alive. It wasn’t cutting through the gloves on the true demon’s hands, but the demon was out of options. If it moved even one of its hands, it would likely get killed.

There were no other demonic entities in the area either. No one to come to its rescue. The Astral Authority were swarming around, keeping any that might try to intervene away.

They still ignored the mortals in their midst.

“Might not have to do anything after all,” Alyssa whispered to Irulon as she handed over the binoculars. “I don’t know if you can see it, but—”

“That’s the true demon?”

“You can see it.” That made some mild amount of sense. Trik and the other members of the plague containment team had seen brief flashes of the true demon when it had been fighting with that Patience in Lyria. Any time the two had connected, the demon had been visible.

“Tenebrael help us all… That’s a true demon?”

Alyssa briefly glanced over her shoulder, not wanting to take her eyes off the crater for any length of time, to find Catal staring with his mouth agape and his eyes wide.

“No,” she said as quick as she realized what he was staring at. “That is the Cardinal Virtue of Justice. One of the Astral Authority. The thing that you came here to sketch out.”

“H-How are we to fight something like that? A dragon takes thousands of men and hundreds of highly ranked arcanists just to stand a chance. That is…”

“We’re not going to fight it,” Irulon said, still looking through the binoculars. “We’re here to fight the thing under its sword.”

“The thing holding up its sword,” Alyssa said, feeling a need to point out just how screwed they were.

“Indeed.” Irulon’s hand brushed over the top of the tome. Two cards appeared between her fingers, held out toward the center of the crater. “Unfortunately, assuming my estimations are true, that true demon might actually win despite its position. You might not be able to tell, but I can see it slowly getting ready to throw the Justice off it.”

“You have a plan?” Alyssa said, eying the cards.

“I doubt this will kill it, but it might weaken it. Split Reality.”

The card shifted into a crystal clear shard of glass before launching out from Irulon’s outstretched hand. It flew straight down to where the two beings were connected. The princess was still using the binoculars. Even still, Alyssa could see the two burning red embers of the true demon’s eyes flash a little brighter as she turned her head.

With a second shift of her head, the black leather of her mask connected with the spell.

For a moment, Alyssa thought it was going to end there. Perhaps suicide at a mortal’s hands was preferable to being killed by the Astral Authority. Either because of pride or because mortals wouldn’t be able to kill the demon permanently while the Justice could.

But Alyssa quickly realized that the demon was not splitting apart as everything else struck by that particular spell ended up doing. Rather, it was her outfit that was falling to pieces. The leather bindings and the mask that she had repeatedly tried to get Alyssa to remove.

It was all coming off.

And, even from the distance, Alyssa could see the true demon’s mouth twist into a grin.


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Vacant Throne — 036.009

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Illuna’s Happenings

Thunderbolts and Lightning


Two dozen infected had been chased into the swamp. Either the swamp slowed them enough for pursuers to slaughter, or the Astral Authority already out in the swamp moved to intercept. If she hadn’t known better, Alyssa might have thought that the Astral Authority was working to protect the city. In the distance, both to the north and to the south, Alyssa could see more lights flittering about. Likely chasing more infected. With the darkness, Alyssa couldn’t actually see any infected. It was too far, even with binoculars, and infected didn’t glow like the fake-angels did.

The horizon still had a bubble of glowing gold light cresting over the treetops. Like the world’s slowest sunrise. More of the Astral Authority were still coming closer. Unless that glow was solely from the Justice… At this point, Alyssa rather hoped that it was not the Justice. She would rather deal with a thousand of the littler ones than it.

The smaller ones could cause problems. Every time Alyssa had seen them so far, they had ignored everyone except her. So it stood to reason that they would continue to ignore everyone so long as nobody tried attacking them. They would hunt down whatever infected they could find and then… hopefully go back to wherever they came from. But if the Justice appeared, things could go poorly. Not just could, but would. Aside from the panic a literal skyscraper of a being would cause, the Justice itself would cause unparalleled destruction. Even if it ignored the humans around, all it had to do was try to swing its sword at one of the infected. That one swing would basically wipe out the entirety of the city of Illuna.

Having used her sole Accelero card back in Owlcroft, Alyssa doubted that even she would be able to get away. One of Irulon’s spells might work. The one that put up a mirrored dome came to mind. But even that was only a chance. The Astral Authority seemed to obey a whole lot more rules of reality than angels did, but Alyssa couldn’t say with confidence that they obeyed them all. With her limited experience in the presence of the Cardinal Virtue of Justice, she couldn’t say that it was as grounded as the lesser members either.

Taking her eyes off the distance, Alyssa looked around the city wall. More guards had shown up. Everyone was on edge. Alyssa had thought, in the past, that she had sometimes been able to feel the tension. Perhaps she had or perhaps it had been her imagination. But here and now?

It was a good thing that firearms hadn’t been invented in this world. With a bow or a sword, or even spells that required a verbal statement to activate, there wasn’t much of a chance of accidental firings, twitchy fingers, or nerves getting the best of someone. A bow required several pounds of force to draw back, not something that even a grown man would do unthinkingly. Swords were far too close range. Spells were the one thing that she had been a little nervous about, but so far, nobody had tossed a fireball at one of the Kindnesses that were buzzing about.

Part of which could probably be attributed to the rarity of arcanists. Nobody in her line of sight had a tome chained to their hip. Volta might be the only real arcanist around.

Assuming a monster could be considered an arcanist. They could both cast spells, so Alyssa wasn’t going to worry herself over the nomenclature.

“So. This is the Astral Authority in all their glory.”

Alyssa snapped her gaze to her opposite side to find Irulon walking across the wall, eyes black and white as she stared over the edge of the wall. Fela trailed behind her on one side while Catal flanked her on the right. Neither followed in any kind of formation, making them look like they were unrelated and had just coincidentally arrived at the same time, even though that likely was not the case at all.

She was glad that her mother hadn’t chosen to join them. They were all supposed to have gone back to Lyria a full week ago, but the job had fallen through. At the time, Alyssa had been glad that her mother wasn’t going to be trekking back without her, but now was wishing that they had left.

Nothing to do now but try to figure out a way to protect everyone.

“You saw them before we headed to Owlcroft, didn’t you?” Alyssa asked, focusing on Irulon as Fela bounded up to her side. Catal took out a large notebook and started sketching out a Kindness—one was hovering not too far from the wall, though its porcelain mask was aimed toward the forest.

“True,” Irulon said. “Between worrying about you running off, trying to keep the guild and guard from provoking them, and them not doing much aside from hovering about in search of you, I didn’t get to actually observe them much at that particular moment.”

“Well you’ve missed most of the action it seems. They were killing infected left and right. Now they’re just sitting around. A few went back, maybe chasing down other infected. The rest have mostly just been standing about.”

“Waiting for something? The true demon you’ve mentioned in the past?”

“No sign of her. I can’t close my eyes to check on the infected’s souls anymore—” Thankfully, Alyssa mentally added, not wanting to know how many of those things would be after her if she still had a connection to Tenebrael. “—but I haven’t seen a single one collected yet.”

For all the true demon’s talk of preserving life, she sure wasn’t doing a good job of rescuing her… loyal followers? Corrupted monsters? Whatever they were. Given that the true demon had looked quite harried the last time Alyssa saw her, she had to wonder if losing this fight meant something just a little more serious than having to run home and lick her wounds. And if the true demon was gone on a slightly more permanent basis…

What was going to happen to the souls? Would Tenebrael come down and clean them up?

Alyssa had a bad feeling that no angel would touch them. Even dead infected presented a hazard to everything around them. The corrupted souls tried to latch onto things around them. The one soul that the true demon had delayed collecting the other week ago had started killing the land around it too.

If the true demon wasn’t able to collect them and the angels weren’t willing to touch them… Alyssa had a bad feeling that she would have to do something about it. Assuming the Astral Authority left her alone, removing the infected souls from the local deceased wouldn’t be that difficult. Maybe. She would still have to locate the corpses, but Fela could help with that. As for the rest of the world? As long as new infected were being created, she wouldn’t be able to do it all herself. Even with Tenebrael’s power, she couldn’t do much about anything outside her general area. She wouldn’t be able to tell when new ones cropped up or when they died either.

She wasn’t an omnipresent angel.

Then there was the problem of what to do with the souls. Maybe she would be able to crystallize them the same way that she did with normal souls, but that still left demonic crystals lying about. Maybe Tenebrael could give her some container for them like they were some radioactive waste that needed containment, but there were already too many maybes piling up and she was sure that she hadn’t thought of all the problems that went along with this course of action yet.

The corpses should be fine for a short time anyway. If necessary, she could collect them up and blast them off planet with a well aimed Annihilator. That was probably the safest option.

“I don’t suppose it would be possible to capture one,” Irulon said, eying the nearest Kindness. It eyed her back, but it eyed everything.

“They would probably start attacking. And there are a lot of them.”

As Alyssa spoke, the Kindness rotated, turning its porcelain mask toward the wall. It was still twenty feet out, but the movement made her tense. It didn’t attack, but it couldn’t really attack, lacking any weapons or offensive abilities. At least, a Kindness had never displayed any offensive abilities while in Alyssa’s presence. Still, it was unnerving in its timing.

Alyssa wasn’t the only one to notice the Kindness. Several of the guards tensed. One even raised his bow until a superior shouted at him. Fela crouched down like she was ready to pounce. Both Irulon and Brakkt made nearly identical slow movements to their respective weapons of choice, each resting a hand on top without actually drawing it. For Alyssa, she already had a pistol in one hand and her deck of cards in the other. Both stayed firmly at her side as she watched the Kindness and the more distant fake-angels.

The others hadn’t reacted. Aside from a handful of Patiences and Equanimities, most every member of the Astral Authority was up in the air, hovering over the swamp while staring at the forest. Two of the four Diligences had their masks split apart as if they were preparing to fire their beams, but neither were actually doing anything. Just watching. Waiting for more infected.

After a full minute of tense scrutiny, the Kindness drifted a few feet further away as it looked back to the forest to match the rest of the Astral Authority.

Alyssa let out a slight sigh as she flicked her pistol’s safety back on. “Perhaps we should be wary of errant comments.”

“Possibly just a coincidence,” Irulon said, moving up to the edge of the wall to lean over. “It started turning before I actually spoke, if only by a few instants.”

Brakkt put a hand on her shoulder and gently pulled her back. “We should be careful regardless. We don’t know their full capabilities. They may be capable of reading more into your thoughts than your verbal actions.”

“I hope not,” Alyssa said. “But I doubt it. They would probably already be attacking us if that were the case. And they would probably be better at catching… uh… whatever they might have been chasing the few times that they chased after… whoever.” If they were listening in, Alyssa didn’t want to mention that she was the one they had been chasing. Thus far, they were leaving her alone. None had paid her any more attention than they had given to the other humans around.

It would be best if it stayed that way.

“—do about the situation?”

“Unknown, sir.”

Glancing to the stairway leading up onto the wall, Alyssa spotted a few familiar faces.

Martin was at the lead, wearing the full armor set he had worn when first meeting with the group of monsters, flanked on either side by his two advisers. Volta was behind him, hanging just a bit back. Upon reaching the top, all four of them stopped suddenly, staring over the edge of the wall. They probably would have stared a lot longer had one of the guards—probably some local captain—not ran up to them. The guard didn’t seem to have much to report on, but he did wind up pointing directly toward Alyssa.

Catching Volta’s eye, Alyssa got a look. Like this was all her fault.

“Prince Brakkt. Princess Irulon,” Martin said as he walked past the guard, tone a bit more on the terse side. “And Alyssa. You know, I believe my life was filled with far less stress before your arrival in our humble little city.”

Irulon’s eyes flicked to Alyssa, turning their regular violet in the process, before she looked to Martin. “Trouble does seem to follow us.”

Alyssa shot her a look, but it was too late. Still, Irulon probably knew that she was being glared at.

“Do you have a recommendation for a course of action? They appeared so suddenly last time and disappeared just as quickly… We didn’t have time to really look at them let alone come up with anything that might be considered a plan of action.”

“As of now? Do nothing, hope they disappear again. They might be fighting infected at the moment, but make no mistake, they are not our allies. If we attack them… or perhaps even consider hostile actions against…”

Irulon’s speech stalled as a pulse of light from the large glow made the land look like the sun had come back for an encore. She, along with most of everyone who wasn’t already looking out toward the swamp, stopped to watch. But there was barely any time to look. The flash died out in seconds. If there had been a storm, and if she hadn’t known better, Alyssa might have suspected that it was nothing more than lightning.

If this had been any other time, any other place, any other situation, she would have dismissed it as a distant lightning strike.

One of Martin’s twin advisers was the first to speak. The taller of the two raised an eyebrow as he looked toward Irulon. “I don’t suppose you know what that was?”

“One of the creatures has been using beams of golden light to attack infected. Perhaps simply a more powerful version?”

“I doubt it,” Alyssa said. As far as she had seen, the Diligences used the same beam every time. There was still the Humilities, a class of the Astral Authority that she had yet to see. It was possible that they had caused it. But… “It was probably the—”

A crack of thunder stole the words from Alyssa’s mouth. Some of the guards dove for cover, fearing an attack. Others readied their weapons, heads darting from one member of the Astral Authority to the next, trying to figure out which one they should act against first.

Even Alyssa crouched down, not quite diving to the ground, but definitely taking some cover. Brakkt and Irulon both remained standing, though the latter’s stance shifted to mirror the wider and more stable pose of the former. Fela crouched down, fur rising.

Martin and his two advisers crouched down much like Alyssa had done, though Martin’s armor wasn’t exactly designed with dexterity in mind. He really only lowered his height by a head. Volta, on the other hand, put a scowl on the double’s face as she turned to glower over the swamp.

“Stay your weapons!” Brakkt bellowed, deep voice carrying even over the panicked shouts of the guardsmen. At his shout, those in charge followed suit, relaying the order up and down the wall.

The thunder wasn’t quite normal thunder. There was just something imperceptibly wrong about it compared to what Alyssa was used to. Normal thunder had a sharp crack followed by low rumbling echoes over the land. This had been similar, enough so that she wouldn’t have noticed had Alyssa been out traveling between Lyria and Illuna. She would have dismissed it as thunder.

Maybe it was just the situation that was making her think it sounded wrong. Either way…

“Irulon,” Alyssa said, pulling out her phone without standing fully. “How many seconds between the flash of light and the thunder?”

The princess’ eyes flicked black momentarily as she looked toward Alyssa. “Thirty-one. Give or take a second.”

A quick use of her phone to look up of the speed of sound and a quicker calculation gave Alyssa an answer that she wasn’t sure what to do with. “Six and a half miles.” She wasn’t at all sure how far away Owlcroft was from Illuna, but was fairly sure that it was something more like sixty to a hundred miles away. Relative to that… “The Cardinal Virtue of Justice might be nearby.”

“Hm.”

“Hm? That’s it?” Alyssa slowly stood only to catch a heavy breeze. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the wind had been at Owlcroft following the Justice’s attacks, but the fact that she could feel it at all made her tense. “This thing is the size of the palace. I hit it with an Annihilator. Several, in fact. Aside from a little steam on the skin and maybe some burnt clothes, it came out of it without trouble and kept attacking the true demon…”

“I recall your first description of the creature.”

“You have a plan then?”

“Question for you first, would the Justice attack random infected?”

“I… don’t know. Probably.”

“While you were at Owlcroft observing the fight in person, was it attacking random infected or just the true demon?”

“The… latter I think. Though it might have also directly attacked me. Or I might have just been in the way. Hard to say one way or another.”

“If the true demon isn’t gathering souls, could it still be engaged in combat with the Justice? Perhaps having been forced away from the pit?”

“If they’re fighting toward us… rather, if the true demon is leading the Justice toward us…” Alyssa grit her teeth as realization struck her. “That stupid demon. Save life my ass. If they bring their fight here, it will be a slaughter,” she hissed, voice quiet to keep from being heard. Luckily, the wind was still going strong. Martin and his attendants would have a hard time hearing much of anything without magical assistance. Brakkt trying to keep the wall guards from provoking the Astral Authority—none of whom had significantly reacted to the flash, thunder, or wind—helped as well.

“I don’t believe we can fight the Justice. I haven’t seen it for myself, obviously, but I trust your description.”

“So then—”

“But what about the true demon? It is the size of a human. Can it be killed or at least contained long enough for the Justice to do what it needs to do? After that, with no high value target, the Justice might just leave. Or at least stop approaching the city.”

“You’re suggesting we go out there?”

“What choice do we have? Either that or we evacuate the city. And that doesn’t seem like much of an option to me. There are too many people, not enough means of transporting food, and there is nowhere nearby that can support so many people. Even assuming we can get the entire population moving in a reasonable amount of time, I can’t see the evacuation being counted as a real success. And if the true demon is leading the Justice here, then who is to say that they’ll stop here? They could end up chasing them to Lyria.”

“Chasing them?” Alyssa shook her head, thinking back to when the Justice first appeared. The Taker had said something at the time. He didn’t attack Alyssa even though he wanted to because his ‘lady’ might not be finished with her. If this is what he meant… “The demon is probably chasing me. So if I leave…”

“Same problem except with you. You would be on the run, never able to stop in a town for long without worrying about the Justice and this demon showing up. Shall we at least see if we can stop the problem at the source?”


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Vacant Throne — 036.008

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Illuna’s Happenings

A Light on the Horizon


Searching for humans that might or might not be out there had to be put on hold. Nothing had happened to the camp so far, so their priority wasn’t that high. In contrast, Alyssa felt an urgent need to figure out what was going on with the sky. Were the Astral Authority still on Tenebrael’s world? What about the demons? Had something happened to Tenebrael? The stupid angel wasn’t answering the phone still, but that could be for any number of reasons.

“Five hours ago?”

“I was up on the wall, keeping watch. Not much to keep watch for these days. Haven’t had a demon attack in weeks and—”

“Sorry to rush this along, but let’s try to keep on topic.”

The guard, an older man named Ature, was the first person who could remember seeing the actual change in the sky. At least the first person that Alyssa had spoken to. Illuna was a large city, so there had to be others. He had simply hailed down Alyssa on her way back into the city, knowing that she knew something about the sky being set on fire in the first place.

Unfortunately, her little interruption seemed to have jolted him out of his thoughts, making her wonder just how old this man really was. “You were saying?

“Saying?”

“About the sky and the fire…”

“Oh. Oh yes, it was just after I arrived for my shift. It’s nice of the city to give me back my old job as a guardsman. They said I was too old a few years ago, but now they want me back. Short on hands, I guess.”

“I guess,” Alyssa said, trying not to put too much strain on her words. “But the fire in the sky?”

“Oh yes. I was watching the clouds when I noticed the symbols in the sky up and vanish before my very eyes! One moment it was there, the next, gone. Those faint flames faded not long after, shrinking to nothing before disappearing completely.”

“That’s it? They just faded away. No bright flashes or anything?” If there had been bright flashes, more people would have noticed. Alyssa was surprised that nobody at the monster camp had seen the change, but not so surprised that she thought anything funny was going on. There certainly wasn’t any memory altering magic that made people forget or anything. It was just that the sky was always there, but always in the periphery. People were far more focused on the goings on around them than they were elsewhere.

Perhaps people in Teneville, who might look up to the sky to spot harpies, would have noticed better. Except they probably could barely see the flames at all. From calling up Jason and Chris back in Lyria, she knew that they couldn’t see the flames in the sky unless they were concentrating hard, even at night. They hadn’t noticed at all when it first happened. Not until Alyssa’s phone call when she asked them to look.

“There was a bit of a gold streak, but it wasn’t that bright. Far off. Like the sun leaked out a bit of its light.”

“The Astral Authority,” Alyssa mumbled, putting a hand to her chin.

“Is that good or bad?” Brakkt asked. He still wore his armor, but his helmet was off, held under his arm against his side. His voice still made the older guard hop in surprise.

“Not sure. Might be neither. If the Astral Authority were the ones to take down the ensign… it might mean that they finished off the demons. Or at least closed the pit, sealing it back up. Without the demons around, they would have had the time to destroy the ensign like they did to the spell above Lyria. But… they shouldn’t come after us. I’m not connected to Tenebrael to draw their attention. They’ve never been interested in anyone else as far as I’ve seen.”

“They won’t remember that you were the one connected with Tenebrael?”

“Possibly… But…” Alyssa shook her head. “I know for a fact that they don’t think like normal people. They might not make the connection. If they do, I imagine that I could hide simply by using an Empty Mirror spell. Without the connection acting as a beacon, they shouldn’t be able to find me. What I really wonder is what it means for Tenebrael. She said she needed a month. The demons warned me that they wouldn’t be able to hold off that long. I told Tenebrael, but she said it would be fine.”

You told Tenebrael?” The old man’s eyes narrowed as he gave a scrutinizing stare.

Alyssa stared back for a long moment before slowly shaking her head. “It’s a figure of speech we use back home in, uh, Teneville.” Looking back toward Brakkt, she gave a slight jerk of her head toward the stairs back off the wall. He gave an almost imperceptible nod of his head. “Thanks for your help. If there is anything else you notice about the situation, you can find me or someone in my party at the guild’s tavern.”

Brakkt waited until they were down on the ground and well away from the wall before speaking again. Izsha and Ensou were waiting for them. Fela and Dasca were still down at the camp.

“Shall we just carry on as normal?” he asked.

“I don’t know… I mean, we should go help the monsters make sure that their camp is secure, but something might happen. Waiting until tomorrow at the very least might be for the best. Unless you’ve got some insight?”

“Hardly. I leave magical matters to Irulon for a reason. This is beyond even that.”

“Yeah… I wish Irulon could answer questions about angelic things. I’m stuck waiting for someone to die or for Tenebrael to bother showing up, which she usually only does when she wants something. Ugh. Maybe we should just go about our day as if everything were normal. It might be weeks before she shows up to tell me anything. Besides that, things are normal. Technically, things haven’t been normal until now.”

“We’ll wait. Or rather,” Brakkt turned, looking toward where Izsha and Ensou stood near the gate’s entrance. A slight gesture of his hand called them over. “If something did happen at Owlcroft, the eastern wall will be the best place to spot approaching trouble.”

“You aren’t going to venture out into the swamp and head toward Owlcroft, right?”

With a slow shake of his head, he put a foot into Ensou’s stirrup and slid into the saddle. “I’m not that crazy,” he said with a mild chuckle.

Alyssa grimaced, feeling as if that was a bit of a jab at her, but Brakkt wasn’t even looking in her direction anymore. “I’ll join you,” she said softly as she hopped onto Izsha’s saddle.

On the way across the city, Alyssa pulled out a few Message cards. Irulon should be informed, Fela as well. Sending a message to Volta wouldn’t be the worst idea either. The monster would know how to organize the city to properly respond to any potential threats. The situation might not be a big deal in the end, but for the time being, they should at least be aware that something might be afoot. It was just too impossible to know at the moment.

Much like Alyssa and Brakkt, not too many people seemed to have noticed the sky just yet. Or, if they had, noticed it, weren’t terribly concerned. When Alyssa had first returned from Owlcroft, people had been a little on edge, but not overly panicked. Tenebrael’s symbol had been the primary calming factor. When people saw that, they more often fell to their knees in reverence than worried over the possibility of it harming them.

At least Alyssa hadn’t heard of anyone in this world trying to sacrifice unwilling virgins to volcanoes or anything similar in an attempt to appease Tenebrael. The festival in Teneville, disgusting though it might be, was all willing sacrifice. And it wasn’t for appeasement anyway.

“People are awfully indifferent,” Alyssa said as they slowly rode through the town. “Back in my world, even a mild light in the sky would have probably caused mass panic unless someone could have explained it away through science. And the sky literally being on fire with a symbol hanging overhead would have been hard to explain.”

“The general public is not well educated in matters of magic. Smaller communities, those with no real arcanists to speak of—perhaps a firestarter and nothing more—might even be skeptical about magic’s existence at all. If the local leader, magistrate, noble, arcanist, or anyone else in a position of authority isn’t concerned about odd happenings, then the public won’t be either. Granted, there isn’t often such a large or long-lasting effect, but I would imagine that nobody would worry unless we started charging through the city, tolling alarms, and otherwise starting a commotion.”

“Probably helps that it has been fairly faint during the day. Once it hits nighttime, more people will notice.”

“Mhm. Even still, unless the city’s soldiers start organizing, most people will likely dismiss it as nothing to do with them. They’ve got hard enough lives as it is without adding magic to the mix.”

Hard lives. Alyssa had barely seen it, but… most people spent the majority of every day out in the fields, hunting, working manual labor, or otherwise toiling away. Whether it was Teneville or Lyria, the people who could avoid farm work were in the minority. A wealthy potioneer, literal nobility, guards, adventurers, criminals. All the people Alyssa interacted with didn’t have the same problems that almost everyone in this world had. Namely, the need for food.

“I wonder how Jason’s project with that elf blacksmith is coming along,” she said to herself. With that said, she sent a quick text message to Jason’s phone, both asking for an update on his farming equipment project as well asking for confirmation that he could no longer see any fire or ensign in the sky.

The reply came surprisingly quickly. Before she even reached the opposite side of the city. Normally, Jason responded promptly to any messages she sent, but this was almost instant. Alyssa scanned through the message the second her phone vibrated, expecting the quick response to mean something bad was happening back in Lyria. But it was a surprisingly concise message. A simple statement that he couldn’t tell the difference between the sky right now and when he last looked at it and that he would try again in the evening as he was a bit busy at the moment.

He didn’t say what he was busy with or offer an update on the farm equipment situation… making Alyssa wonder if the two were related.

But as long as there wasn’t an emergency in the city, she could wait until tonight. He might have more time then to give a proper response.

The other side of the city was mostly normal. There was a noticeable alertness to the guards that hadn’t been present over on the western wall. Whether that was because Volta sent a notice or just because this was the side that normally had to worry about demons wasn’t a question that Alyssa could answer. Either way, the guards seemed quite receptive to Brakkt wanting to sit with them on their watch.

The Black Prince, fully armored up, was a welcome addition to any defending force. Even if there was nothing to defend against at the moment.

Alyssa wasn’t dismissed either. Even aside from being with the Black Prince, she came riding up on a draken. A fairly prestigious action, at least among the guards. Besides that, a few of the guards recognized her. Though she couldn’t actually remember speaking with any of them.

Setting up a watch on the wall was… not the most interesting thing going on. It was mostly just staring at the swamp and occasionally perking up at any movement only to realize that nothing down there was moving aside from frogs and fireflies. Normal frogs at that, not even monster frogs.

After scanning the horizon a few times with her binoculars without spotting anything too worrying, Alyssa settled in for a full afternoon of observation. The guards were supposed to stay standing throughout their entire shift, but in practice, they had dragged some chairs up from somewhere. They weren’t slacking on their job. Even without having had a single infected assault the walls in the recent weeks, all the guards knew how important this particular posting was. But standing watch for hours on end was rough work.

However, they didn’t seem to be using the seats at the moment. Every so often, a guard would glance toward Brakkt and suddenly straighten his back. It was… actually mildly amusing to watch. Alyssa doubted that today was very indicative of their normal behavior. In fact, they might even be less attentive than normal.

Brakkt made up for them in droves. While they glanced back at his intimidating armor every so often, he stood perfectly still, one hand down at his side and the other resting on the hilt of his enchanted sword. The only thing that moved was his head, which slowly scanned from left to right.

Alyssa was a bit more relaxed than he was. If something went wrong, they would surely know about it. Whether that be because the Astral Authority glowed a bright golden light or because infected would be spotted by one of the many other guards on this wall, one of the ones far enough away to avoid the awestruck stares to a prince standing alongside them.

After a few hours, Kasita climbed up onto the wall in the armor of a palace guard. Easily recognizable as part of the royal party, the guards didn’t bar her entrance.

“Thought you might be hungry,” she said, holding out a few wrapped meat pies.

“These the ones the monsters made?”

“Iona? I don’t think he was there today.”

“Probably for the best… I don’t suppose you’ve checked in with those Yora guys, have you?”

“Not since yesterday. I believe they’re still waiting on orders from their home or superiors or whatever. With their intelligencer in the local dungeon, I don’t think they’re going to make any waves until they get told to do so.”

Nodding, Alyssa unwrapped the meat pie. Mutton. Lots of mutton in this world. Back on Earth, she was fairly certain that she had never had any sheep meat, but here, it was a staple more common than beef. She wasn’t an expert, but it seemed to her that using sheep for wool was a more productive use for them than killing them for meat.

“As soon as they do something, I’ll get back to spying.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to have some forewarning.”

“Perhaps, but sitting around waiting for something to happen while they just complain to each other about being sent on this mission for hours on end?”

“Is that really all they do?” Alyssa asked as she looked back to the swamp, just sitting around and waiting for something to happen…

“More or less. They try to avoid leaving their quarters as much as possible, and there really isn’t all that much to do inside them. It’s really dull.”

At least I’ve left my quarters, Alyssa thought to herself.

“I’m surprised they aren’t mingling more,” Brakkt said. He had removed his helmet in order to eat the pie that Kasita brought for him. An action that seemed to be causing more than a few extra glances toward him. “If they are interested in the monsters and bringing them back to Yora, I would expect them to do some research, both on the monsters themselves as well as the people and their reactions toward having the monsters around.”

“That would require them to care about the monsters. Or the people…”

“Mhm… I don’t believe Yora treats its people poorly.”

“Even still, they clearly don’t care about the monsters. I…”

Alyssa trailed off, looking upwards. The sun dipped behind the rings around the planet, occluding it completely. A wave of darkness rolled across the land. Sure enough, even with it being dark, there was no luminescence from the sky burning or even a faint image of Tenebrael’s tattoos hanging above the land. Just stars and the pale grey moon.

“What’s that over there?”

Turning her head toward Kasita, Alyssa followed the mimic’s outstretched arm to the swamp. At first, Alyssa didn’t see a single thing. Nothing unexpected, at least. Most of the area was a immediately surrounding the wall was a marshy swamp, with lots of water and lots of tall grass poking above the water level. Further out, a line of trees sprung up. At first they came from the water as well, but further out, Alyssa knew from personal experience that there was actual solid ground.

“What’s what?” Alyssa said, straining her eyes to see. She was about to activate a quick Night Vision spell in the hopes of spotting whatever Kasita managed to see. But the mimic pointed upwards.

“Higher. The canopy line in the distance.”

The trees that grew from the swamp were fairly flat on top, with lots of drooping branches on all sides, creating a rounded look to them rather than the conical shape that lots of trees ended up with. They were also all around the same height, giving a fairly clear view from the elevated city and even higher wall.

And it was over the top of that canopy that Alyssa noted a faint glow. Yellow-gold in color.

Alyssa narrowed her eyes, standing from the seat she had taken. She had her hand on her deck of cards, but hesitated because of the glow. If everything was bright, she wasn’t sure that she would have been able to see it.

In fact, that glow could have been coming all the way from Owlcroft. With the sky being on fire, it likely hadn’t been noticeable until now. There was no reason to worry just yet.

“There! Unknown individual spotted.”

Alyssa tensed as one of the guardsmen started shouting about a lone person. It took a minute to spot him, but a splashing through the otherwise still marshy water was hard to miss after a moment of looking. And it really was just one person, one humanoid rushing through the swamp toward the city, faintly outlined by moonlight. The water should have impeded him a whole lot more than it looked like it was doing. He was practically flying across the surface.

Around her, the wall guards were readying for combat. Most were grabbing bows and knocking arrows. They didn’t draw them back, but they were ready to do so at a moment’s notice.

Then Alyssa saw it. A flash of red in the person’s face as he threw a head back over his shoulder.

One of the other guards spotted it too. “Plague,” he shouted.

Immediately, a dozen of the soldiers all drew back their bowstrings. Without any further confirmation as to the nature of the individual, a dozen arrows lanced out from the wall.

Alyssa could hardly see where they landed. It wasn’t like they lit the tips on fire. But the likely-infected kept charging without slowing.

And the guardsmen drew back for another volley.

“Ready!”

“Loose!”

“Ready!”

“Loose!”

Someone struck true on the third volley. It wasn’t much, but the infected staggered in what had to have been a hit against its leg. Even still, it didn’t stop.

“Ready!”

A small light broke off from the distant golden glow, speeding forward far faster than any arrow. Before the guardsman could order the bows to be loosed, the infected slammed into the ground, silver spear jutting from his back.

“Stop!” Alyssa shouted as a silver filigreed doll emerged from the distant treeline. Unlike the infected, it was surrounded by its own faint glow, making it fully visible even without sunlight. “Don’t attack it. Don’t… Just hold.”

“Hold!” cried the same voice that had been ordering around the bowmen.

The Patience dashed forward, flying from the treeline, skimming the top of the water, until it reached the struggling infected. In the same motion that it grabbed its spear, it cleanly bisected the infected. Insides spilled out as the thing’s back split in two.

Much like the Patience in Lyria that had killed an infected, it readied its spear, but otherwise went still. This was the part where the true demon would show up to take the soul…

But nothing was happening. No pentagrams etched themselves into the swamp. No leatherbound demon showed up for the soul. Alyssa knew that the demon wasn’t exactly under the same time constraints that Iosefael and Tenebrael were under. Or maybe she just didn’t care. The one infected that Brakkt had found a few weeks ago had sat for a good hour before she showed up to take the soul.

A tremor interrupted Alyssa’s stare. Nothing major. Just a slight vibration under her feet. Not even something worth calling an earthquake.

The golden light over the distant canopy swelled.

Another infected tore from the treeline, only to be blasted apart by the beam of a Diligence. A Chastity, the bulwark of the Astral Authority, proved that its insectoid form could fight just as well as some of the others. The large beetle’s elytra were covered in thick blood, eerily gleaming in the golden light. It wasn’t even chasing someone, but somehow, an infected wound up caught between the two halves, crushed to death.

Without her soul sight, she couldn’t tell whether or not it still had its soul, not without walking up to it and dragging it out with a scythe, but given that the true demon hadn’t come for the others, it probably hadn’t collected that one either.

The infected were being driven away from Owlcroft. Possibly in all directions, but all directions didn’t matter much to Alyssa. What mattered was that they were being driven toward Illuna and the Astral Authority was chasing after them.

Alyssa’s eyes flicked up to the golden light on the horizon, biting her lip. If some of the Astral Authority were coming here…

Where was the Cardinal Virtue of Justice?


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Author’s Note: Finally got around to updating the Characters page with a few people from around the city of Illuna.

Alyssa’s Notes: Rearranged the bestiary to be in alphabetical order. Also added several monsters, including Bunyips, Cursed Swords, Cyclopes, Doppelgangers, Gremlins, and Minotaurs.

Vacant Throne — 036.007

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Illuna’s Happenings

Extinguished


“It seems as if they are genuinely after some of the monsters. Not to enslave, but to have them work for Yora. Inspired by ‘that hellhound that’s been running around Lyria’ apparently,” Alyssa said with a glance to Fela.

The hellhound looked up from her jerky for a moment, offering a shrug.

“Not sure that I believe that fully, but it is what the Yora intelligencer said.”

Rokien leaned forward, rubbing at the hairs on his bovine chin. Fezzik started to mirror his motions, stopping only once he realized that their poses were almost completely identical. Eventually, he leaned back and looked around the small tent.

Alyssa sat alongside Fela with Brakkt on her opposite side. The prince had not been too happy with their little stunt, but apparently being literally stolen from was acceptable grounds for throwing some weight around. They had deliberately not threatened them into leaving or otherwise interfered with their business in Illuna. Unless, of course, the intelligencer was required for whatever they were doing. But if that was the case, they shouldn’t have stolen from Irulon.

Irulon was back in her room, applying protections to everything. Or doing more research, if she had finished with that already. Kasita was with her, not just to keep an eye on Irulon, but… mostly to keep an eye on her. Alyssa didn’t think Irulon would do anything too drastic, and she seemed to have gotten her head squared on her shoulders a bit better than it had been at any other point recently—a bit of intimidation and throwing her weight around helped get her back to normal. Normalish, anyway.

So Alyssa had come down to the monster camp to keep them fully informed as to what was going on. “Just thought you should know that it doesn’t seem like they’re planning on murdering you all. Which is a sentence that is depressing in how I have to say it at all.”

“It’s unlike the Yora I know,” Brakkt said. “They’ve always prided themselves on keeping their lands clear of monsters. To invite them in now… I’m not sure what they’re planning, but I don’t buy that it is altruistic in nature.”

“Especially because they are still the most likely candidates for the people who were harassing and killing your people and driving you out of your home.”

“But there isn’t much we can do,” Fezzik said, deep voice rumbling in the tent. “If the human leader decides that we cannot stay, we will have to go. We could run again, but that would just expose us to more starvation and exhaustion.”

“And open us up to more attacks from them,” Rokien added. “I don’t have any proof—I haven’t seen or heard anything—but I am almost positive that our camp is being watched from afar. It’s just a feeling I’ve got. And those watchers are almost certainly our pursuers.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together. Without being able to see souls over long distances, she couldn’t back up his claim. Not without further investigation. “Think you could sniff out some humans?” Alyssa said, glancing toward Fela. The draken likely could as well.

They might have to do a quick investigation. If only to ensure that everyone at the camp stayed safe.

Fela seemed eager, if her enthusiastic nod was anything to go by.

“We’ll do a quick round then. Perhaps even now, if there isn’t anything else to talk about?”

Fezzik started to stand, but hesitated and simply chose to straighten his back. Even seated on an uncomfortably short stump, he was still a head taller than a standing Alyssa. “Thank you for doing all this for us,” he said. “We aren’t accustomed to humans treating us well, but you appear to be genuine in your dealings with us.”

“I… would say that it’s just human decency, but apparently not. Regardless of what others think, I think humans and monsters have a lot to gain by working together. On both sides. Ancient wars and lingering animosity from ancestors past shouldn’t get in the way of progress… Well, ancestors on the side of humans. I presume that some of the longer-lived monsters might actually have been around that long. But I also presume that they’re in a minority position relative to everyone else.”

“Probably a safe assumption,” Rokien said, bobbing his head in an affirmative nod. “Though I won’t agree that ancient wars are the only thing causing animosity. Look at what happened to us only a few weeks ago.”

Alyssa winced. “Yeah… That… isn’t a good thing. There’s a lot that still needs to change, clearly. It’s a work in progress and it won’t be instant. But the future will be a better place if everyone can just cut that out.”

“If only it were that easy.”

“Indeed,” Alyssa said with her lips pursed. “Which is why I’m glad you all are giving Illuna a chance.”

“A chance of desperation. It’s not like we had much choice. It is working out so far. As long as this Yora business doesn’t ruin it.”

“We’ll try to keep things from going awry on that front,” Brakkt said. “Though knowing that they actually want some of your people does complicate matters. We won’t be able to simply hand them something else in exchange for leaving you alone.”

“If they’re only looking for a few…” Fezzik said, trailing off as he glanced toward Rokien. The minotaur glanced back, offering a tiny nod in return.

Alyssa frowned, guessing at what small agreement just passed between them. “If you give a mouse a cookie,” she said slowly, “it’s going to want a glass of milk to go with it.”

“What?”

Everyone in the room was staring a her, leading to her simply sighing.

“It’s a phrase from my homeland. Means that giving someone like that what they are demanding will only lead to them asking for more. Or something like that. The actual story turns out a bit heartwarming in the end, but… I guess I’m getting distracted… The point is, don’t sacrifice yourselves unless you’re absolutely sure that it is the only way forward. And even then…”

Alyssa shook her head and focused on Fela. “Shall we go look around?”

“I’ll come with you,” Brakkt said, dusting his tunic off as he stood.

“Can you actually come with us? If these are Yora people, won’t that cause some kind of diplomatic incident?”

“Which is exactly why I should come. Try to not forget that you are essentially representing my family by association. And, of course, if these theoretical people spying on the monster camp are not equipped with any insignia or emblem of a house, and if they are armed to the teeth, I would be remiss in my duties to not handle what are likely brigands and highwaymen preying on travelers and merchants.”

“Ah. I think I understand…”

“Allow me a short time to get ready, meet me at the draken tent.”

“Sure thing,” Alyssa said, watching him head out.

Fela’s ears perked up as she eyed the tent flap. “Is he going to get in his armor?”

“Probably.”

“I like him in his armor.”

“Of course you do,” Alyssa said with a small smile as she turned to Fezzik and Rokien. “We’ll let you know what we find.”

“Take care,” Fezzik said slowly. “We were being hunted for weeks and we never once saw our assailants. We knew they were out there, we could almost feel their gazes on us at all times. Then, without any sign or warning, someone would just… disappear. Sometimes we would find pieces of them. Sometimes someone would just disappear completely.”

“I have some experience dealing with stealthed or otherwise invisible foes…” Though last time she chased someone invisible around Lyria, she had been connected with Tenebrael’s power. She wasn’t sure that she had actually used Tenebrael’s power, but it might have played a part.

It had also drawn the Astral Authority.

Still, even without using her sense of souls, she had been able to detect that man even while Irulon and the Pharaoh had been having a hard time of it. So if these guys were using anything similar, she should probably still be able to see through it. And if they used a more regular invisibility spell—or were just that good at hiding from view—Fela and the Draken should be able to sniff them out.

Bidding Fezzik and Rokien a temporary farewell, Alyssa headed over to the draken tent. It was a bit of a shame that the stables had toppled over. They had been a bit more spacious than this tent. Then again, the draken didn’t really need a roof over their heads. Most of them were perfectly happy to sleep outside. Izsha especially. Staying inside for a few weeks straight, and unable to move at that, probably contributed to why Izsha could often be found lazing about in the sun outside the tent.

Musca was outside as well, but in contrast to the happily relaxed Izsha, the tiger-striped draken paced back and forth outside the tent. With its large body and long tail whipping back and forth each time it turned around, Alyssa was a little nervous about getting much closer.

“Something wrong?” Alyssa asked, already knowing that she wasn’t going to get a proper response. But it did make Musca stop pacing in order to properly offer a glare. “You all want to go on a little adventure?”

“Human hunting!” Fela said, tail wagging back and forth.

“I mean, yes, but maybe we shouldn’t phrase it like that,” Alyssa said with a glance around her. Being a city of tents, others were around. Both monsters and a pair of Illuna’s human guards. A few of whom were close enough to have heard and were now giving strange looks in her direction. “Or at least that loud,” Alyssa said in a much softer tone of voice as she smiled and waved at the few guards. Luckily, almost all of them knew her as one of the people who liaised with the monsters on the regular.

“Do you think Musca’s saddle will fit you?” Both the draken were on the smaller side, at least when compared to the likes of Ensou, but Musca was just a little wider than Izsha. So the saddle should fit, but it might wobble around and be just too loose to properly use.

Musca snapped at the air in Alyssa’s direction, just chomping aggressively on nothing.

“Woah, calm down there,” Alyssa said, raising her hands and taking a careful step backwards. “I’m sure you can go too. I just would rather… I mean, Izsha and I haven’t been able to go out together for a long time. You don’t actually want me riding you… do you?”

The draken snorted as it turned away. It didn’t stop walking, heading off away from the tent and further into the monster camp.

Alyssa could only shoot a look at Fela, raising her eyebrows.

“Don’t ask me. I don’t understand how scaly monsters think.”

“I wonder if she’s feeling lonely,” Alyssa said as Izsha got to its feet. “Irulon’s been holed up in her research since we got back from Owlcroft. Aside from at the ritual on Izsha, I’m not sure Irulon has even seen Musca. And I don’t think they interacted much at the time.”

But even with Musca acting out, Izsha looked quite happy to be getting some attention. With Musca gone, there was no point in not testing out the other saddle. Slipping into the tent, Alyssa found Dasca sprawled out, deep in sleep.

Fela crouched, coiled, and pounced right on its side. Dasca woke immediately and just about clamped its teeth around her head. But she was just a bit too quick, slipping out from between those sharp teeth as they skimmed her fur. As it tried to get up to its feet, she tackled it back down to the ground.

Ignoring their playful wrestling, Alyssa marched right past and hefted up the smallest saddle. Ensou’s saddle was missing, but so was Ensou. In the short time Brakkt had left Alyssa alone in the previous tent, he must have saddled up his draken and taken off.

He had a lot more experience saddling draken than Alyssa did. She thought she was fairly decent at it. Slinging the saddle over Izsha and hooking it around her belly was a practiced motion, but it still took a bit of doing. Were she to race Brakkt, he would be mounted before she managed to buckle one belt.

“This doesn’t look too bad,” Alyssa said after getting all the buckles done up. A few good tugs of the saddle showed that it was slightly looser than she would have liked, but not so much that she thought she would fall off even if Izsha had to sprint a bit. As long as they weren’t fleeing for their lives from the Astral Authority…

And I really shouldn’t jinx it…

Just as Alyssa finished up with the saddle, Brakkt pushed aside the large tent flap. Or rather, the Black Prince pushed aside the flap. He was fully equipped in his dark armor, helmet included. His glowing sword gleamed from its sheath at his hip. Fela and Dasca, still tussling with each other, stopped immediately as he took a few steps into the room. Fela’s pointed ears actually flattened against her head. Not completely, not like a scared cat, but enough that Alyssa noticed.

“Ready to go?”

“Musca?” he asked, looking around.

“Stormed off into the camp. Not sure why. I just asked if I could use its saddle with Izsha. Is Musca normally very possessive? Or perhaps just lonely?”

“Hard to say…” Brakkt said, eying Izsha and the saddle. His voice had a slight tinny echo to it thanks to his helmet. Once upon a time, Alyssa probably would have been pressing her ears flat against her head like Fela was, but now, she knew the man inside the helmet too well to be that scared of him. “I don’t think Musca has ever had something given to someone else like that.”

“So probably… Great. Now I feel bad.”

“It’s something Musca would have to deal with someday… probably. I suppose that day is just today,” he said with a slight shrug. Turning back to the flap, he shoved it aside to reveal Ensou standing just outside. “We’ll stay within eyesight of each other, but spread out enough to cover some ground. Fela, take care. If there are people out there and they are the same ones that have been after the monsters, they likely won’t hesitate to target a hellhound.”

“We’ll stay closer to you or Alyssa,” Fela said, rubbing her large paws all over Dasca’s head.

“Good. Keep a Message spell handy.”

Fela’s lips curled into a scowl. She didn’t say anything, but…

While Fela could use human magic much like how Kasita could, her lack of opposable thumbs really hindered her handling of spell cards. Her paws were quite dexterous for what they were, but flat pieces of paper just didn’t work well. Even as Alyssa slipped a Message card out of her deck and held it out, Fela glared. After a few moments, she clasped it between both of her hands, glaring all the while.

She really did not like using human magic.

“Maybe we can slip it into your belt. Then you just have to touch it to cast the spell.” When Alyssa had first met Fela, the hellhound had been in chains. After that, she often wore nothing but her own fur. It wasn’t until she started working for Lyria that she had taken to wearing a… uniform? Baggy pants and a loose-fitting tunic that she could easily get into and out from, but styled and colored to match the palace guards. Pulling the card out of her hands, Alyssa slid it between Fela’s waist and the belt.

Fela glared at it, but ended up sighing. “Can’t I just stick a little closer to one of you?”

“There’s a lot of ground out there to cover,” Brakkt said. “Especially when we’re going off something as nonspecific as a feeling that Rokien and Fezzik had.”

“Still, safety is paramount. And if someone touches a single hair on your head…” Alyssa ruffled the fur-like mane around Fela’s head as she trailed off. “I’ll stick relatively close to you.”

With Fela, Izsha, and Dasca in tow, Alyssa followed behind Brakkt and Ensou as they moved to the far edge of the camp. To start with, Alyssa pulled out her binoculars and scanned the horizon. It was still quite early in the afternoon. Plenty of time to run around and check everywhere that she could see… probably. They would basically run around aimlessly until Fela or one of the draken smelled a human where they weren’t supposed to be.

There was something odd though, something that Alyssa couldn’t quite put her finger on. She looked from one end of the grassy hills then toward the more swamp-like terrain toward the north. The city blocked off the really swampy area to the west and toward Owlcroft, but… Something looked off about the city as well.

“Do you notice anything strange?” she asked, handing the binoculars over to Brakkt.

“What am I looking for?”

“I don’t know. Just… something. You tell me.”

“Hm.” Taking the binoculars, he started looking around himself.

Alyssa waited, still staring and trying to figure out why the horizon just didn’t look like she expected it to. But…

Fela made a small noise, almost a cross between a purr and a growl. “The sky,” she said with her head craned straight back.

After staring at her looking up for a moment, Alyssa mimicked her and stared. Being still early in the afternoon, the sun was high in the sky. Just a few degrees over dead center. Being almost noon, it was much too bright for the moon to really be visible. If it was even overhead at the moment. For all Alyssa knew, it could have been on the opposite side of the planet. Everything looked normal.

“It’s normal,” Brakkt said at the exact moment that it hit Alyssa.

Normal. “The sky is normal.”

Tenebrael’s ensign was nowhere to be seen. The faint flames in the sky, the ones that had been burning so brightly at Owlcroft, were completely gone.

“When did that happen?” Alyssa asked without looking away.

“I’m… relatively certain that the sky was aflame this morning. Irulon might be able to tell for certain.”

“If she has even looked outside her window in the past five days…”

“What does it mean?”

Alyssa could only shake her head. “I don’t know.”


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Vacant Throne — 036.006

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Illuna’s Happenings

Intelligencer


Dignitaries, such as those visiting from Yora or Irulon and Brakkt, had dedicated quarters almost directly adjacent to the manor of the lord of the land. Brakkt and Irulon weren’t staying in it, of course, choosing to distance themselves by housing with the guild instead, but they could request housing at any time. The building itself rather reminded Alyssa of a mother-in-law house. It was attached to the manor by a covered walkway, but was otherwise a completely separate building. It had its own guards and its own servants—though they probably had other duties to attend to while it was vacant.

The interior was furnished better than the manor was. Probably yet another way to display wealth to visitors. The craftsmanship of the walls, crown molding, tables, chairs, was all exquisitely done. And, not only that, but it was all smooth as well. Alyssa wasn’t sure when sandpaper had been invented or is some kind of sandpaper analogue existed here, but it sure looked like it. Only Lyria’s palace was quite as nice. Most things there were carved from stone, so Alyssa couldn’t quite compare it to the wooden furnishings here.

Given the rest of Illuna, Alyssa almost expected something a bit more humble. Was it really necessary to impress visitors to this degree?

Irulon, dressed to the nines in her dragon hide armor—completely scrubbed clean to the point where it practically shined—gave a heavy knock on the door of the Yora visitor’s quarters. Alyssa stood at her side, wearing slightly less clean dragon hide armor. Meanwhile, Kasita looked rather like Oxart at the moment. She wasn’t a perfect copy of Oxart, but she was wearing the armor of a highly ranked palace guard and slightly protruding cheekbones clearly took inspiration from Oxart as well.

The door swung open after only a few short seconds. Their coming had not been communicated beforehand. Either they had a guard standing by or one of Illuna’s guards who were watching over the guest house had informed the Yora representatives of their arrival.

Alyssa was leaning toward the former theory. If they knew that the princess was coming, Alyssa would have expected the most important of them to be the one at the door—or at least standing nearby. Instead, some low-level grunt stood in the doorway, looking first to Kasita before his gaze wandered over to Irulon and Alyssa. The recognition in his eyes was slow to start up, but after a double-take on Irulon, he clearly realized just who was at the door.

“P-Princess?” he called out, half over his shoulder and far louder than necessary. An immediate ruckus started up. Feet hit the ground in the room behind him, a door opened, and some out of sight whispering started up.

“My apologies for visiting unannounced,” Irulon said with a smile ripped straight from a viper. “I have been quite busy these past few days. And yet, I thought it would be remiss of me to miss visiting with such distinguished guests.”

“Princess Irulon!” A man strode forward, still slipping into a pressed suit of red velvet with a small emblem of swords embroidered over the right breast. He was a thinner man with dark hair, somewhat messy as if he just got up from lying down. His hands rubbed together as he stepped right up to the door. “We weren’t expecting you or we would have prepared better to greet you.”

“Of course you would have,” Irulon said as she stepped into the room without an invitation. The guy who opened the door stepped aside for her, but looked about ready to protest when Alyssa and Kasita started to follow. A sharp glare from the thin man had him snapping his mouth closed, allowing them entry. “Rest assured, I am not expecting to be treated as a princess. This is merely an informal greeting… and perhaps a request, if you wouldn’t mind hearing me out.”

“A request from the princess?” His smile turned a little strained. “I… suppose it wouldn’t hurt to hear you out.”

“Don’t worry. It is nothing cumbersome,” Irulon said, hands clasped behind her back as she stared around the room. There were three people present aside from the thin man. Two were men. One was a woman. They didn’t appear to be dressed in an official capacity, not like the thin man, but rather were all in something of a casual dress. They clearly hadn’t been expecting visitors aside from perhaps servants.

The group Alyssa had seen approaching Illuna had been made up of more than just the four of them. These were probably the most important of them all. They were, according to Kasita, the only ones staying in this guest house. The others had been relegated to some of the less opulent inns in the city.

It was a nice place, built for relaxation above all. Traveling in this world was a tiring and excruciating, so the comfortable-looking seats were likely welcome far more than any other luxuries of the room. There was a bookshelf with a few dozen books provided by Illuna for someone to pass time with, but it looked untouched. Which made Alyssa wonder just what a traveler like this group might do to pass the time. Tourism around the city? It wasn’t like they had television to sit around and watch.

Irulon’s examination of the room came to a close as she looked back to the thin man. “It’s just a personal request of mine. But I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am, of course, but I don’t believe you’ve introduced yourself to me.”

“Ah! Forgive me, Princess Irulon. I am the Chief Retainer of Savorous of Yora, Deezer.”

“Chief retainer,” Irulon said with a nod. Stepping further into the room, she moved up to the bookcase and looked the titles up and down. “A high station. How is Yora as a city? I’ve never been.”

“Um…” Deezer looked over to one of the others in the room, only to receive a shrug. “Beautiful, your highness. We have lush, fertile land and the highest mountains. An impressive sight for anyone to see?”

“Really?” Irulon looked toward him, violet eyes piercing. “You don’t sound too sure of yourself.”

“No… I mean yes! It is very impressive. But… I’m just not sure where this line of questioning is going.”

“Just curious as to what kind of place it might be,” she said, turning away from him. “How are the people? Do you have much problem with crime?”

“Crime? Your Highness?”

“Lyria doesn’t take too kindly to criminals. You might not be aware of this, but just recently, we, along with some help from guests—” Irulon waved a hand toward Alyssa. “—rooted out one of the largest gangs in the city. Most are dead. Some wish they were dead. The rest might be able to be rehabilitated, but that is someone else’s job.”

“Um… Congratulations?”

“Thank you!” Irulon’s voice turned from unnecessarily chipper to a sinister drawl. “Which brings me to my problem here today. You see, someone entered into my private room last night and pilfered a private journal of mine. For anyone else, they might never see their journal again. But you see, my journal calls to me.”

Deezer blinked. “It—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish. Irulon snapped her fingers together, a motion that left her pointing directly at the bookcase. Kasita moved, crossing the short distance through the room in an instant, moving straight to the bookshelf where she said she had found the notebook in the first place. After sliding a few of the books to the side, she pulled out a much smaller notebook.

At the same time as she removed it from the shelf—a tricky bit of slight of hand in actuality, having stored the book within her body—Alyssa cast a series of Spectral Chains. In an instant, all four of the Yora representatives were wrapped in ghostly chains. The one closest to the door lost his balance and fell to his knees, but the other three managed to remain on their feet.

“The favor I am going to ask,” Irulon started, voice perfectly neutral once again, “is for you to explain yourself. I’ll give you one chance to deny that you know anything about this. One chance to claim that you are being framed right now.” Deezer opened his mouth, eyes wide, but Irulon clamped a hand around his face. “Lie to me and I will know. Lie to me and I’ll see you hung from your ankles off the walls of Illuna’s highest building under the effects of Rigor Mortis for twenty-four hours. But… tell me the truth and I might have a modicum of mercy.”

She waited a moment without drawing her hand back, looking around to the other four in the room. She paused on each of their faces before moving onto the next. “You are all welcome to speak up. If your leader refuses to answer or has an answer that I don’t like, you’ll all be joining in his fate unless you decide to tell me what I want to know.” Turning back to Deezer, she slowly removed her hand from his face, crossing her arms in the process.

Deezer didn’t even wait half a second before he opened his mouth. “I don’t know what that is or why it’s here! But when word of this… this indignity gets back to Savorous, you’ll regret ever approaching me!”

Irulon gave him the flattest look possible. “So,” she said slowly, drawing out the word. “You have chosen death.”

Alyssa raised an eyebrow, but decided to not comment on the tone with which Irulon spoke. At least not now. Perhaps later.

Deezer’s mouth clamped shut, face turning a paler than it had been. “It really wasn’t… I didn’t…”

“Does anyone else wish to make an application to save their own hides?” Irulon said, looking around to the others. Her eyes locked onto Alyssa for a moment as she turned and, pausing, she gave the slightest shake of her head. “Or shall I send you all to Tenebrael’s embrace with all due haste.”

That slight shake of Irulon’s head had Alyssa frowning. Deezer was telling the truth, at least as far as Irulon could tell. And Irulon could tell quite a bit.

Kasita seemed to get the message as well. Standing just behind the sole woman among their chained party, she nodded her head toward the woman. At a raised eyebrow from Irulon, Kasita nodded again.

Irulon didn’t immediately walk over to the woman. There wasn’t a direct path to her with the chains in the air. So she clasped her hands behind her back and slowly stepped around the room, stopping at the man who opened the door. “Have anything to say? Perhaps you saw how my book found its way to the shelf in this room?”

“I—I don’t know, your highness. I was at a tavern last night, drinking with some of the others. I only woke up a few hours ago,” he said with a slight grimace.

But Irulon nodded her head. He couldn’t see it, not with how he had fallen on his face. “I see. I believe you,” Irulon said.

The tension drained from his shoulders as she stared walking away. His large body practically melted into a puddle in her wake. Both Deezer and the woman gave him rather nasty glares. The other man probably would have as well, but he had his own problems at the moment.

Irulon stood in front of him, not speaking this time, just staring.

He blinked first, ducking his head to avert his gaze.

“Hm,” was all Irulon said as she walked on to the woman Kasita was standing behind. Again, Irulon didn’t say anything, but rather than stare as she had previously, she slipped the notebook into her satchel and reached for the tome chained to her hip. Slowly, deliberately, she started paging through it. Alyssa couldn’t see the spells from her angle, but the woman could. And the woman clearly had a background in magical knowledge.

Irulon stopped on a page, tapped it twice as if considering it. The woman’s eyes widened as she looked down at whatever spell Irulon had stopped at. When Irulon moved forward after one more tap of her finger, the woman almost sank to her knees in relief. She was obviously trying to keep her composure, but the relief leaked out…

That composure lasted right up until Irulon stopped on another page.

“I…”

Irulon looked up. She couldn’t meet the woman’s eyes; the woman stared only at the spell. “Yes?”

“I might know how that book came to be here.”

“You what?” Deezer shouted.

“Silence,” Irulon said. A card appeared between her fingertips, aimed directly at Deezer, as she spoke. It burned up before the word even fully got out.

Deezer tried to shout something, but no sound came from his mouth. A fact he only noticed after trying for several more words. Looking down at himself, he started struggling against the chains binding him, but failed to get anywhere at all.

“As you were saying?” Irulon said slowly, staring without having ever broken her gaze with the woman since she spoke.

“I… The book…” Her head lifted just enough for her to shoot a look around the room. “Deezer,” she started, focusing on him.

He tried to shout, but the silencing spell was still in effect, resulting in him looking like a scene from a horror movie on mute.

“And just what does he have to do with this?” Irulon said, tapping her foot hard enough to make loud thumps echo through the room. Each one made everyone but Deezer wince. “Spit it out. I’ve already been forced to come down here while I have other work to be doing, stand around and talk, and now you’re making me listen to your hesitation while you try to think up a good cover story, while you try to think of how to phrase stealing the princess’ private journal in a way that makes me less likely to kill you where you stand? Pathetic.”

“I didn’t know it was the princess’ book!”

Alyssa had seen flat looks on Irulon’s face before. But this… It set a new standard. As soon as the woman spoke, Irulon’s entire face lost all emotion. She just stared, no longer glaring, but simply flabbergasted.

“Ufu~ Ufufuwahhaha. I don’t think that was the right response.”

“Look. I’m an espire. My job is to keep us and our interests safe by knowing everything.”

“Clearly not very good at your job,” Alyssa said.

“I received word that someone had been holed up inside the guild for weeks without being seen. Someone who might be a threat. The book was supposed to be back where it came from before morning, but… I… misplaced it.”

Alyssa shot a glance at Kasita. That had probably been her doing. If not for her, Irulon could have looked around her room and… well, Irulon probably would have noticed even a slight misplacement of the book—and, as long as she noticed soon enough, Retrograde Cognition would have shown someone placing and stealing the book—but someone else might not have noticed.

“So you ordered it stolen?”

“No! It was… offered to me by one of my contacts in the city. I didn’t realize it was yours or I never would have accepted it.”

“Hm.” Irulon stared at her for a moment before lifting her gaze ever so slightly.

Kasita, still standing behind the woman, shrugged.

“I see,” Irulon said, turning. “I appreciate your cooperation thus far, Retainer Deezer. I believe we will be relieving you of your espire for the time being.”

“W-What are you going to do?”

“For now? Simply talk. And if I like what I hear, perhaps you’ll return to Yora in more than just an ash box.” Looking to Alyssa, Irulon gave a slow nod.

Three of the four Spectral Chains ended. None of the three formerly chained representatives moved, though Deezer looked as if he was about ready to march forward and give Irulon a piece of his mind. A glare from the princess kept him at a distance.

“Come,” Irulon said. “You can walk under your own power… or would you prefer if I brought—”

“I can walk!”

“Good.”

Kasita dropped a hand on the woman’s shoulder and started leading her out of the room. If the woman actually struggled, either Alyssa or Irulon would have to step in, but so long as she didn’t, Kasita was perfectly capable of directing her through the city.

“Deezer was shouting after us as we left,” Alyssa said as soon as they closed the door behind them. She kept her voice quiet. The woman was several paces in front of them with the way Kasita was leading her, so she shouldn’t be overheard…

“I know,” Irulon said quite a bit louder.

“Shouldn’t we have removed that silencing spell?”

“It will wear off. In a day. Maybe two. I always forget these things, you know?”

Alyssa could only raise an eyebrow. Being so overly stressed that she half-slept through someone breaking into her room? Possible. Forgetting the details of a spell? Shaking her head, Alyssa asked, “What are we doing with her?”

“She’s an intelligencer. As she said, it is her duty to know things. Perhaps we’ll find out some things that Kasita was unable to.”

“Sounds good, but—”

“After I make her regret being born.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, shooting the princess a glare that went completely unnoticed. “Can we please find out why they are here before you render her incapable of speech?”

“Hm. Maybe.”


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