Vacant Throne — 035.001

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Interlude

Iona


Iona tried to make himself look as small and as inconspicuous as possible. It helped that he was small to begin with. Not only was he still young, but gremlins were naturally small. The tallest members of his species generally only reached the height of a human adolescent. If he wrapped himself in a plain cloak and put up a hood to hide his turquoise hair and large ears, he might even be able to pass as a human child.

He didn’t smell like a human, but that wasn’t a problem. According to some of the others, humans didn’t have a very good sense of smell anyway. He still kept his distance from any of the humans around.

They weren’t supposed to leave the camp.

He didn’t know what would happen if he was found out, but he couldn’t help himself.

The others told stories of human cities. Buildings as tall as mountains. People filling every available space. Human magic performed constantly…

The reality of it was a bit of a disappointment. The buildings were tall, yes. Mountain size? He wasn’t so sure about that. Maybe one or two of them. But not all. Fezzik was taller than half the buildings around. As for magic, he hadn’t seen a single spell. Not one. It really made him wonder if the humans really were the magically advanced species that he had heard stories about. The people who were supposed to be second only to dragons in terms of the variety of magic that they could use. He had sneaked into the city, over a section of the wall that hadn’t been guarded, expecting dazzling light shows, levitating objects, people flashing about, and maybe a few spells that he might have been able to learn how to use. Instead, people just meandered about, doing what he assumed was normal for them.

People meandering about was just about the only part of the tales he had been told that actually seemed true. There were so many humans. More than he had ever seen in his life. More humans than he had seen monsters in his life. Of course, he was only seventeen—two months until he turned twenty!—so he hadn’t been around that long to see as many things as some of the others. Still, it was quite staggering just to see so many other living beings around.

He suspected that he wandered into the middle of some kind of market, mostly because there were roughly two kinds of humans about. Ones standing about trying to get people to ‘buy’ their goods and a much larger collection of humans either buying the goods or passing by to a specific good vendor that they wanted to buy from.

It was a strange ritual that they took part in. He had heard about money before, but actually seeing the concept in action was a strange sight. The latter group of buyers would happily hand off little bits of metal to the sellers, who would happily accept the metal and hand over whatever they had. Metal could be traded for just about anything it seemed. One human traded metal for apples. One traded for fox pelts. Still another received what appeared to be the wheel to a wagon for a fairly large handful of the metal pieces.

At the farm, things didn’t work like that. Everyone worked to help each other out. Fezzik and Rokien kept watch, looking out for threats. Most everyone worked to tend to food, whether that be taking care of the fields, raising the livestock, or preparing meals. Hunters would hunt. Tanners would tan. Carpenters would carpenter. At the end of the day, people would take what they needed from a public stockpile. People didn’t take more than they needed simply because they would wind up kicked out of the community.

There generally wasn’t much to spare besides. Farms and open communities had to be kept small and secret to avoid drawing unwanted attention. Iona had never seen a whole orchard’s worth of apples sitting in one spot before. In fact, he had only eaten an apple twice before. Their farm had a single apple tree and it didn’t always produce much.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like he would be getting an apple today despite how many were sitting around in the seller’s cart. From what Iona could tell, the seller was haggling down for every single scrap of metal that he could get, being so stingy as to cheat some poor buyer out of one of his rightfully purchased apples by snatching one out of the buyer’s bag as he walked away. With the human acting like that, he was sure to deny an apple to a poor child with no way to pay. And Iona didn’t have anything but his cloak that he might be able to trade for some of those bits of metal.

And if he traded his cloak, everyone would know that he had left the camp.

Maybe if he talked to one of those draken riders, he could find a way to acquire some metal bits. But for now, he was going to continue exploring the city.

Just as Iona started to turn away, he noticed something. Two young humans, neither much taller than he was, were pushing their way through the crowd of bigger humans. There were lots of children around, but a something about them made these children stand out more. They were clearly moving with purpose. Some children, especially older ones, clearly had tasks. Maybe their parents ordered them to go purchase apples or maybe they were just browsing for food. But this pair was rushing through the crowd of humans as if they had been given a mission.

Another thing that made them stand out was their attire. It was, much like Iona’s own clothes, somewhat concealing. Not enough so that people would find them suspicious. At least, Iona hoped he wasn’t coming across as suspicious, but he really didn’t know much about human culture. No one had stopped and bothered him so far at least and he had been inside the city since early morning, so it stood to reason that he was doing something right. It helped that a bit of a chilly wind had started up over the past few days, forcing most people to bundle up a bit more than they otherwise would.

Humans didn’t have fur to help keep them warm.

The human children were headed right toward the apple shop that Iona had been eying earlier. Just before they reached it, they split apart. The smaller of the two broke into a run…

And crashed right into a buyer, knocking goods to the ground.

Both the apple seller and the buyer yelled at him a bit as he tried to pick up the dropped goods. Both adults watched him like a harpy.

But they didn’t watch the other human child, who went up right behind the apple seller and started slipping apples into a small pouch. By the time the first child had gathered up everything that had dropped and started bowing to the adults, the other child ran off with at least five apples, completely unnoticed.

Iona hopped off a leather stand’s roof where he had been watching the market and started making his way through the crowd. He couldn’t quite explain why he was doing what he was doing, but he headed toward where the two boys were meeting up on the far side of the market from the apple vendor.

“What about a pie?” he heard one of them whispering to the other. “I haven’t had meat in forever!”

“We got caught last time. He’ll remember us and be on the lookout.”

“If Maurice were here, he would do it. He’d come up with a plan to slip a pie out from under the old man’s nose.”

“Well, Maurice isn’t here now, is he?”

“And just whose fault do you think that is? If you hadn’t—”

The boys were meeting just outside the main market area, right around a corner where there weren’t to many other humans. Iona, walking around the corner, had not expected there to be nobody around except the boys. It made his presence extremely notable. When the first boy stopped talking, the second quickly turned, clutching the bag of apples to his chest.

Their startled demeanor diminished as they realized that Iona was not some adult chasing after them. Their spooked posture shifted to clear aggression.

“Who are you?”

“Get out of here!”

“This is our alley, kid.”

The slight fear that he had been caught vanished when they said ‘kid’. As far as Iona knew, only humans and goats called their young kids. His disguise was working perfectly.

Though they did seem upset with his presence.

Not really knowing why he had approached them, Iona hung his head and turned to walk away.

“Hey, wait…” one of them said.

“Wait for what? Get him out of here, what if he saw something? He’d rat us out.”

“If he was going to, he would have gone to Hopperhock. And I haven’t seen him before. Maybe he could help us get some pies.”

“Just because Maurice—”

“This isn’t about Maurice. This is about pies.”

“What’s a pie?”

Both boys stared at Iona. His mouth snapped shut, hoping that he hadn’t just revealed his identity by asking about something that all humans knew about. From what they said earlier, it was some kind of meat food. Maybe an animal he hadn’t heard of before?

“Oh, now we have to get some.” At a strange glance from the slightly taller boy, the littler one shrugged. “What? He’s never had one of Dario’s pies before! That’s more of a crime than what we’re doing. You’ll help, right?” he said as he looked to Iona.

“Um? Sure?”

“Great!”

The taller boy pressed a hand to his face, sighing. “Alright. Fine. If we’re doing this, here’s what you need to know…”

Without a word of introduction, the boys started explaining exactly what Iona needed to do. They were quite clear and answered any questions in very simple terms. The way they talked was one of experience. They had done this before many times. Not just acquiring food, but the act of explaining how to acquire it to others as well.

“Won’t the pie seller be upset if he doesn’t get the little metal bits in exchange for his sellings?”

The taller boy shrugged again. “Gotta eat somehow. Unless you’ve got a better way of getting food?”

There was food back at the camp. Not a lot, but enough for everyone to avoid starving. There was surely enough for the two boys… but that would mean taking them back there, they would find out that Iona was a monster and, even worse, the rest of the monsters would find out that Iona had been up in the city on his own. They probably wouldn’t kick him out to the wilds, not knowing that there might still be those other humans chasing after them, but they might hand him over to this city’s humans. Not knowing what might happen with them, the thought was almost as frightening.

So Iona simply shook his head.

“Great. Then just do what I said and we’ll all be eating like the Pharaoh by nightfall. And don’t forget, if the guy looks suspicious, just start running.”

“Right.” That was something Iona could do. Over the past few weeks, he had gotten a lot of experience in walking and even running. In fact, it sounded like an easier job than what he was supposed to be doing before running.

As for what he was supposed to be doing…

It didn’t take long to spot the pie seller. The seller was in a completely different section of the markets than the apple seller. His stand was much bigger than the apple seller’s too. It was practically a whole building on its own. In fact, looking closer, Iona was pretty sure that the building behind the stand actually was part of the stand. A young girl, human of course, kept coming out with steaming hot rolls of bread which the seller then rapidly sold off to a large crowd standing out front.

Despite only seeing bread rolls, there was a definite scent of meat in the air. The scent was mouthwatering. It was easy to see why the two human children were interested in getting some of these ‘pies’. Iona would be lying if he said that he wasn’t also looking forward to it. He didn’t want to think ill of the kind humans who had offered food to the monsters who had appeared at their city walls, but he was pretty sure that most of the food was little more than scraps. Bits tossed aside that the humans didn’t want… or at least placed a lesser value on.

Although he had been happy with it, just glad to have something to eat after days of going without, he might trade it all away if it meant eating just one of these. And he might end up doing just that if he wound up caught.

Glancing over his shoulder, Iona got a thumbs-up from the smaller of the two boys. A slightly ominous gesture. Maybe it meant something different to the humans, but he had heard about the gladiatorial rings where monsters were often sent to fight to the death. He hadn’t actually seen such things for himself, but knew well that the angle of the thumb often determined the fate of the combatant.

But the thumbs up generally meant survival, so… that was good?

Shaking his head, Iona focused.

He walked right up to the stand, pushing through the crowds. He was a lot closer to any humans than he really should be, but the smell of meat and bread was so overpowering that there was no way the humans with their poor noses would be able to smell any difference in his scent.

The seller had just finished handing off a large pie to a portly human in exchange for a small handful of those bits of metal. Looking straight over the top of Iona, he immediately started selling to someone else. He was busy at the moment. So Iona moved around the side to where another younger human—this one a girl with red hair done up in a little bandanna—was bringing out a whole tray of fist-sized rolls of bread.

Iona got right in her way and promptly tapped the tips of his fingers together.

“Uhm… how much for a small one?”

The girl tried to step aside, but Iona moved to keep her blocked.

Behind her back, the two boys stole into the shop where the girl had just come from, slipping right through the front door with no one the wiser.

Now he just had to keep the girl distracted for a few moments.

But she was trying to step around him again.

“Just a small one? Maybe half of one?”

Sighing, she gave him a flat glare. “Three prav for the smallest. But you’ll have to talk with my father. I just cook.”

You cook?” Iona blinked in genuine surprise. “How old are you?”

“I’m in my sixteenth year,” she said, managing to slip around Iona in his momentary shock. She quickly slid the tray of fresh meat pies onto the counter from where her father sold them and took an empty tray back.

“You’re so young,” Iona said, getting back in her way again. She was facing the door now, but he couldn’t really get her to turn away now. She would just slip past him again. “I always thought humans were—”

Iona clapped a hand over his mouth hard enough to make a noise. It drew some attention from the closest customers, but they quickly turned back to buying their pies from the seller who hadn’t even noticed his daughter placing the tray on the counter in the first place. But it did make the cook stop moving and look at him strangely.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine,” Iona squeaked. But the girl was stopped now, so he had to press forward and keep distracting her. The others said it would only take a moment, but… they were still in there. He could see the door out of the corner of his eye. “I just… bit my tongue. I thought cooks needed years of practice to get good, but those smell so tasty…”

Hopefully that covered up his little slip from earlier. Humans were supposed to be entirely useless for the first dozen or so years of their lives, requiring far more care from their parents than any monster that he was aware of. So having cooking skills while being not much older than that seemed like quite the impressive feat. Of course, everything he had heard came from other monsters and some of those other monsters had been known in the past to exaggerate about some things…

“How long have you been cooking these?”

“Ever since I can remember.”

“Amazing. I can’t even remember that long.”

“Uh huh. Look, I’ve got to get back to work. My dad is going to want the next tray in only a few minutes. Mealtimes are high traffic for us and I don’t have time to talk. If you want to buy something, ask my dad.”

“Oh, but… Uhm…” Just as Iona started looking around for a new topic to distract the human with, the door to their cookery opened just a crack. It was only a quick shadow of movement, but both boys managed to rush out. “I guess I’ll let you go then?”

Looking back to her, her eyes were thin points, glaring daggers right at him.

Had she noticed? Had he been caught?

He took a step back, then another. Turning completely, he bolted.

The two human children he was helping had described a meeting spot. Not being familiar with the human city, it took a bit to find. Past the fountain, turn right at the tailor, down the narrow path behind the cobbler’s shop, and down a set of stairs.

But when he got there, there was no one around. No human children, anyway. A small dog ran off as Iona slowed to a stop.

Had he arrived first? They had left the shop before him, but maybe they were taking a long way around. They had run off in the opposite direction, after all. That was just the way the door opened.

Iona settled down to wait for them. There was only the one entrance to the small alley alcove, back up the stairs toward the main market area. As such, there wasn’t much need to watch for the others like a harpy.

And yet, neither of the boys showed up. Iona waited and waited, it was even nearing nightfall and he saw neither tail nor hair of either of the humans. Humans didn’t have tails, but that was beside the point. Iona let out a long sigh as he brought his knees up to his chest.

He really didn’t have anyone to blame but himself. Everyone said that humans were untrustworthy, but…

“They come up with some sob story to get you to help them?”

Jolting, Iona just about threw off his hood as he turned to find the young human cook from earlier. The bandanna in her hair was missing now, letting much more hair than Iona would have thought possible hang down around her shoulders.

“Uhm, what?”

“It’s usually only younger kids who fall for their schemes,” she said, leaning up against the building that Iona had taken watch against. “Stupider kids. You’re lucky that my dad doesn’t notice whether a tray has ten pies on it or eight… Or seven.” As she spoke, she pulled out a small rock.

Or not a rock, Iona quickly discovered, but something wrapped up in crinkled paper. It had the distinct scent of meat coming from it. He had thought the smell was coming from her because of all the time she spent cooking, but it was definitely coming from the paper.

She shoved it in his hands. The paper came partially off with the movement, revealing some bread that was leaking a bit of meaty juice.

Her eyes were locked on Iona’s face, unwavering. “Well? Are you going to eat it or not?”

“Is it alright? I… I’m sorry, for earlier.”

“It’s fine,” she snapped. “I wouldn’t have given it to you if it wasn’t.”

“Oh. Okay then…” Slowly, conscious of being watched, Iona opened his mouth wide. The moment his teeth came down around the slightly steaming bread, flavor exploded in his mouth. It was so unexpectedly juicy that he couldn’t quite contain it all. A bit of it dribbled down his chin. But he couldn’t stop himself from taking a second bite.

“You have really big eyes, you know. Green too. Greener than I’ve ever seen.”

Mouth full of food, Iona couldn’t form a response.

“Your hood moves on its own, especially right at the top. I thought you were hiding an animal in there, but you aren’t, are you?”

Feeling a chill go down his back, Iona started glancing around. The girl was blocking the only escape from the small alley. Her eyes were more like those of a harpy than any harpy he had seen.

“And your teeth are rather sharp. I’ve never seen someone with such pointed teeth.”

Swallowing what might be his last meal, Iona racked his mind for an excuse. “I, uhm…”

“You’re one of them, aren’t you? My father sent food with the guards but the first thing you do is try to steal more from him?” Her hand flashed out, crossing his cheek before he could react.

The motion made his hood fall back, revealing his inhuman hair and large ears. He immediately pulled the hood down again, but it was beyond too late.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t drag you to the guards.”

“I… I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“Make it up to me?” she crossed her arms. “You didn’t even have three prav to pay for a lousy pie. How could you possibly make up for stealing our livelihood?”

“M-monsters!”

“Monsters?” she said, cocking an eyebrow up to the brim of the white handkerchief she wore.

“Humans value parts of monsters, don’t they? I can give you some hair or… blood? I don’t know what it might be worth, but—”

Gross.” Her expression fit her disgusted tone. “I don’t want your blood.”

“Maybe scales? I don’t have any, but some—”

“Stop. I don’t want bits of your bodies.”

“Then what can I give you?”

“Can you work? Can you cook?”

“I’ve put things over a fire before, but…” Iona trailed off as he looked down at the dripping half of a pie still clutched in his hand. “Nothing like what you’ve done.”

“Tomorrow morning. Show up by daybreak. I’ll teach you. And when you’re good enough, you’re going to take over for me whenever I want, got it?” She stomped a foot down, leaning a shoulder into Iona as he tried to back away—but there was nowhere for him to go. “I want to run around the market sometimes too, but I’m stuck cooking for papa all day long. Of course, I won’t cause trouble like those hooligans.”

“Tomorrow morning? But we’re not supposed to leave the camp…”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to go to the guards…”

“I meant that I would be there right on time!” Iona quickly said.

“Good,” she turned and started stalking out of the alley, only to pause and look over her shoulder. “You can call me Susan.”

“Iona… I’m Iona.”

“Don’t be late little beast boy, or your name might slip to the guards.”

“But I’m not a beast…”

She was already gone, stalking off out the alley and around the corner without paying attention to his words.

“I’m a gremlin,” he said to the empty alley.


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Vacant Throne — 034.009

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Breath of Air

Asylum


The group of monsters continued on toward Illuna, this time with Alyssa, Brakkt, and Fela at the head of the group. Brakkt in particular had his eyes everywhere, looking for any sign of the group that was chasing after the monsters. A quick Message to Volta had revealed that Martin, acting as the current regent of Illuna, was willing to meet with the monsters to discuss a possible peaceful resolution to their problems. Which meant that Brakkt actually had some leeway in openly assisting the monsters. This was the sovereign territory of Illuna. Anyone operating here would have to respect Martin’s wishes. The assassination squad included.

Apparently.

Politics weren’t something that Alyssa had delved too deeply into on Nod. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to get too into politics, either as a participant or observer. It was a hassle enough back on Earth. She could only imagine how chaotic an unstructured society would be. Not to mention the difficulty in paying attention to the goings ons with poor communication. Message spells helped, but they just weren’t sufficient for real communication. And they didn’t facilitate mass communication either.

Which meant, unfortunately, that there also wasn’t really a way to communicate to the assassination team that the monsters were under a parley truce. If there even was such a thing. This all seemed rather informal.

At the current pace, the monsters should arrive by evening. As a show of good faith, Martin was going to prepare a small amount of food. Small being enough to feed the several dozen starving monsters, anyway. The prospect of food had put a bit of haste in the steps of the monsters. Alyssa hoped that they weren’t pushing themselves too much. The food would still be there later.

Alyssa kind of wished that things weren’t quite so… tense? Since their initial discussion, no one had said much of anything. The cyclops and minotaur walked on their own. The rest of the monsters were strangely quiet as well. For such a large group to be so silent, it had to be something about how they were wary of the humans in their midst. Even the slight murmurs of excitement from the promise of food had died down. Perhaps it wasn’t wariness, but weariness, exhaustion at having to walk so much. Some relief had to have set in which would further exacerbate matters. The relief would bring in relaxation, which, in turn, would make it a bit more difficult to remain determined. Keeping up the walk was probably about all they could do at the moment.

As for Brakkt, Alyssa, and Fela, they were all spread around the group with Kasita riding alongside Alyssa. But the distance made talking impossible. Between Brakkt keeping watch for other humans, Fela smelling the air for much the same reason, and Alyssa keeping an eye out for trouble ahead, they probably wouldn’t have had time to talk much even if they were all right next to each other.

Several times, Alyssa found herself closing her eyes to try to look for the monsters’ pursuers only to realize what she was doing. Getting rid of the Astral Authority couldn’t happen soon enough. At least they weren’t after her constantly anymore and she didn’t have to worry about little slip-ups. Though it did make looking for people a pain.

Irulon had that one soul-sight spell, the one that made souls appear as symbols or animals, in Alyssa’s case. She did have a picture of that one in her phone, so she could draw a few of them. But she didn’t have any on hand. It just wasn’t a spell that she had ever thought that she might need to use on the regular. And she wasn’t sure if it worked through invisibility fields like Empty Mirror.

Thankfully, they made it to the city without incident. The sight of Illuna’s much smaller walls—in comparison to Lyria—was a welcome sight. The array of guards on the walls was less so, but it couldn’t be helped. Alyssa wasn’t sure that they needed every guard in the city up on those walls. There was practically no arm room between them. They wouldn’t be able to effectively fight like that, so it had to be more for show and intimidation than anything else.

Alyssa had to hope that they hadn’t left the eastern wall completely empty of guards. Someone needed to be on watch for wayward demons or Patiences. But they probably knew what they were doing. Hopefully.

Maybe she would send Fela to check that there really were guards out there.

But for the time being, Brakkt directed the monsters to stop well away from the main walls. They weren’t even anywhere near the farms that sprawled out over the land surrounding the city. The city’s bowman, assuming they could draw the string while being so packed in with their comrades, would be hard pressed to land an arrow anywhere nearby, let alone hit a target. Arcanists might be able to do something, but… there shouldn’t be any accidents or rogue agents. Volta, as court arcanist, would probably have some influence in who was accepted as a guard. Given Volta’s identity, she wouldn’t select arcanists likely to cause incidents at times like these.

Alyssa stayed behind with Fela while Brakkt headed up to the city proper. She couldn’t help but notice that he stopped by the abandoned stables where Izsha was on his way up. Just a quick peek in without even dismounting from Ensou. There must have been nothing to worry about because he went straight up to the wall after that.

From there, it was a waiting game. Without walking to distract them, the monsters started talking among themselves. The conversations were kept to low whispers, but there were enough of them to create a small level of noise. From that noise, Alyssa gathered two primary feelings. Excitement and fear.

Alyssa had to hope, for everyone’s sake, that there really wasn’t much to fear over. But she couldn’t say that with certainty.

“Hey.” The deep voice of the minotaur startled Alyssa out of her thoughts.

Judging by the slight hop, it startled Musca as well. Of course, the draken tried to disguised the jolt as simply turning around to face the giant of a monster, but Alyssa could tell. The nervousness probably came from the simple fact that Alyssa was still on Musca’s back. If the minotaur or cyclops took a sudden disliking to Alyssa, Musca would probably end up as collateral to one of their large weapons.

But the minotaur didn’t look like he was about to fight. Having the head of a bull, it was almost impossible for Alyssa to read his facial expressions. He had the body of a man, a particularly buff and large man but a man nonetheless. That gave her some idea of his body language.

The fact that he didn’t have his axe in his hand helped convince her that nothing was amiss.

“What’s up?” Alyssa said. As she spoke, she could feel Kasita leaning around her back to get a better look at the minotaur.

Kasita had still not changed back from her lizardy version of herself.

The minotaur looked left, then he looked right, then back to Alyssa. With a slight nod of his head off to one side, he started walking away from the group. For being so large, his footsteps were surprisingly soft. They didn’t shake the ground or make that loud of thumps.

With a glance to Kasita, who shrugged, Alyssa directed Musca to follow.

He didn’t go far. Just far enough to get a small amount of privacy from the others. “Not all of us are useful,” he said eventually, looking back to the group. “Some are wounded with injuries that might keep them from working for the rest of their lives. Some are just small peaceful creatures without much physical strength.”

Alyssa hadn’t had a chance to look over the wounded. She didn’t have any healing potions, knowledge of monster physiology, or even a connection to Tenebrael to maybe get some miraculous healing in. The monsters here would know better how to handle their own injuries. Probably.

Actually, now that she thought about it, she didn’t know much about how monsters handled medical matters. Did they think slapping leeches on things to ‘balance the humors’ was a valid method of curing ailments? Something to talk about with Kasita later. Maybe Jason as well for general medical matters. He might know better than she would about how to disseminate proper medical knowledge to the world. In fact, proper medicine was probably better than farming equipment.

But that was a discussion for another time, she supposed.

As for the weaker creatures, that wasn’t hard to believe either. There were several small and fluffy creatures much like bunny rabbits or even small dogs? Even a few goblins in this group. Alyssa knew from personal experience that goblins weren’t all that impressive in terms of anything, let alone monsters like Fela or the draken.

“Yeah,” Alyssa said, looking back to the minotaur.

“They won’t make good slaves.”

Alyssa blinked. “What?”

“Even still, we discussed it together before even deciding to head to the human city. As long as they are not harmed and are taken care of, the rest of us will do as told without rebellion or complaint.”

“Wait,” Alyssa said, holding up a hand.

But the minotaur ignored her and continued talking. “I alone should be worth a dozen of the smaller ones. And Fezzik, the cyclops, should count as another dozen.”

“Hold on!”

“And if those are not agreeable terms, then—”

“First of all, none of that is up to me. I don’t even live in this city let alone hold a position of authority. You would have been better off bringing this up to Brakkt before he left. Secondly, I don’t think any of you should be slaves. I don’t agree with the practice. And from what I’ve seen of this city, I’m not sure that they agree either. They have few if any slaves.”

“That said,” Kasita added with a small smile, “I don’t imagine you’ll be able to freeload. This city’s guard has been… diminished through repeated interactions with the demons nearby. I’m sure farmland could use tending. Other skills you all might have could help as well if there are any craftsmen or fabricators among you.”

The minotaur didn’t say anything. Again, it was difficult to tell from his facial expressions, but Alyssa guessed that he was somewhat surprised. Probably. She should have realized it earlier, realized just what submitting themselves to human rule might mean for the lesser among them, never mind those like the cyclops and minotaur.

Before the minotaur could speak again, the very air changed. A palpable tension rippled across the atmosphere. The low murmurs of conversation that had sprung up since the group stopped their long march hushed down in an instant. Monsters big and small shifted their stances, some shrinking in on themselves while others puffed up, perhaps in an attempt to look a little more intimidating. Or, taking into context what the minotaur had said, maybe even trying to make them look a little more appealing for enslavement.

It only took a minute to figure out just what had caused the change.

A large group was coming down from the city walls. At least a dozen horses did nothing but carry banners emblazoned with the fleur de lis symbol of the city. More horses moved between those, all outfitted with bronze armor and more emblemed tabards. In the center of it all, Martin rode with shining silver armor on a similarly outfitted white horse. At his side, Brakkt rode on Ensou, essentially in a completely inverted color palette.

They approached without any semblance of haste in their movements. Their horses didn’t gallop or even trot. They walked in a slow procession clearly designed just to show themselves off.

Considering how nervous the monsters were already, the unnecessary parade just made Alyssa frown as she wondered who had come up with the idea. Martin? Volta? Brakkt? Some guard captain looking to curry favor as the idea guy? It wasn’t like Alyssa couldn’t understand the purpose behind it. There were almost a hundred monsters out here. Walking down with his cane and only a guard or two wouldn’t give the proper impression at all. It might even give the monsters the idea that they could just take over the city through brute force. At the same time, Alyssa had to frown at the display.

The procession came all the way down the road, spreading out in loose formation as they neared the monsters. Martin, Volta, the cursed sword, Brakkt, and a pair of identical twins that even styled their mustaches the same way were left in the center, along with several guards. As when Alyssa and her group first approached the monsters, Martin slowed to a stop with plenty of distance between him and the group.

“You and the cyclops seem to have taken charge since our arrival,” Kasita said from behind Alyssa. “Perhaps the two of you should head forward for negotiations? Unless there is someone else here more fitting of the role.”

A harsh breath shot out the minotaur’s nose. “Humans find us threatening. We are threatening. Something smaller and more human-like in appearance…”

“But no one else is stepping forward. No one stepped forward when we arrived. The two of you did. In fact…”

Although the minotaur had taken them to the side to talk about his slavery concerns, the cyclops wasn’t far away. After swiveling his large eye toward Alyssa, Kasita, and the minotaur, he started forward. His movements were deliberately slow as if he were trying to be as nonthreatening as possible. After about five steps, he paused, reached to his hip, and undid the ties that kept his large stone club attached at his hip, letting it fall to the ground with a weighty thump. He paused again and looked back to the minotaur.

With another snort of air, the minotaur followed suit. He tossed his axe to the ground and marched up alongside the cyclops.

Alyssa, after beckoning for Fela, followed just to the side. As she had said to the minotaur, she really wasn’t a part of whatever discussions were about to take place. She didn’t know the politics or even the personalities of the humans or monsters. She couldn’t really vouch for either side, although Martin had seemed the amicable sort in her few meetings with him. But if things went poorly, she had the spells on hand to act as a moderator. She was confident that she could keep the two sides away from each other long enough for the monsters to leave without bloodshed on either side. Hopefully. But she was more hopeful that the monsters would be able to get along with the humans. At least on a surface level. Deeper friendship could come after a time. And if a few words from her and maybe a threat or two could lead to that end, well, that was something that Alyssa had wanted to see ever since meeting monsters properly in the Waterhole.

Although the cyclops and the minotaur were not mounted, Martin remained on his horse, rubbing a gauntleted hand down its neck in what was likely supposed to be an attempt to calm it down. A few of the others, one banner carrier in particular, were a little less successful in keeping their horses from breaking ranks. They didn’t turn around and sprint back like the Lyrian guards had upon seeing the gaunt, but it looked like a close thing. Though Alyssa could honestly not tell whether the horses were more frightened of the monsters or of the draken. Those horses closest to Brakkt seemed far worse than those further away.

With Martin on his horse, he still only came up to the cyclops’ stomach. The minotaur was a bit shorter than his companion, but not by much. So it probably wasn’t that bad of a thing to have him still mounted. It meant that the two giants didn’t have to duck quite so much to be on his level.

And they did duck down. It obviously wasn’t a bow or a kneel or any other respectful deference, at least not further than moving down to eye-level was respectful.

“Monsters,” Martin said, voice a neutral greeting. “I understand that you are short on food. After speaking with my advisers,” he said, gesturing toward Volta and the two twins, “we have purchased supplies from agreeable merchants. I have men currently loading them up to deliver down here as fast as they can.”

Both the monsters looked to each other, surprise evident on the cyclops’ face—the minotaur was hard to read, but Alyssa was pretty sure he was surprised as well. Even she had to blink. Opening with a promise of food without even introducing themselves? Brakkt had said there would be food, but Alyssa expected for there to be some terms and conditions set beforehand, using the food as a bribe to keep the monsters from doing anything complicated.

Volta, Alyssa noted, looked to her with her real body. It was sluggish and slow, but she did wink.

So Volta had something to do with that decision. Alyssa wondered how she had framed the proposal to the others. A way to keep the monsters docile during the meeting? Or maybe just appealing to morality of the situation, arguing that leaving the poor things starving and wondering if they would continue to starve was just too inhumane.

She would have to ask later. For now, the discussion continued.

“I am Martin, regent of Illuna while my son is in the grand city of Lyria. These are my advisers, Holbrook and Holland. My court arcanist and a trusted source of advice, Volta. And I believe you are acquainted with the Second Prince Brakkt, visiting from Lyria.”

When Martin fell silent but neither of the monsters spoke, Alyssa, off to the side with Fela and not really part of either group, tried to make a subtle hand gesture. Just a little wave from the monsters to the humans. She didn’t think they were stupid or couldn’t understand social cues. In contrast to Volta or even the bunyip at the Oasis and Kasita at the Waterhole, they just lacked the initiative that Alyssa expected someone in their position to have.

Unless someone else in that group of monsters was willing or ready to step up as a leader, it was up to them.

“Fezzik,” the cyclops said. “No fancy titles. I am not even a… Our leader was killed over a week ago.”

“We’re standing here because we seem to have been nominated as representatives,” the minotaur said with a glance toward Alyssa. “I am Rokien.”

“We… thank you for your generosity with your food. Most of us have not eaten in weeks.”

“Far be it from us to starve others. We need not be enemies.”

Alyssa sat a little straighter. She wasn’t sure whether it was Volta’s influence on Martin or if he was just a genuinely kindhearted man even despite the racial tensions between humans and monsters, but everything seemed to be going well. Quite well.

Taking her eyes off the meeting, Alyssa started glancing around at the gathered monsters and guards, wondering just how it might go all wrong.


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Vacant Throne — 034.008

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Breath of Air

A Long March


“They don’t look like an army,” Alyssa said, lowering her binoculars and handing them off to Brakkt.

They were a few hours away from the city now. Still well away from the Plains of the Dead, but close enough that the greenery wasn’t quite as omnipresent as it was around the city and the river that ran next to it. They had stopped at an old ruin of sorts. Some watchtower, perhaps. It once sat upon a hill, but now was only rubble save for a single flat wall that looked like a stiff breeze might send it down into the valley.

The valley that the monsters were currently marching through.

Brakkt took the binoculars, raised them to his eyes, and tried looking through them only to realize that he had them backwards. A quick flip had them the right way around, affording him a view of what Alyssa had already seen.

Forty might actually have been a rather conservative estimation. Fifty to sixty monsters seemed more accurate, though she hadn’t tried counting them individually. Like the monsters working in the whorehouse or the those at the oasis, they were a mishmash of species. Tall ones, small ones, big ones, thin ones, humanoids and… those more classically monstrous. There was such a wide variety of colors as well, from things with greenish scales to blue fur.

A few of them, Alyssa recognized. She was fairly sure that there was a group of honey bees down there, but their features were a bit sharper, so they might be some distinct variation. A lizard man, much like Rizk except with green scales instead of red, trailed behind the others, walking like he hadn’t had water in days. In fact, most of the monsters looked to be in poor shape. Many monsters didn’t wear clothes at all, either relying on their fur and scales to protect their modesty or simply because they didn’t have human normative values of modesty in the first place. But those that did had worn and torn clothes. Hair and fur was matted, scraggly, and unkempt. Some monsters looked a lot thinner than it felt like they should have looked.

“They seem more like refugees,” Brakkt mumbled as he handed the binoculars over to Kasita. “Definitely not an army.”

“Why would they be heading toward Illuna? Do they not know that they’re heading for a human settlement? Not just a settlement, but a city. Surely they don’t think they can fight in this state and hope to win?”

“They might not be trying to fight,” Kasita said, voice soft and somewhat sorrowful as she accepted the binoculars from Brakkt. “I’ve never seen it happen with a group this large, but I have known some monsters that run out of hope and options to submit themselves willingly to human control, assuming the life of a slave might be better than no life at all. But… I would have thought that a group this large would try to form into a community. Rather like those monsters at the oasis or the mysterious farm Volta mentioned that’s been facing a famine.”

“Could they be from that farm? Did they run out of supplies sooner than Volta expected?”

Brakkt shook his head. “They look more like they’ve been through a battle. They’ve got wounded with them.”

“Wounded?” Alyssa said, taking the binoculars back from Kasita. It took a moment, but sure enough, Brakkt was right. A group at the back, not far from the green-scaled lizard man, had a number of monsters covered in bandages. The bandages were soiled with blood and bile and were clearly in need of changing. And that wasn’t even taking into consideration the amount of dirt covering all of them, wounded and uninjured alike.

“Perhaps they are from that farm,” Brakkt continued, “but they aren’t here because they ran out of food. It seems likely that they were driven out. Probably by a local city’s guardsmen. And probably in an ambush at that. Assaulting a group of monsters this large would otherwise take far too many men. I’d even go so far as to say that their community wound up razed to the ground. If they had any arcanists capable of some inferno and flame spells, they might not have needed to get too close.”

“So we should help them then, right?”

“They might still be being followed. And if they are… it puts me, at least, in a complicated situation.”

“Can’t openly show support for monsters?”

“It isn’t quite that. My father is trying to change things, open the people up to monsters a little more. The real problem is, if they are being chased, I’m expected to side with the humans. Failure to do so and I doubt I’ll be the Second Prince for much longer.”

“I don’t see any humans. They would presumably be mounted, right?”

“Depends entirely on who is driving these monsters out and what their overall strategy is.”

“Still, none in sight. We could go meet with the monsters and find out exactly what is going on. It might be possible to help them out a bit and get them out of here before any humans arrive.”

“If they’re open to help,” Kasita mumbled. “A big group like this is probably going to try to rely on their own strength. Though I’m still curious as to why they’re heading toward a human city. I guess we just have to ask.”

“Should we send you in first?”

“I think they’ve already spotted us. While looking through the binoculars, I noticed a few pointing toward us.”

“They’re still marching forward?”

“They might be confused about the draken and Fela, if they could see that clearly. Then again, we might just be silhouettes on the horizon to them. They’ve already been spotted by scouts, so might figure that there is nothing to gain by panicking over us. And if we attack… well, there are only a few of us compared to how many they number. They won’t know that you can Annihilator them all in one blast if necessary.”

Alyssa frowned, shoulders slumping slightly. “I hope it isn’t necessary. They look like they’ve been beaten down enough already.”

“Let’s go,” Brakkt said. “All together. We’ll keep slow so as to not startle them into attacking, but I don’t want to split us up just in case they aren’t going to be friendly toward monsters in the company of humans.”

Alyssa slipped her binoculars back into her satchel just in time to grab onto the prickly scales of Musca’s neck. Riding Musca was… an experience. Given that they were both draken, it was quite amazing just how different Izsha was from the more volatile Musca. The ride wasn’t nearly as smooth and, at times, Alyssa almost felt like Musca was trying to throw her off. It wasn’t anything overt like a bucking horse, but Musca would take a turn just a bit sharper than Alyssa would have expected from Izsha or maybe Musca would angle down a bit more during a long sprint. Little things that just threw off what Alyssa expected, leading to her almost losing her balance on occasion. Given that Irulon found Musca’s movements smooth enough turn the saddle into a makeshift writing desk, Alyssa could only imagine that the dumb draken was doing it on purpose.

Musca’s scales weren’t as pleasant to grab either. Where the sides of Izsha’s neck were smooth, Izsha’s scales jutted out just a bit more, presenting their sharp tips to Alyssa’s palms. Even with gloves on, it felt like grasping a bag of razor blades.

At least they weren’t rushing down to the group of monsters. At a more sedate pace, Alyssa didn’t have to hold on tight. But she was not looking forward to the ride back to the city.

While the group of monsters had continued moving forward despite being watched, the moment Alyssa and company started their approach, they started readying themselves. More vulnerable-looking monsters moved to the back while the larger and beefier of the group stepped out in front. With Unseen Sight activated, Alyssa could tell that there weren’t any Shadow Assassins or the like. Nothing setting up an ambush.

Musca, at a motion from Brakkt’s arms, slowed down even more. Dasca and Fela did as well.

“They’re wary,” Kasita said from over Alyssa’s shoulder, pointing out the obvious. “It’s strange. I would have expected them to act a lot more aggressively. Either in an attempt to frighten us off or even just to give some confidence to the smaller members of their group. And the children.”

From their vantage point, they had spotted children right in the center. While the group as a whole looked pitiful with their torn clothes, ragged appearances, and wounds, the children had it the worst. One of the smallest, something bunny-like, was being carried on what Alyssa assumed to be its mother’s shoulders. The rest had to walk. Some walked next to older monsters. Some… walked alone.

They all looked like they had been walking for far too long. Every step was more like a stagger. They only kept going because those around them kept going. If one collapsed, Alyssa had to wonder whether someone would pick them up or simply leave them behind.

“I wonder when they last ate,” Kasita said in such a soft tone of voice that Alyssa wasn’t sure whether or not she was supposed to have heard it.

“Illuna, despite the troubles with their demonic neighbors, has full stocks of fruit, grain, vegetables, and even meat. If we can convince everyone to get along, we could get them food before nightfall.”

“Fela and the draken, vouched for by the Second Prince, are one thing. Even a city as ignorant to monsters as Illuna might not be so welcoming to others. Especially not this large of a group. It’s… scary for humans.”

They drew to a stop at fifty paces away with another motion from Brakkt. Hardly any distance for a draken or a hellhound, probably not much distance for most of their group either. But it was enough to give Alyssa time to cast spells if necessary. She didn’t have nearly enough Spectral Chains to tie up the entire group, but the ones most likely to attack them could be taken out easily enough.

“Hold, monsters,” Brakkt said, deep voice loud and commanding without really being shouting, “before your caravansary proceeds to spark an attack from the human city of Illuna. We’ve come to ascertain your intentions and, if need be, deliver a warning that further invasion into human lands will not go unanswered. Who will speak for your group?”

Alyssa winced a little at Brakkt’s words. They were a bit more volatile than she thought a group like this deserved. He hadn’t said much back at the oasis. Hearing him now, that was probably for the best. Then again, he had probably done things like this before while not having barged into a monster sanctuary. They were related, but still different situations. The sanctuary monsters may have fought to the death. The oasis was their home and, judging by the presence of the former Waterhole monsters, some kind of resting point for those traveling through human lands. If it was compromised, it would be trouble for a great many people. These monsters were different. They weren’t in a home. If told to leave, they might just do that if it meant leaving without conflict.

At Brakkt’s command, a murmur of conversation started up among the monsters. Their discussion, or perhaps argument, went on for several minutes. Voices raised. Some of them started pointing at others. Even within their own group, some monsters started backing away, like they didn’t want to be a part of the strife.

“This is bad,” Kasita said. “Every group of monsters that I’ve ever been a part of has had a leader. Whether someone deliberately took charge or whether everyone else just looked toward one person—usually the oldest or one who had been at a particular location the longest—someone would wind up at the forefront of a group like this. I…”

Amid the arguing, Kasita hopped off Musca’s back.

It wasn’t until Kasita took a few steps forward that they hushed down again. They didn’t instantly quiet down, but one person noticed Kasita’s approach and alerted their neighbors, who nudged the monsters next to them, and so on until there were only a few of the most heated monsters left talking.

And that was not a pun on the one monster that looked like a walking cross-section of a volcano. It was actually toward the back of the group, staying quiet even during the loudest parts of their argument. Given its physiology, Alyssa wasn’t even sure that it could talk.

“Who is the oldest among you?” Kasita said loud enough to address the group. As she moved forward, she shifted her form. A ripple ran over her body and, after a moment or two, a far more monstrous version of Kasita was standing in her place. She still looked superficially like the sisterly form that Kasita usually wore around. It was clearly inspired by Rizk, having red-orange scales running up and down her sides and back with a little tail poking out from under a longer shirt.

Given that she had pulled this trick before, Alyssa well knew what she was doing. She was putting the group of monsters at ease. Or trying to, anyway. With Fela and the draken, one human turning into a monster might even plant an idea in their minds that both Alyssa and Brakkt were monsters as well, just in disguise.

Kasita walked right up to the largest monster, a sort of minotaur-like hulk of a man, with the confidence that only someone without fear of physical attacks could muster. Even though she only came up to his waist, he immediately ceased arguing with the one-eyed giant that was the only one of the group that could match his size. Both looked down to the approaching mimic.

“What happened to your group?” she asked, voice a little softer but still loud enough for everyone to hear. “Why take the risk of marching through human lands in such a large group? You had to have known where you were heading…”

“We’ve been on the run for weeks,” a cyclops said. Being roughly the same height as the minotaur, he had to squat down a bit to be more on the level of Kasita. But he was still at least two heads taller than she was. “Every time we stop, thinking we’re safe or that we’ve run far enough, we get ambushed in the night. Humans. A whole group of them that never stops chasing us. Stragglers get picked off, disappearing without a word or cry for help.”

“You have no leaders?”

The cyclops didn’t answer right away. His hand clenched into a tight fist as his knuckles ground into the dirt at his feet. “We woke up to find Xefawks’ head sitting in the center of our camp one morning weeks ago. As well as the heads of his family.”

“I…” Kasita actually stepped back, grimace plain on her face. Her tail drooped ever so slightly as her shoulders shuddered. “My condolences,” she said through grit teeth. “But… You can’t fight them off? With a group like yours…”

“They rarely show themselves. When they do, they always run away. Can’t fight what we can’t catch.”

Brakkt, with Alyssa next to him and Fela trailing slightly behind, rode forward. They closed the distance from a good fifty feet to only about ten, stopping just behind Kasita. “Have you seen any colors or emblems on their outfits, armor, or gear? Anything to distinguish them?” Brakkt said, voice slightly softer than it had been when he first addressed the monsters.

The cyclops shook his head, large eye in the center of his face swinging over to the minotaur as soon as he finished.

But the minotaur was shaking his bull-like head as well. “I’ve seen them more than others,” he said in a voice even deeper than Brakkt’s. “Never seen any branding on their hides.”

“Hmm,” Brakkt hummed, drawing a gauntlet-covered hand to the chin of his helmet.

“What is it?”

“Very possibly a roaming squad of assassins,” Brakkt said quietly so that only Alyssa would hear. “At least judging by the prolonged harassment and hit and run tactics. The royal family doesn’t use them—not openly anyway—as we usually only march armies to meet armies. But some of the great houses do use such forces to keep their lands clear of monsters. It’s psychological warfare as much as it is physical. They probably don’t even intend to kill this group to the last, leaving several alive to warn other groups of monsters away from the lands they’ve been driven out from. Or possibly to find out where they are heading to reveal other hives of monster activity.”

“So even if they would all fit inside the oasis, something I doubt, sending them there would wind up hurting everyone.”

Brakkt nodded twice before looking back to the cyclops. “Regardless of my sympathy for your troubles, I still need to know your intentions in heading this direction. Attacking the city will not stop your pursuers. You’ll likely be throwing away your lives on their walls, which might be their intention if they’ve been herding you this way.”

“We’re not stupid. But we’re out of options. And food. We’ve been out of food for a while now.” He turned, large eye sweeping over the group of monsters. “Some of us haven’t eaten in days. Maybe longer. And we don’t know where to go. Without Xefawks, we don’t know somewhere else that could support us and wouldn’t just meet the same fate that we have. You humans have driven us out, but the human city here is the only place that might be able to feed, shelter, and possibly protect us. Even if we have to… submit ourselves.”

Getting off his knees, the cyclops drew himself up to his full height. Even with Musca taking several steps backwards, Alyssa still had to crane her neck just to keep him in view. As he stood, Alyssa noticed the thing at his side. A… club? It looked more like a chunk of a paved road that he had torn from the ground and hooked to his waist, but it had to be some kind of stone. One hand, about as big as Alyssa was, reached down for the hilt.

“But if the human city is going to attack us too, we may as well fall upon our swords here and now.”

“Wait,” Alyssa said, trying to sit upright even with Musca feeling like it was getting ready to sprint away from any chance of that weapon swinging in their way. “That might not be necessary. Knowing your intentions, I think we might be able to help—”

“Alyssa,” Brakkt said, slight warning tone in his voice.

“What? You don’t have to do anything. I’ll just have a few words with Martin. I’m sure his court arcanist will be willing to see things my way. And if they don’t listen…” Alyssa trailed off, not sure what she intended to do if they didn’t listen. She hadn’t been able to help Izsha. Not as much as she wanted, anyway. But these monsters didn’t need to be brought back from the dead. The ones that were dead, like their leaders, had likely already had their souls ferried off by angels. There was nothing she could do for them even if she was willing to try what she had done with Izsha a second time.

But, glancing toward the sky, Alyssa decided that she wasn’t just going to sit by and let this group die. There were children here. Starving children at that. She doubted that even everyone in this group was completely blameless. Several of their number had probably fought and killed humans in the past. But letting them get hunted down when there was nothing they could do to defend themselves just wasn’t right.

As long as the monsters weren’t going to cause trouble for the people of Illuna, there was no reason to turn them away.

The moon wasn’t visible at the moment, but, if Martin and the rest of Illuna had some problems with sheltering a few monsters who might even agree to help defend the city should the demons and infected return to assaulting their walls…

She might just have to disagree with their policies.


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Vacant Throne — 034.007

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Breath of Air

Approaching Trouble


Alyssa felt like something was missing. She had never lost an arm or even a finger before, but what she was feeling at the moment had to be something akin to phantom limb syndrome. Every so often, she would find herself trying to close her eyes and check the souls around her only to be met with nothing but darkness. She had bought a rather large wool coat from one of the local shops, but it really wasn’t doing much to keep that unearthly chill away.

She figured she would get used to it. The first twenty-five years of her life went by without Tenebrael’s presence settling around her shoulders like a fleece mantle, so surely things would go back to normal. But there was just a slight niggle in the back of her mind that Tenebrael’s power was like some hard drug. Even after only a month of sharing a connection, she might need years of therapy to get back to normal. And the slightest trouble in front of her might result in a relapse.

But… that was probably an over exaggeration. It had been a week since meeting Tenebrael and severing the connection. At least so far, she hadn’t felt much of a need to use Tenebrael’s power. Or a desire, really. The few times she had tried looking for souls had been more out of habit than anything else.

It took twenty-one days to break a habit. Or so the saying went. She was a third of the way in so far. She just needed to find something to distract herself with.

Like Izsha and Irulon.

The latter had almost finished with what she hoped was a working method of jump-starting the synchronization. Alyssa could no longer look at Izsha’s soul to see how the poor draken was doing, but given the lack of progress or regression in Izsha before she had severed her connection to Tenebrael, the state of its soul was probably static at the moment.

Irulon had been a bit annoyed that Alyssa was no longer connected to Tenebrael, but after citing the Astral Authority as an ongoing issue with remaining connected—and something that put everyone else around Alyssa into danger as well—she had relented on her beratement. Alyssa did feel a bit guilty over not being able to look into Irulon’s souls anymore, especially after the princess had confessed her fear to Alyssa that she was erasing herself from existence.

But she wasn’t able to do much on that front without Irulon’s help anyway. By the time Irulon was ready to start working on herself, Tenebrael would hopefully have finished her suppression field, thus allowing Alyssa to reconnect… at least for a short time to help Irulon. She wasn’t all that certain that it was a good idea to remain connected on a permanent basis again.

Her mother might be right. It was just a little too abnormal. Even for this world.

Aside from Izsha, which occupied a large majority of her time, Alyssa had also been spending a lot of time with Volta.

Even now, she sat in the court arcanist’s office with him, discussing matters of monsters while trying to avoid looking in the direction of the cursed sword. The sword just… had this look about her constantly. Alyssa was fairly certain that, if not for Volta somehow keeping her under control, the cursed sword would go on a rampage throughout the city, killing as many people as it could until someone finally managed to put it down. Of all the monsters she had seen, the sword probably unnerved her the most. Even more than the gaunt. The gaunt was creepy, yes, and nearly invincible, true, but it didn’t look human. It didn’t have a facial expression, let alone one that screamed murder to everyone around. It was no wonder that the sword kept herself wrapped up in a cloak at all times.

Volta was pleasant enough to talk to, thankfully.

“So you’re saying that those eel-like monsters migrated all the way from the southern coast to a desert, then into a tiny little pool of water within a dormant volcano? Why? They traded a huge ocean for that little cavern. I could understand it if they were escaping from south of the Fortress of Pandora, but the ocean? And why a desert? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“You know, I’m not entirely sure,” Volta said, the false man leaning back in his chair. From an objective standpoint, it was quite amazing how well the man blended into reality. Everything from blinking to breathing, stretching to slight shifts in his posture to get a little more comfortable… It make Alyssa wonder whether that was all consciously controlled or, much like a real person, simply unconscious movements. “We don’t often ask about each other’s histories or what led people to where they are today. That oftentimes brings up poor memories. Some share willingly, such as those you freed who mentioned your name. But I don’t believe that the eelfolk ever did. They could have been fleeing from a destroyed habitat, a slaughtered community, or a life in bondage and slavery.”

“Do they have natural predators that live in the ocean? Because even if one or all of those things were true, I couldn’t imagine fish traveling for weeks over land and through a desert. I mean, at least find a lake or something. There’s a pretty big one just south of Teneville. My… I have a… house there. If they could get to Lyria, I could get them there very fast. If they’re interested, that is.”

“Asking wouldn’t hurt, but they’ve been there almost as long as I have been. They might have a new sense of community about them. Living in such small quarters breeds companionship, even if I doubt mantises and eelfolk would normally be that friendly toward one another.”

“Hm… Is there a lot of strife between different species of monsters?”

“That depends entirely on the species in question. Some get along with others quite well. Some only interact with certain others. Some tend to alienate everyone but their own species. And there are a few that are more or less hostile even to others of their own kind. With as many varieties of monsters as there are out there, we would be here all day trying to map out which ones interact with others in which ways.”

“That sounds like—”

Alyssa cut herself off as Volta raised a hand. The doppelganger didn’t start talking, simply choosing to wait. At the same time, the cursed sword pulled her hood back over her head and covered her face with a dark brown scarf. The second Volta put her hand back down, a heavy knock tapped against the door three times. There must have been some kind of alarm spell to warn Volta of anyone outside the door. Which explained how they could talk so candidly about monsters without others hearing.

“Enter.”

Almost before the low voice called out, the door swung wide open to reveal a panting guardsman wearing the fleur de lis on a grey sphere, the emblem of Illuna, on his brown tabard. Helmet off, he stared around for just a moment before sighing. “Master Arcanist, sir… and, uh, guest,” he added with a glance to Alyssa. “Your presence is requested at the eastern wall.”

Alyssa felt a sinking feeling in her stomach, wondering just what trouble was poised to attack this little city. Lyria had come under attack so many times while she was there. She had to wonder whether or not it was her presence somehow attracting enemies or whether it was just something that happened on a chronic schedule. “They asked for me?” she said, pointing at her chest. “Who asked for me?”

“It was the…” His eyes flicked up to Volta for a moment before his voice dropped to a whisper. “The Black Prince.”

“Oh?” Alyssa perked up a bit at that. Ignoring the hushed and slightly terrified tone in which the guardsman spoke, Brakkt asking for her was actually good news. If it were something vital or dangerous, he would have sent her a Message. Sending some poor guardsman running to find her was more or less just a way to save on having to draw out more Message cards. Alyssa felt a bit bad about it, especially because it looked like the guard had sprinted all the way here—he was still trying to catch his breath—and had gotten spooked because of the sender at the same time.

But it was good news for her.

“What is this about?” Volta asked, standing. Volta’s real body hopped to the side, holding onto the fake body’s hand as it stood as well. “Has something happened?”

The cursed sword moved immediately to stand right in Volta’s shadow, giggling slightly as she moved.

The guardsman didn’t respond right away. Not for a lack of trying. He was just having a little trouble breathing, half doubled over from his run.

Alyssa, getting to her feet as well, stretched slightly. Hearing that Brakkt wanted her and not someone else made her just a little too relieved to be overly concerned at the moment. There might still be trouble, but it would be minor trouble. Maybe an infected shambling toward the pit—though he would probably just take care of that himself. Or… the Astral Authority? He wouldn’t want to handle one of them on his own, but that seemed Message-worthy. Actually, the more she thought about why he might want her and Volta, the less certain she got about just why he might ask for them. If it really was something small, infected or otherwise, he and Fela could take care of it.

Her stomach tensed again as she considered that it was something big, but not something that had to be dealt with immediately. Lacking time sensitivity, a guard would suffice in place of a Message…

“Tell us on the way,” Alyssa said, deciding to hurry over and get information directly from Brakkt. “East gate, you said?”

The opposite side from Owlcroft and the forces fighting there. Outside the east gate were the stables that Izsha was resting in. The Plains of the Dead were even further east. Not a lot of habitation in that general direction. Some kind of opposing army could come from there, but—and Alyssa was far from a military strategist—she thought they would come from the northern or southern directions instead. An army would rather march through populated lands to resupply on the raided villages.

Unless they were targeting Illuna directly and had been trying to keep themselves a secret until arriving…

“It’s monsters,” the guard managed as Alyssa slipped outside the room.

Alyssa froze, looking past the guard to find a genuinely shocked expression on both of Volta’s faces. With the cursed sword bundled up in her mask, Alyssa couldn’t see her expression, but there was a slight pause in her steps as she followed along behind Volta.

“Monsters?” Volta said with almost no delay.

“A whole bunch of them,” the guard said between breaths. “They’re marching on the city. We’re scrambling all the guards and alerting his lordship as well.”

“How far away?”

“Half a day by horseback. A pair of rangers spotted them this morning and rode back immediately, only arriving a few minutes ago. The monsters were not mounted, but monsters might be able to run faster than humans or even horses. The rangers met the… Black Prince near the gate and informed him as to what they saw.”

Ignoring the awed tone he used around Brakkt’s epithet, Alyssa shook her head. “What kind of monsters? How many exactly?”

“I… I don’t know what kind. But they counted up over forty monsters.”

Forty. Almost double the amount of people at the oasis. For a moment, a thought entered her mind that something had happened back there that forced them to flee. Knowing their leader was some highly ranked person in the city, they might have had to take a gamble that they wouldn’t be slaughtered on sight.

But forty was too many.

Too many for Alyssa too. She had used up so many Spectral Chains cards recently and hadn’t completely replenished them yet, having only about fifteen at the moment. She did have a single Annihilator, but…

She would rather know why they were here before she decimated the landscape.

And whether or not they were being mind controlled like that troll army that had attacked Lyria when she first arrived in the city.

“You don’t know what is approaching? Useless scouts,” Volta grumbled. “What good is having them if they don’t even properly scout? Knowing the kinds of monsters could change the context drastically.”

Alyssa could not agree more. “What about Illuna? How many soldiers can you muster?”

“Everyone’s on alert. Over a hundred men are gathering at the eastern wall. We have enough equipment to arm a militia of roughly the same number of people, though I can’t speak for the maintenance or quality of said equipment.” He paused, just about making Alyssa trip down the stairs as she hopped to the side to dodge him. “Should we toll the bells for the militia? I’ll… I’ll head to town square and—”

“Calm down, Javick. Let’s see what awaits us before we disturb everyone’s day. It might not be that big of a deal.”

“Monsters are attacking the city! We’ve had a reprieve from the demons lately, but… we’ve never had monsters attack the city!”

“Just be thankful that the demons aren’t still attacking us. Dealing with enemies on two fronts would be a trying endeavor. And these monsters may not be attacking. We shouldn’t act with haste only to regret our choices in the future.”

“What else could they possibly be doing?”

“Are you forgetting?” Volta said, offering a small gesture toward Alyssa. “We are playing host to a few monsters at the moment. A hellhound and several draken, among others. Perhaps they have heard such news and are merely curious.”

“Then they should have sent one monster as a representative.”

“Only to wind up killed on sight by our rangers? A group is a far safer method of travel.”

As they reached the main entryway, they encountered another pair of guards, ones who looked mildly less out of breath than the one who had fetched Volta. With them was a familiar face. Wearing a far more militaristic uniform, Martin stood at the door, attaching a sword to his hip.

“Ah, Martin,” Volta said as if inviting the older man out to a cup of tea. “How are you this fine afternoon?”

A bushy eyebrow lifted, half-cocked for a moment before a wan smile crossed Martin’s face. “Does nothing perturb you?”

“I try to remain level-headed regardless of the situation.”

“And I would prefer to know more about the situation, court arcanist. What divinations have you for me today?”

“Nothing much, I’m afraid. I’d like to see for myself this approaching force. There is a chance things aren’t nearly as dire as they appear.”

After a slight grunt, and a bit of armor plating, Martin led them across the yard filled with geese and turkeys out to a small stables. Rather than riding on a horse, he led them all, including Alyssa, into a rather spacious carriage. It set off immediately. Volta, sitting next to the cursed sword, simply closed her eyes and relaxed. The fake body did, anyway. As unexpressive as her real body was, it was not unobservant. The cursed sword at her side sat almost perfectly still, as if not trusting herself not to do something she might regret.

Martin, on the other hand, stared out the window. His leg bounced up and down with a constant, nervous rhythm.

It only took twenty minutes for the pair of horses to pull them all the way to the eastern wall. Even still, Alyssa found herself a bit surprised that he hadn’t hammered the floorboard clean out of the little carriage.

All three guild members, Lisa, Brakkt, and Fela were standing around, talking with the guards or otherwise preparing for what might happen. The only ones of her party to not be here were Irulon, who must have decided to continue her research, assuming that everyone else could take care of whatever problems happened, and Kasita, who was probably sticking with Irulon. The draken were missing as well. Ensou was just outside the gate, making a pair of guards there awfully nervous, but the others must still be down at the abandoned stables with Izsha.

Alyssa felt a pang of guilt at leaving her friend alone without her or Brakkt there, but… if the situation was serious, it might need the two of them to stay away for some time.

Upon their arrival, people immediately split off. Some moved to speak with Martin, presumably informing him as to the status of their defenses or possibly any further information on the approaching group. Others went up to Volta, probably giving him similar information.

No one approached Alyssa and she didn’t really get the feeling that she was invited to either of their conversations, so she walked right up to Brakkt and her mother.

“We’re going to head out on the draken,” Brakkt said without word of greeting or pleasantries. “They’ll be fast enough to get a look at these monsters and get word back.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll…” Alyssa hesitated, realizing just what that meant for her. “I’ll stay here the, shall I? I suppose I could draw out another Annihilator. Though I would prefer to not use it.”

He had his armor on, though his helmet was off. That gave a clear look at his face as he frowned slightly. “Musca has agreed to allow you to ride her.”

“M… Musca said that, huh?”

“More or less,” Brakkt said with a shrug of his shoulders.

“You know? I was just thinking that I could use a few more Spectral Chains as well…”

“Alyssa,” Lisa said with no small amount of admonishment in her tone. “From what I gather, the city is preparing to fight. I don’t know what these monsters are, but I have seen Fela.” Her tone dropped to a hushed whisper to keep anyone around from listening in. “Forty Felas against a hundred poorly trained soldiers is going to be a slaughter.”

“I wouldn’t call them poorly trained,” Brakkt said, turning his head to look over the assembled force, the guards watching from the wall, and Volta and Martin. “They handle infected on the regular. This close to Owlcroft, they have to be decent at their job, enough to keep from being overrun, anyway. But… it is true that infected don’t tend to work as a group. Their fighting style may be incompatible with even a loosely organized group of stronger enemies.”

“Even if they can fight back, many will die. And many monsters will die as well. I… Well, some monsters I’ve heard about deserve some sympathy. Something I learned from my time overseas—something I wished others would have learned as well—if negotiations can be made, then all efforts should be afforded to make them.”

Alyssa opened her mouth, about to suggest that maybe Fela should take the draken on her own given how well Alyssa’s last attempt at negotiation went. The oasis monsters had not taken kindly to humans barging into the sanctuary.

But then she remembered Fela’s attempt at negotiation. That shrug as she turned to Alyssa with a blank look and said that she had tried.

“Kasita really should be the one to negotiate,” Alyssa said. And it was true. Kasita had been the one to defuse the situation in the oasis. “Can we grab her before we go, at least?”


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Vacant Throne — 034.006

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Breath of Air

Nox


Alyssa stared at an array of spell cards laid out on the table in front of her, wondering just what was different about them in comparison to what she was doing with Tenebrael’s connection. And she was having a hard time coming up with anything. Aside from the obvious, of course. The cards needed the paper and a drawn pattern while all she needed to make use of Tenebrael’s magic was a verbal… prayer. But… wasn’t that what the Enochian on the cards was for?

Spell cards had definite and predictable effects. Her connection to Tenebrael didn’t. That probably came from the way spell cards didn’t change. Although drawn individually, all spell cards of the same spell were effectively photocopies of each other. They had a static and unchanging nature that gave them their predictability.

Alyssa couldn’t control the size or shape of the mystic circles that popped up when she called down a miracle. At least, she didn’t think she could. Her discussion with Iosefael on the subject revolved almost entirely around the actual spoken words of the prayer rather than any geometry. Tenebrael had insisted that she would need to know advanced mathematics in order to use the Throne’s power directly, so perhaps delving into that might give her more control over mystic circle construction.

The words she spoke could be controlled, to a degree. She still felt as if, once in a while, some spoken words might not wholly be her own. It wasn’t quite to the point of completely taking over her mouth as had happened for the first few miracles back in Teneville. If she wanted, she could override any influence that might push her to say one word over another.

Every time she asked for a miracle, she used different words and phrasing. Per Iosefael’s advice, more desperate situations necessitated longer requests and repeating the same prayers over and over again tended to diminish the value of the miracle. Which seemed somewhat odd to her. Most religions that she knew of relied heavily on repeated rituals where things were generally not supposed to change. Whether that be praying in a certain direction, saying the same prayer every time, or just little things like bowing heads. Here on Nod, the spell cards, the same ones that she had already established were all identical, worked the same and to the same effectiveness no matter how many times she or anyone else cast them.

Besides that, there were only so many ways to phrase kill this thing before she would wind up having to open a thesaurus and pick related words at random.

Perhaps disregarding that tidbit of Iosefael’s advice would be for the best. At least to test some things out. If it failed, then she could go back to saying whatever came to mind. But a repeated, memorized phrase could be said much faster than random words as they came to mind.

And if that bit of Iosefael’s advice turned out to be incorrect, perhaps the bit about the length could be discarded as well. Shrinking down requests for miracles into single sentences or even single words could help out a lot.

What she really needed, and what Alyssa was really trying to do, was to increase the reliability of using Tenebrael. Because the angel’s power truly was a thing to be used. But unless it could be relied upon to have predictable effects, it was… dangerous to use.

Using her pistol as a medium for delivering a laser beam seemed fairly reliable even with varying words. Creating a portal? Alyssa gave it fifty-fifty odds whether or not anything at all would happen.

In a desperate situation, a fifty percent chance of escaping was unacceptable.

Sighing, Alyssa looked up from the spell cards. She quickly glanced around the room, somewhat hoping that Tenebrael would show up. If this place truly was cut off from the rest of creation—as Iosefael had phrased it—then there really shouldn’t be any reason why Tenebrael couldn’t also show up. But it had been a full hour at this point. No sign of the angel.

Alyssa wasn’t sure if she was supposed to try portaling back to the real world or how she might know whether or not it was safe to travel back. She didn’t really want to go back only to find the Astral Authority still swarming around looking for her. Or to, as Fela had mentioned, have the return portal alert them to her presence and start the whole issue all over again. Hence her hesitance to do much without something of a sign from Tenebrael.

Not that she really minded a moment of modern convenience. Much like her first trip to Earth to rescue Chris, the refrigerator was full of food. Fast food. Slow food. Fancy food and cheap food. She had a hot bowl of instant noodles in front of her alongside a bowl of caviar. Alyssa had never had caviar before. Frankly, she wasn’t sure what the appeal was. Having tried it, she was pretty sure that she would take a bowl of cheap noodles first if offered a choice again.

On the couch next to her, Fela was happily snacking on an oversized stick of beef jerky. The hellhound had been going through the fridge and cupboards like crazy, pulling out one of just about everything. The only things that didn’t interest her were the dishes of pure vegetables or grains. Peanut butter was apparently fine, but a bag of mixed nuts was not.

So really, there was no need to rush back. Although Brakkt might be a little worried. Alyssa had tried sending a Message, but she wasn’t sure if it had gone through. If the cube could block out whatever angels used to detect something that was supposed to be as omni-present as the Throne, it probably also blocked out mundane Messages.

Her phone didn’t seem to work to call Jason, for instance. She had tried asking him to send a Message to Brakkt, but the call wouldn’t connect. It did that same jamming-signal thing that it had done when Adrael had blocked its use.

Without the ability to contact anyone, there wasn’t much to do aside from sit about and puzzle out the mysteries of magic.

Alyssa held out her hand. Notably, her fingernails darkened before any words came out of her mouth. In fact, they darkened before she fully decided on what exactly she was going to do. It was clearly anticipating her intent. Which said something mildly disturbing about the intelligence of the connection she shared with Tenebrael. Unless it was Tenebrael herself getting ready to act through Alyssa, but that went counter to Iosefael saying that most of the miracles didn’t directly involve Tenebrael.

As for what she was going to do, something simple would be for the best. Light. It was the simplest spell in terms of mortal-usable spell cards. And it was probably the first thing she had ever done with Tenebrael’s power. It wasn’t particularly useful as an ability inherited from Tenebrael given how prevalent light and enhanced vision spells were. Still, as a testing bed, Alyssa couldn’t think of anything better.

Especially nothing that she wanted to cast while inside a small cube. Transportation might let the Astral Authority come in. Anything destructive might wind up too big and end up turning the small chamber into an incinerator. At worst, overpowered light might leave some spots in her eyes for a time.

At first, Alyssa tried to simply use intent to bring forth some miraculous light. Whatever intelligence was in her connection with Tenebrael could clearly sense her desire to create a miracle. So why not try to get it to work for her? If she could silently create miracles the same way that she could cast spells, then she wouldn’t need to bother with any prayer at all.

But after ten minutes of trying, she wasn’t getting any results at all. It didn’t matter how she framed it in her mind or how she imagined a ball of light appearing on her hand. Her fingernails stayed black, but no mystic circles ever popped up. Perhaps she would try more later on, or after she got used to manifesting a miracle repeatedly in the regular way. Starting with the hardest task was probably not the wisest choice.

Obviously, the wisest choice would have been to figure all this out weeks ago. But when she had first made the connection with Tenebrael up until meeting with Iosefael, she hadn’t thought that she would get embroiled in a war with divine entities. Since meeting with Iosefael, or perhaps since encountering her first member of the Astral Authority, using and practicing with the connection was too dangerous.

And maybe the even wiser choice would simply be to cut her connection with Tenebrael. The Astral Authority would no longer be interested in her. She wouldn’t be able to manifest miracles, but she wasn’t really able to without drawing their attention anyway. After Tenebrael booted them off her world, she could always reconnect.

But for now, while inside Tenebrael’s isolation chamber and separated from the Astral Authority, she might as well continue trying to make something happen.

“Light,” she tried. It was still starting with the harder end, but it also felt like the next step up from trying pure intent.

Except for Fela looking over with one of her eyebrows raised, nothing happened.

“Light,” Alyssa said again, trying to not feel self-conscious about shouting a random word. “Light.”

“What are you doing?”

“Trying… anything, I guess. Light,” she said again. “Light.”

“Is anything supposed to be nothing?”

Alyssa sighed, keeping her eyes focused on her hand. “No. It’s supposed to make light.”

“I’ve seen you make light before. With human magic, you didn’t say anything at all. With that other magic you use, you gave a big speech.”

“I’m trying to cut down on the speeches. But… Light!” Alyssa let out another long sigh when her exclamation failed to produce any results. “But my brother once asked me if he ever told me the definition of insanity. It’s doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Actually, it wasn’t just once that he said that. It was like his favorite phrase for a few weeks several years ago. Then he forgot about it, I guess.”

“Huh…” Fela mumbled, gnawing on the jerky.

“Let there be light,” Alyssa tried, testing out what might be the most famous religious phrase back on Earth. This time, she actually felt something. Nothing visible, but something deep within. It felt a lot like the times when she manifested a miracle successfully. Emboldened by the feeling, Alyssa tried the same phrase another three times. Each attempt produced the same result.

So, in fitting with her brother’s odd advice, she varied up the phrase, injecting some of her own personal knowledge of how reality functioned into her words.

“Let the glory of the Throne shine forth.”

Nothing. Not even the mildest of sensations. It was worse than her first attempt, even.

“The Throne? What’s that?”

“I… really don’t know, I guess. The seat of whoever was supposed to rule over the angels, but I guess it’s been empty for some time.”

“It’s more than just a seat,” a faintly melodic voice broke into the conversation.

Turning, Alyssa had to frown. Tenebrael sat on the side of the bed, legs crossed, with feathers falling all around her. She looked prim and perfect as usual. A stark contrast to the true demon earlier, who definitely looked like she had taken some damage in her fight against the Astral Authority.

At Owlcroft, the demon had mentioned that she and her forces wouldn’t be able to fight them off for as long as Tenebrael needed. Seeing the angel now reminded Alyssa of that little conversation, making her wonder just how long Tenebrael did need…

And whether or not she had time for even a brief conversation at the moment.

“The Throne is reality. Everything you’ve seen, touched, smelled, felt. All of that is the Throne. I don’t know where it came from, who built it, if someone built it, how it exists, when it began its existence, or how it could have formed when it literally is everything—a sort of chicken and egg scenario—but I do know that its previous occupant used it to shape everything, from us angels to the universe as you know it.”

“And what happened to them?”

Fela blinked, cutting off the fire from her eyes for just a moment. “What? Oh… she’s here, isn’t she. I’ll just eat more then…”

Alyssa turned to Fela with a frown before directing that frown at Tenebrael. “Is there really no way for you to show yourself to others? I feel bad leaving everyone out of our conversations.”

“It’s against the rules. Besides, I’m not here for long. Just to take you back to Nod.”

“Are there even rules here? I thought this place was cut off from the Throne. Which calls into question how it exists in the first place if the Throne is everything.”

“My greatest genius. Using a sliver of what power I can call upon to shape just a tiny bit of reality to the point where it effectively doesn’t actually exist. Remember that mathematics lesson I tried to show you once upon a time?”

“Yeah?”

“That was actually the equation for this place. Or a part of it, anyway.”

“So… far beyond my ability to comprehend. I see.”

“As for what happened to the Throne’s occupant… well, that’s the big mystery that’s been plaguing angels for years now, isn’t it? Maybe they died of old age. Maybe they just got bored and decided to up and leave. Maybe they found some new Throne-like toy to go play with.” Tenebrael shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t particularly care which. It doesn’t matter to me. All that matters is that it is empty.”

“You intend to take it over?”

“If it was so easy to walk up to and sit upon, I would have done so a long time ago. Brick walls though they are at the moment, the Seraphim will undoubtedly vanquish any who approach.”

“Will they? Because you used to be concerned that Archangels would go running to the Seraphim at first sign of anything amiss on your world. And that obviously wasn’t the case. Or rather, didn’t Kenziel mention something about Adrael constantly petitioning for the Seraphim to act? Your world doesn’t seem to be destroyed, so…”

That concern might not be that big of a concern anymore. I will admit that I had been unaware of Adrael’s presence for who knows how long a time. But the Throne is different. All but about three of the Seraphim stand around it in an endless vigil in the Endless Expanse. I can’t say that any angel has tried to sit on the Throne, but a few have tried to get close. They are… no longer with us. The Seraphim cut them down without hesitation.”

“Hmm… Do you think you’ll ever be able to challenge them? I mean, that is your goal, right? Take over the Throne?” Tenebrael hadn’t ever expressly stated such an intent, but it seemed fairly obvious to Alyssa. There was a powerful artifact just sitting around, unused. Ripe for the taking. One that might be able to help destroy whatever plan involved those black books of death—which Tenebrael had stated as one of her primary goals.

But Tenebrael didn’t answer. She stared down at nothing in particular, seemingly giving the question serious thought. But eventually, she did look back up. “Perhaps someday. Perhaps. However, that is a long time off. Until I can simply wave my hand and destroy the entirety of the Astral Authority, what hope do I have against even a single Seraphim? They’re gnats in comparison, but they’re forcing me to hide.”

“Isn’t that what you’re working on right now? You said a month, right? How close are you? And… can the demons hold out that long?”

“Oh no,” Tenebrael said with a chuckle. She waved her hand like an old lady denying that anything special was going on. “Have you seen that demon lately? That’s what I would look like if I actually tried to fight them. And she had a whole army backing her up, so I would probably wind up far worse off. No, what I am doing is simply trying to block their ability to spring up those portals all over the place. That should buy me the freedom to go back to normal… mostly. One or a few might still squeeze through to this world, but I can handle a few. I just won’t have to worry about an avalanche of those little gnats burying me so deep that I would never see the light of day again. And… hopefully… I shouldn’t have to worry about any Cardinal Virtues either. They won’t be able to squeeze through like the little ones.”

So they were still going to be around looking for Tenebrael, just in lesser numbers? That sounded irritating for Alyssa in particular.

Perhaps she should just end the connection. It helped out a lot in situations involving the Astral Authority, but she only got in those situations because of the connection.

Maybe after Tenebrael finished, she could reactivate it, but for now, it was probably best to disconnect. Especially with how hard they came after her following that demon showing up.

Alyssa opened her mouth, but hesitated, not sure if she should mention it to the angel or not. Would Tenebrael be offended? Would she recommend against it?

Tenebrael stood, rising to her feet from the bed with a slight stretch. “Well, I think I have had enough of a break for today. Got to get back to work. And we need to drop you off back in the regular world. Don’t worry, the Astral Authority has been recalled back to the pit. They won’t be around when we put you back.”

“They’ve been getting better and better at detecting me using your magic. Will there come a time when just walking around without doing anything will be enough to draw them? Should I… end our connection? If only temporarily.”

After drawing in a short breath and looking over Alyssa with her glowing white eyes, Tenebrael could only shrug once again. “If you feel it is necessary. I’m not going to stop you. Having had the connection active for so long will probably help reconnect at a later date without nearly so much hassle as you’ve gone through in the past.”

“So no side effects or anything?”

“Not on my end.”

“Ah,” Alyssa said, slumping slightly. “So helpful…”

“I’m sorry. I just don’t have much experience with this kind of thing. It isn’t that common to begin with, but I don’t remember any stories of others in roughly your position having anything bad happen to them after their miracle work was done with.”

“Then I’ll end it now. Just in case the Astral Authority notice on returning to Nod. I’d rather not be swarmed immediately.”

“I don’t think they would notice, but I suppose I don’t know for certain.”

Alyssa closed her eyes anyway, concentrating for a moment. She had ended a connection between herself and Tenebrael once before, so it wasn’t a wholly new experience. It didn’t require all the effort and trouble of going to that floaty place like starting the connection took. After just a few moments of thought, Alyssa felt it.

Like she had been sitting in front of a warm campfire that got snuffed out. A faint chill set in. Nothing too uncomfortable. It was just that the radiance of Tenebrael had vanished.

A light went out.


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Vacant Throne — 034.005

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Breath of Air

Distractions


The demon swung her scythe directly toward Alyssa.

Alyssa jumped. She flung herself through the air, slamming into a shocked Fela with all her weight. They hit the ground hard. Fela had it worse with Alyssa landing on top of her, but the fluffy hellhound was strong. She wouldn’t be hurt by a little tackle.

That scythe would have hurt a whole lot more.

Rolling off Fela away from the demon, Alyssa sprang to her feet with a Spectral Chains already forming at her fingertips.

But the spell died off as she took in the situation.

The true demon wasn’t even looking in her direction. Not anymore. Her scythe was down at her opposite side, posed as if she had just finished her swing.

In front of the true demon, right behind where Alyssa had been standing before tackling Fela, the silver-filigree form of a Patience stood with its spear poised to strike. Only it wasn’t striking. It wasn’t moving at all. Its white wings slowly drooped downward, losing any tension in them.

The demon lifted her scythe once again. Not the quick flash of movement that she had made earlier. She simply nudged it toward the Patience, poking it lightly in the chest of its doll-like form.

Its body rocked backward, but its head came off its shoulders at the neck, rolling forward to the demon’s feet. As the body hit the ground with a thud at Alyssa’s side, the demon brought her heel down on its porcelain mask, shattering it into pieces.

Alyssa backed up, throwing a quick glance around to make sure there wasn’t a second member of the Astral Authority around. There wasn’t, not as far as she could tell. Just the decapitated Patience, the deceased infected, the true demon, and Fela—who was back on her feet and backing away from the Patience along with Alyssa.

“It’s that thing again, isn’t it?” Fela said. “The one that collects their souls? I can smell it.”

“Can’t see it?”

“There was a brief haze right when it attacked, but… you got in the way.”

“Sorry. But yeah. The true demon is here, standing in the larger pentagram.” As Alyssa spoke, the demon swung her scythe once again. Although she was well out of reach, Alyssa still jumped a few steps back. But the demon still wasn’t aiming at her. Rather, the chipped blade crossed right through the corpse of the infected. It slid through with far less effort than when Alyssa used her spectral scythe to remove souls. Rather than cling to the tip of the chipped scythe, the pentagram opened up underneath the body, drawing the soul directly through.

Only when the new pentagram faded from the burning embers to a regular etching in the dirt did the demon finally look directly at Alyssa. She raised her hand in a jovial wave, but unlike every other time the demon had appeared and waved, there was a certain amount of exhaustion to her movements. It was a subtle thing. If asked, Alyssa wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly what about the wave made it look tired. Maybe it was the slight sigh as the demon lifted her arm or maybe it was the angle of the wave.

The wave got cut off early as a golden portal opened up just behind the demon. A kick of the demon’s boot got the heavy scythe moving even with the demon’s other hand in the air. It tore through the golden border of the portal, rending space itself. Whatever was coming through didn’t make it before the starry field behind the golden border collapsed into a tiny point.

Alyssa had to shield her eyes from the momentary flash of light.

This time, the demon let out an actual sigh before shooting a mild glare at Alyssa.

It was enough to make her almost feel sorry for the demon. Maybe she would even consider apologizing if the demon wasn’t literally an enemy of all living humans. Instead, Alyssa shot the glare right back. “You should leave before you draw more here.” Draw more to me, more like. Just because the Astral Authority was focused on the demon at the moment didn’t mean that they wouldn’t take a swipe at her if the opportunity presented itself.

In fact, if a Kindness spotted her, they might just remember their original purpose in coming to this world. Just the lower level Patiences and grunts were annoying and dangerous, but there were still three other Cardinal Virtues. Assuming they hadn’t joined with the Justice in attacking the pit. Even if they had, Iosefael hadn’t actually said that there was only one of each type of the Virtues. There could be a dozen Justices out there for all Alyssa knew.

The thought had her shuddering. But her thoughts weren’t so distracting that she missed the casual shrug of the demon’s shoulders, followed by some one-handed gesticulating. There were no words accompanying the gesticulation.

“Oh, so we’re back to charades again,” Alyssa said, irritated. It couldn’t be coincidence that the demon had popped up just as Alyssa arrived at the body. It had to have been waiting just for her. That meant that she had something to say. But if that something involved sitting around playing twenty questions while the Astral Authority harassed them, the demon could go screw herself. “I know you can speak. So either speak or leave. Or rather, just leave. Unless you’re here to tell me that you are nearing victory over the Astral Authority and Tenebrael doesn’t have to worry anymore.” Judging by the Astral Authority popping up here, that was probably not what was happening.

Sure enough, the demon shook her head. The little scraps of hair poking out at all angles made her look rather like a sea urchin as the motion made it stand on end.

“I thought not,” Alyssa said, backing away. “Then we’ve nothing to talk about. You can go back to your fight. Fela, we should get out of here.”

“But…” The hellhound’s eyes drifted toward the circles on the ground. Leaving without destroying them went against practically everything she had learned since starting her job as a professional demon hunter in Lyria.

Two circles shouldn’t be a big issue. Not for a few minutes, at least. If they walked away until the demon disappeared, returning and quickly upheaving the land enough to destroy the pentagrams would be a simple matter. So long as the demon was around, Alyssa wasn’t willing to get closer. From the brief fight in Lyria between the demon and a Patience, Alyssa knew that she could leave that pentagram. But that was the only time that she had actually seen it happen. Every other time the demon appeared, she preferred to stay well within its boundaries with only the scythe leaving.

So Alyssa grabbed hold of Fela’s arm and started pulling.

They made it three steps before the golden light of a portal bathed the small grove.

A massive portal opened to the true demon’s side. One of the largest Alyssa had seen. A lion-like forearm, as big as a small car, slammed into the ground. A second paw quickly followed.

Unlike the previous times, the demon did not attack. She didn’t swipe at the portal to collapse it. Neither did she strike the approaching Equanimity. Instead, she winked at Alyssa—or blinked, it was always hard to tell with only one eye visible—and waved. Flames in the pentagram flared, obscuring Alyssa’s vision of the demon.

The Equanimity’s claws cut straight through the pillar of fire without resistance.

The demon was gone. Vanished back to the pit or wherever it came from.

But the Equanimity was still emerging from the portal. The majority of its body matched with its lion-like paws. A pair of wings sprouted off mid-back, while the rest of it was a giant chimera with a scorpion’s tail, but no head. Its snake-like neck ended abruptly with yet another of those porcelain masks sitting on the stump. That neck whipped around, staring at the embers still burning in the pentagram where the demon had stood only moments ago. It snapped to the corpse of the infected.

While it moved and inspected, it was silent. Utterly silent. A creature like that, if it weren’t some fake-angel, would likely be making some noise. Maybe even a roar of frustration or repeated sniffs as it tried to locate its missing prey. But it just swooped around, observing.

Alyssa tried to remain as still as possible, as silent as possible. She didn’t even cast a spell for fear that the shimmering field of fractal glass might alert it to her presence. Aside from the occasional swipes while fleeing from the Astral Authority, she had never actually seen an Equanimity in action before. She didn’t know how fast they could move or how far the reach on that long scorpion’s tail was. But she had a sinking feeling that she was well within range.

At her side, Fela was being just as wary. Since the Astral Authority could be seen by mortals, Fela had to be well aware of the threat they were standing in front of.

Please just go chase after the demon, Alyssa thought, watching its head as it moved back to inspect the pentagram where the demon vanished.

But the moment the thought crossed her mind, the Equanimity reared on its hind legs.

Alyssa, still grabbing hold of Fela’s arm, cast a quick Shorten Distance. She practically shoved Fela thirty feet away, clearing the area just as the Equanimity crashed back down. One of its paws landed on the corpse. Blood and bone splattered across the grove.

Alyssa didn’t stop to watch what happened next. She gave Fela a shove.

“Run!” Alyssa shouted.

“I’m not leaving you!”

“I’ll be fine. I can use Tenebrael’s magic, but you…”

“If you do, won’t more come?”

A risk, but…

After casting another Shorten Distance to get a lead, Alyssa took off in her own sprint. Fela kept up at her side, but the hellhound could definitely go much faster than she could. The stupid mutt was keeping pace just to stick with Alyssa.

It had definitely taken notice of their presence. Trees were falling left and right, sending sharp cracks through the forest as the trunks broke with more lighter cracks from branches breaking. Leaves cushioned their falling, making the inevitable landing far less noisy, but no less terrifying to look at.

All the while, the actual Equanimity remained silent as it chased them.

The scorpion tail lanced between trees, slamming into the earth near Alyssa. One step slower would have seen her skewered.

“Just go!” Alyssa shouted, breaking off from Fela in the hopes that it was chasing her.

Though a few steps delayed, Fela turned, angling herself to keep in line with Alyssa. Though she did accelerate until she was a few steps ahead.

“Pathetic wretches dare to abandon their allies, leaving them to fight the demons while they chase after unrelated prey? Tenebrael! Let us show this deserter what happens to those who dare to face us.” Alyssa pulled her pistol out of its holster, stopped running, turned, and fired.

A black beam of blinding light lanced between the felled trees, dodging one falling, and slammed straight into the chest of the Equanimity. Alyssa pulled the trigger three more times. Three more black beams fired out.

Alyssa didn’t stop there. The Equanimity was larger than anything she had fired at before. And it wasn’t stopping even with four gaping holes in its chest. She pulled the trigger again and again and again. Its scorpion tail was reared back for another stab. Alyssa didn’t flinch. She lifted her aim…

And got yanked to the side as Fela grabbed her around the waist.

“What are you doing?” Alyssa shouted as Fela picked her right up and started carrying her off.

“What am I doing? What are you doing? Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“I’m trying to win!”

“Win? Did you even look up?”

Up? Fela had shifted her into something resembling a fireman’s carry, so it took a bit of craning of her neck to look to the sky.

A draconic Diligence had its mask split vertically in two, gathering golden light behind that mask in preparation to fire. Two Patiences flanked it on either side.

“Teleporting!” Alyssa shouted an instant before she Shortened Distance.

Even with the warning, Fela still stumbled, almost sending them both to the ground.

But they were clear from the beam of light that slammed into the forest behind them.

That bitch, Alyssa thought to herself. The demon clearly used them to get a bit of a reprieve. Even if it wasn’t enough to draw the attention of a Justice, it was enough to get some of the lower level things off her back for a short time.

As Fela carried her away, Alyssa cast an Empty Vessel spell. However, even as the shards of glass formed up around the two of them, the Astral Authority didn’t stop chasing. It wasn’t the same way that they had followed the same direction Alyssa was heading in a vague sense like they had done for a time in Lyria and while leaving Illuna. Even after Fela changed directions, the nearest Kindness followed her with its porcelain mask.

Kasita had noted that the Astral Authority was getting better at locating uses of Tenebrael’s magic before arriving at Owlcroft. But now, it seemed that the Astral Authority had locked onto her even despite using the cloaking magic.

“Alright. That’s bad,” Alyssa muttered, giving herself a sardonic chuckle. “Put me down. Then run away. They’ll chase me. I… I’ll get away somehow.”

“Is this about Izsha?” Fela managed to shout even as she bolted over a large boulder. The ride on her back wasn’t nearly as smooth as the ride on a draken’s back.

The landing briefly knocked the air out of Alyssa’s lungs, keeping her from responding.

It did nothing to stop Fela from talking. “I’m not going to leave you just because you’re scared I might get hurt. I like you. You saved me, you’ve been a good friend. I’m not going to abandon you because Izsha got hurt.”

“That— Telep—” was as far as Alyssa got before she had to Shorten Distance again, keeping them out of range from another Diligence blast. “You stupid mutt. We… We need intervention. Our enemies cannot be outrun. Though they aren’t angels, their stamina is surely endless. Even if it isn’t, there are uncountable reserves just waiting for the signal to enter into the fray. Throne only knows why they haven’t fallen upon us like an ocean wave.” Fela was quick, but with her being weighed down with a person over her shoulders, she wasn’t anywhere near the speed of Izsha. The Astral Authority was closing in and only repeated Shorten Distances were keeping them at bay.

And Alyssa’s supply of that particular spell was going to run out sooner rather than later.

The rest of her spells weren’t going to do much good. The Astral Authority lacked souls. Using a scythe designed to remove the soul probably wouldn’t have much of an effect. A fireball might—those people in Illuna had managed to kill an Astral Authority thing using mundane magic and even mundaner weapons—but those were limited as well. She had an Annihilator. Several, in fact. But using them without knowing what was being her target was just asking to wipe out small towns. Besides that, there were Astral Authority fake-angels flying about everywhere now, including in front of them.

Alyssa, pistol still in hand, fired ahead of them. A black beam struck a Patience even without her saying anything.

Fela ran right over its falling body without the slightest hesitation.

“Intervention can take many forms,” Alyssa continued. “From felling our foes to immobilizing them long enough to escape their sight. Even a quick escape might work. Whatever form intervention takes, Tenebrael! Get us the hell out of here!”

When nothing immediately happened as Alyssa shouted, a thought crossed her mind. Have I been relying on her too much? There was a time when Alyssa had wanted to avoid relying on Tenebrael for anything at all. That had lasted right up until Tenebrael disappeared. And then… after getting the connection between them active at all times, she had been using and abusing it for every situation. She had come to expect miracles to manifest whenever she wanted. Whenever she was in trouble. To gain deliverance from any situation that troubled her.

Statistically speaking, even assuming that every word of every religious text on Earth was true, she had likely run through more miracles in the last month than any miracle-worker had in their entire lifetimes. If she continued at this pace, by six more months, she might beat out every miracle-worker put together.

Granted, most of them probably didn’t have regular conversations with angels, but the point still stood.

Even as a shimmering blue portal opened in front of Fela—and as Fela charged in less because she wanted to and more because she couldn’t stop in time—Alyssa had to wonder if she shouldn’t find alternate ways of solving her own problems.

The other side of the portal collapsed with a rush, barely not shearing off the ends of Alyssa’s hair with how quickly it closed.

“Where are we?” Fela said. Now that she wasn’t rushing through the forest, Alyssa could feel her breathing. Her chest heaved and shrank every second as she sucked in fresh air. Both her arms trembled slight and her stance wasn’t all that steady. “Your house?” she continued between breaths. “But the walls are all wrong.”

Alyssa, deciding to get off the hellhound before the poor girl collapsed in exhaustion, landed on smooth black tile. There wasn’t much to look around at. The chamber was small. Ten feet high, ten feet wide, ten feet long. The entirety of the interior was lined with that same black tile material. The same stuff that Tenebrael’s statue and temple were made from. It was a familiar location.

“Tenebrael’s isolation box. She sticks angels here for a time when she doesn’t want them doing anything because… it cuts off their connection to the Throne. Which is probably why we are here. The Astral Authority must not be able to detect us while we’re inside.”

“Won’t they notice as soon as we leave? If they’re sensing the portals and other things you do…”

“Maybe. Tenebrael might have a plan for that,” Alyssa said, walking forward. Unlike last time, when the room had been a featureless empty cube, it was now lightly furnished. And the furnishings were modern. There was a long couch, a queen-sized bed, a shelf full of books, even some drapes over a cartoonish drawing of a window on one of the walls. A small area had been partitioned off by a counter. Behind it was a stove, a microwave, and a fridge.

“For now,” Alyssa said, “I think we’re meant to stay here. Even if we weren’t, I don’t think it would be a wise idea to return before the Astral Authority has had a chance to calm down some.”

Fela stayed silent for a long moment, staring at Alyssa all the while. Eventually, she started to get a better look around the room. Her eyes stopped at the miniature kitchen. “Hey, if this is like your house, is it going to have some of that food I ate that one time?”


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Vacant Throne — 034.004

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Breath of Air

Spring Cleaning


“How you doing today, Izsha?”

The old stables were quiet today. Brakkt had taken the other draken out for some exercise and a bit of hunting. Only the tiger-striped Musca and the still-comatose Izsha were around. The former had been… unexpectedly protective, not wanting to leave Izsha for much. Not even a good hunt. It was sweet. At least, Alyssa thought so. Brakkt thought Musca was sick.

“Irulon is up and at ‘em. She’s still trying to translate her vision to proper words, but assures me that you are her very next priority. Even above herself.” If only because she thought Izsha’s issue was relatively easily solved in comparison to her own entanglement with the dragon.

Alyssa had taken up the task of keeping the stables clean and tidy. Brakkt had offered, but Alyssa felt like she needed to be doing something. With Irulon doing the magic side of things, Alyssa had to find her own way to help out. Physical labor looked good on her.

It wasn’t the most pleasant work to do, but it was work that needed to be done. Izsha’s body was still alive. At risk of using an analogy as bad as Tenebrael’s video game one, Alyssa saw the situation kind of like a car idling. There was no driver, but the engine was still running. To keep it running, it needed fuel. And, since it was burning fuel, there was obviously going to be some exhaust.

Thankfully, it wasn’t all physical labor. Magic helped out quite a bit. It wasn’t quite waving a hand and vanishing everything unwanted into thin air, but having what was effectively a power washer at her fingertips was nice. It wasn’t a real power washer. Not nearly strong enough. But that meant that washing down Izsha with it wasn’t going to cause any abrasions or injuries. Especially not with draken scales acting as armor.

Closing her eyes for a moment, Alyssa did one of her periodic checkups on Izsha’s soul. There weren’t any changes. Which was probably a good thing. It would obviously be better if Izsha was showing signs of recovery. Izsha getting resynchronized with itself on its own would have taken some burden off Irulon’s back. However, if there was change, there was the possibility that Alyssa wouldn’t recognize whether it was a positive change or a negative one. So long as the situation remained stable, she wouldn’t have to extrapolate information from her inexperienced sense.

“You’re looking good soul-wise,” Alyssa said in a hopefully not obviously-false chipper voice. She noted that there was some interaction between them, especially as she spoke. That interaction had been increasing a bit over the past few days. The very first day that Izsha had spent trapped inside its body, there had been hardly any interaction at all. Now, there was only a slightly below average level of soul-sharing.

So maybe there was a change after all. She wasn’t quite sure what that change meant, whether it was good or bad. But it was probably good given that other people shared souls. More importantly, Alyssa took it as confirmation that Izsha was hearing and understanding the world outside its body. If Alyssa ever found herself trapped like that, unable to move or even act, she would definitely want someone coming by on the regular, talking to her. Alone time was nice on occasion. Forced isolation wasn’t.

“There weren’t any fish in the market today, unfortunately. After asking around, it seems that the local river that supplies much of the city with its water needs doesn’t have year-round fishing. Only during specific migratory times. There is always a little, but it’s rare and expensive. So I’ve got a wrapping of mutton instead.”

For most of Alyssa’s time in the stables, Musca just sat off in the corner, staring or even sleeping. The moment Alyssa mentioned meat, Musca’s long neck stretched out as it perked its head up.

“Yes. I have some for you too,” Alyssa said with faux exasperation in her tone. “You skipped out on going with Brakkt just because you knew I was coming with an easy meal, didn’t you?”

Musca gave a low clicking trill from the back of its throat.

“Oh don’t worry. I’m not going to tell Brakkt how lazy you’re getting. It’s the least I can do for you spending time with Izsha anyway.”

Heading over to her bag in the corner of the room, Alyssa pulled out two fairly large hunks of meat, wrapped in some waxy brownish paper. She honestly wasn’t sure that it was enough meat for the full-sized draken. At least not for a full meal. But that didn’t stop Musca from jumping up, wagging her tail back and forth like a puppy begging for food.

Feeding Musca was easy. Just give the meat a twist, a flick of the wrist, and the dinosaur chomped it right out of the air. Content with how much it got, Musca returned to lying down, only masticating it a tiny bit before swallowing it mostly intact.

Izsha, on the other hand, was a bit more of a delicate matter. In the modern world, comatose patients received nutrients through intravenous drips or feeding tubes. As far as Alyssa could tell, no one had ever invented such things here. From the information she had gathered from Irulon, people who fell unconscious and didn’t wake… generally didn’t wake ever. Same with paralysis.

But Alyssa had a process. One that might save other people who had fallen into more usual comatose states once she spread knowledge of it a bit. There was a spell simply titled Grind. It was effectively a magical mortar and pestle. Applying the spell to a slab of meat would result in something akin to ground beef. Adding a bit of water to the mixture with a second application of the spell produced a fairly unappetizing meat slurry. The reddish-brown liquid was a bit thicker than water, but not so thick that a modified Draw Water spell—provided by Irulon after Alyssa described what she wanted to do—couldn’t affect it all. Using Draw Water, Alyssa basically just shoved it right down Izsha’s throat.

It was a bit of a tricky process. In a natural, passive state, the lower esophageal sphincter was closed. And at the upper end, the throat opened to the lungs to allow for breathing. The first time Alyssa tried this feeding technique, she was pretty sure that she had just about drowned Izsha in meat slurry water. Which, in her opinion would have been a terrible way to go. Go again, in Izsha’s case. It took a bit of practice to guide the slurry through the esophagus correctly.

The lack of involuntary coughing was a good sign.

At the end of it all, the stables were clean, the draken fed, and Izsha got a bit of interaction. It took a few hours, but it was time well spent in Alyssa’s opinion.

“I’m going to head back to the city now. I’ll be back later in the evening, so don’t worry. There’s just… a lot going on. Always lots going on,” she added with a slight sigh. “I thought Brakkt said that he would be back by now, but… Well, I doubt anything bad happened to him with him being him and the other draken with him, but I might need to check in on him as well as everyone else.” Alyssa hesitated in leaving. She didn’t like to leave Izsha alone. Musca was around, true, but since holding up inside the stables, either Alyssa or Brakkt had always been present.

“Message. Brakkt,” Alyssa said as she pulled out and burned a spell card. “You’re a bit late, so I wanted to make sure that nothing has gone wrong.” While sending the message, she cracked open the worn-down door to the stables and peeked outside. The city wasn’t on fire, though the sky was. But the sky being on fire had become a normality of life. For the time being, anyway. There weren’t any members of the Astral Authority flying through the air. Closing her eyes, she saw droves of demonic souls, but they were off in the distance, still battling at Owlcroft. She couldn’t spot any in the city itself. So if something was holding him up, it probably wasn’t anything big. “Message me back when you get a chance.”

He probably was just enjoying being out of the stables, hunting with the draken. It made Alyssa feel a bit awkward, like she was some kind of nagging mother, but one couldn’t be too careful in times like this. Every single day, she woke up expecting the fight between demons and the Astral Authority to spill over into the city. Sometimes, at night, she was certain that she could hear thunderous crashes and blasts of wind that might have come from the Justice swinging its massive sword around. It might just be her imagination. Owlcroft was several days away even on draken. Then again, real thunder could travel for miles, so it was entirely possible that her mind was not playing tricks on her.

But Brakkt wouldn’t have gone off in that direction anyway. So the city would get caught up in any trouble well before he would.

No. He was definitely just out hunting.

Nodding to herself, Alyssa turned back to Izsha and Musca. “Alright,” she said. “I can stick around for a bit longer. Maybe I can—”

~No problem on my end. I just lost track of the time. We are already heading back. Sorry for worrying you.~

“Ah.” The pressure on Alyssa’s mind receded with the end of the Message. “Brakkt is safe,” she said, smiling to herself. “He’ll be back very soon.” Deciding that she might as well wait around for him, Alyssa took a seat on the large cot he had been using as a bed for the past week and a half. It was a fairly uncomfortable thing. Being suspended on some criss-crossing beams of wood helped keep him off the ground, but whatever wool or hide it had been made from was scratchy and itchy. The large blanket he used was a fair bit more comfortable. Hopefully he wrapped that completely around his body when sleeping on it.

True to his word, Brakkt returned in only about twenty minutes. Alyssa occupied the time just telling Izsha and Musca stories. Fairly nonsensical stories. Nursery rhymes and such. Really, just things to occupy the time and give Izsha something to listen to that wasn’t awkward silence. Given that she had been doing this for nearly two weeks, she was running out of things to talk about. Pretty soon, she was going to have to start pulling up The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on her phone and just reading from that while cleaning, feeding, and keeping Izsha company.

And she wasn’t even sure that Izsha would be interested in some human literature from a world away. Maybe she could find a novelization of Godzilla stories instead.

Or maybe a Land Before Time novelization would be for the best.

For now, her rendition of This is the House that Jack Built came to a close.

Despite not having much resemblance to human expressions, Alyssa was positive that Musca looked relieved with the interruption.

Ignoring the draken, both Musca and the others who were walking in with a bit of blood still around their chops, Alyssa walked up to Brakkt. “Successful trip?”

“You could say that. Got them all happy, exercised, and fed. And…” Brakkt wasn’t wearing his armor today, though he had brought it with him. Instead, he had a well-worn tunic and baggy pants. As he trailed off, he hiked up the sleeve of his tunic, showing off his arm.

An emerald green snake was coiled around his forearm from his elbow to his wrist. Its head rested on his hand, right between his thumb and index finger. Yellow eyes with a narrow slit in the middle stared up at Alyssa for just a moment before it tried slithering its body further up Brakkt’s arm to where the sleeve was still down.

Brakkt was just smiling, moving his other hand to brush it back down to his wrist.

“A snake.”

“A malachite viper. I didn’t know they lived in this region.”

“Vipers are venomous.”

“True. Malachite vipers are theorized to come from gorgon locks. It tends to use its venom defensively, turning aggressors into glistening sculptures that it can then derive sustenance from. Wouldn’t want to be scratched by this little guy’s teeth. It might be the last thing you do… Unless…” His eyes flicked over to Izsha, smile slipping slightly.

“No change,” Alyssa said, glancing back. “Irulon estimates that she’ll get to preliminary spell creation in two days. It might still be a few weeks after that before she produces anything truly usable. I’ve just been keeping both Izsha and Musca company, for the most part. It’s about all I can do at the moment.”

“I’m sure they appreciate it.”

Musca let out an irritated clicking noise from the back of its throat, prompting a small chuckle from Brakkt.

The chuckle died off as a more serious expression crossed his face. “While out, we did find an infected meandering about the woods.”

“You were east of the city? Right?” The direct opposite direction from Owlcroft. Closer to Lyria than the pit, though only marginally. At Brakkt’s nod of affirmation, Alyssa scowled. “I don’t suppose you noticed which direction it was moving?”

“Hard to say exactly, but more or less toward the city.”

“Or toward Owlcroft?”

Brakkt just shrugged his shoulders.

“When you killed it, did the pentagrams appear?”

“That was a part of the reason I was delayed in returning. After twenty minutes, nothing happened. We eventually decided to continue with our outing, but we checked back on it again on our way back. Nothing changed.”

“That probably means the true demon is too busy fighting the Astral Authority to take a break and collect the soul…” Which meant that there could be tons of infected souls just waiting to be reaped across the world. Any that had died in the past weeks. There wasn’t much that Alyssa could do about them, but this one… “I’ll head out if you’ll give me directions. Leaving the body as is would be asking for trouble. Either the true demon will come for its soul and leave pentagrams lying about or someone might stumble across it and wind up somehow infected themselves.”

“Alone?” His eyes shot to Izsha as he clamped his jaw in a grimace. “I—”

“It’s fine. Stay here with Izsha. Fela has been wanting to get out of the city anyway. I think she liked Lyria a whole lot more if only because people were less likely to approach her on the streets.”

“You’ll be alright with just the two of you?”

“Yeah. Neither of us are strangers to demonic infection or activity. And it is already dead. If things turn sour, we’ll run and hide.”

“It was only about twenty minutes out. By draken,” he added, looking around at the few he had taken with him. Dasca and Ensou were flopped over in some of the larger piles of hay and straw. Draken didn’t sweat. They just didn’t have the glands for it. Even still, they looked fairly worn out. Given how Izsha ran for practically a whole day when they fled Illuna, they could probably keep going for quite some time, but Brakkt’s eyes moved past them and on to Musca.

“I’ll walk,” Alyssa quickly said, noticing the direction of his gaze. Maybe she spoke just a little too quickly, but Musca still scared her a little. “I haven’t been doing enough walking since returning anyway.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright… We followed the eastern road until it split. From there…” Brakkt continued, describing in a fairly precise manner exactly where they had left the body. He suggested that Dasca accompany her to help find it, but Alyssa wasn’t too worried. Fela’s nose would be able to sniff the body out as long as they got close enough. In fact, if it had somehow moved or if the true demon took the soul thus keeping Alyssa from detecting it, Fela might be the only one who could accurately find it.

As soon as Brakkt finished, Alyssa sent a Message to the hellhound.

It was only a few short minutes before Fela bounded into the stables, tail wagging and rearing to go.

Twenty minutes by draken stretched out to a good hour by foot. But it wasn’t a bad hour. Fela complained about human children for a good ten minutes. Then she switched topics to human food and how much she enjoyed both the meat and, surprisingly, the milk of cows. Somehow, that led back to human children and how irritatingly innocent they were when they should really be scared of things with sharp teeth and claws.

They made it to the split in the road in fairly good time. It was just a quick twenty minutes more to get to the spot Brakkt had indicated.

Closing her eyes and looking around, Alyssa quickly spotted the corrupt soul. It wasn’t long before Fela smelled it out as well. Her ramblings groaned to a halt as the flames coming from her eyes intensified.

The corpse was lying in the middle of a small grove. It had only been an hour, but the grass around its body was… discolored. Much like how the land was closer to Owlcroft. There wasn’t that overwhelming sensation of despair or fear, but the sky was still on fire. At Owlcroft, the sky becoming as it was removed all despair from the pit. A similar thing might be blotting such feelings out here.

Keeping a careful eye on her surroundings, Alyssa slowly approached with a scythe in hand.

Three steps away, a flash of burning fire lit up the earth near the body. A pentagram etched into the ground.

When the flash died down, the true demon stood in its place.

It was the same demon. Alyssa was mostly confident of that. But things had changed. The tight black leather outfit was torn and damaged. The scythe’s tip was missing entirely while the blade had clear dents and dings in it. Black hair poked out from holes in the demon’s hat, giving her a frazzled look. But her eye was just as bright and burning as it had been the last time Alyssa saw the demon.

For a moment, they simply stared at each other. Fela, a few steps back, let out a growl as she got lower to the ground, ready to fight or flee as necessary.

The demon swung her scythe directly toward Alyssa.


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