“Don’t you want to save life, Alyssa?” The true demon maintained eye contact for a moment before another Patience swooped down. The Taker readied himself, but a flash of the scythe took its head off before he could react. “Just something to think about, I suppose. It seems I have a mess to clean up.” Reaching up, the true demon redid the buckles of her mask. As soon as it was in place, she jumped. Another flash of her scythe took off the wings of a Diligence, but the blade sparked against the shield-like chitin of a Chastity.
Movement from the Taker had Alyssa on guard. A scythe was in her hands instantly. If it weren’t for Kasita and Izsha being in the distance behind his back, he would have eaten an Annihilator already.
“Quite a surprising end to our last encounter,” he said in an entirely cordial tone of voice.
“Did you enjoy your trip to the moon?”
“Can’t say I got to experience much of it before dying.”
“We could always try again.”
His burning eyes flicked down to the group of cards before returning to Alyssa’s face. “Perhaps next time. It would inconvenience my lady if I were to die here and I imagine that she isn’t through with you yet. Killing you would probably upset her, as much as I would like to.”
Alyssa grit her teeth, staring at him without letting herself relax. He still spoke in that haughty tone that was diminished by his nasally voice. She could still hear him berate her for walking into the Waters Street prison cell in the hidden elvish passage before flinging his daggers in her direction. And his sword…
Unconsciously, Alyssa moved a hand over her stomach. He didn’t carry the same sword he had disemboweled her with in an alternate reality. That sword was probably vaporized or perhaps even embedded in the moon. His new sword was a single-edged black blade with red tattoos all up the flat.
A tittering sort of laugher made Alyssa tense.
His eyes were on her hand.
“Besides,” he said, tilting his head back up. “I never really enjoyed the torture, believe it or not. It was the hunt and the fights I liked. Something that became increasingly less common as my notoriety grew. I never felt more alive than when I was cleaning up the area around Owlcroft when the pit first formed. Wouldn’t have imagined that I would end up on the other side, but I can be thankful that I have a new enemy to fight. One that no mortal has ever fought. I’m… excited.”
Ugh. “If you’re going to go, then go.” Alyssa really didn’t want to get in a fight while on a precipice of molten earth, especially not with a demonic Taker. He had almost killed her last time and that was with him insane and her with several allies. Trying her luck fighting him with the feral infected still around and the Astral Authority was just stupid.
“Until we meet again,” he said, offering a mocking salute as he jumped into the fray following the true demon.
Who he had called ‘my lady’ a moment ago. Was the true demon Her? The so-called monster lord? A fallen angel who thought it would be better to rule in Hell than serve the Throne?
Alyssa shuddered, glad that there seemed to be some restrictions on that thing. There had to be restrictions. If there weren’t, Alyssa was sure that she would be dead or worse.
And there definitely was a worse. Her or whatever she was could spout about saving life all she wanted. Her infected killed plenty of people if they weren’t contained. And the infected themselves, even if the Taker was acting normal, Alyssa could still question whether or not he actually had free will. The feral infected definitely were not anything like their former selves.
With the Taker and the true demon out of the way, and her mission apparently accomplished, Alyssa started running. The leader of the demons either didn’t have very good control over her minions or she didn’t care that a good ten infected were still chasing around Kasita and Izsha instead of helping her against the Astral Authority.
The Astral Authority was out in force as well. When Alyssa had accidentally put up the massive mystic circle above Lyria, she had seen at most twenty at once. Several more had died, crashing down to Earth, but their numbers never exceeded two dozen.
Here and now, the sky was bright gold with the light from their aureole. At first, it had just been one or two. When the Taker had shown up, it had been a dozen. When the true demon had left, it had been several dozen. Now, she couldn’t even count how many. They, thankfully, seemed to be leaving her alone at the moment. The demons and the burning sky had their attention for now.
Though the burning sky didn’t actually seem to be doing anything. Equanimities were using their massive forms to try to extinguish it, but it wasn’t doing much back to them. There was a large black emblem in the middle of the bright white flames. An emblem remarkably similar to the tattoos Tenebrael had on her face. It was likely the ensign that Alyssa had mentioned in her request to Tenebrael. She honestly hadn’t known what she was blabbing about at the time. She was just glad that it had finally worked.
And she honestly didn’t care that it wasn’t attacking them. It just meant that the demons would have more to handle.
With this, Illuna should be relatively safe for the time being too. She wasn’t sure where their guards or watchers should have been to keep an eye on the situation. Alyssa hadn’t crossed any gates or forts. But the demons that were wandering away from Owlcroft would hopefully be drawn right back into it.
Though she wasn’t sure that their numbers would decrease. Not so long as the true demon was around to apparently give them new bodies and life. And if that demon truly was who Alyssa thought she was, she probably wouldn’t get taken out anytime soon.
The moment that thought crossed her mind, light flooded across the skeletons of Owlcroft. For a moment, she thought that Tenebrael or Iosefael had descended onto the battlefield with their halo equipped. But the hue of the light was off. And the feeling as well. Halo light from Tenebrael had always been a comforting warmth deep within Alyssa’s chest even when it was a blinding omni-directional laser beam to regular sight. This was a dark almost orange-yellow that did not add to any comfort provided by the burning sky.
Shielding her eyes with her arm, Alyssa watched a truly massive portal open high in the sky. Equanimity portals were already roughly the size of small houses. This thing looked like an apartment complex appearing in the middle of the air, even at what had to be a large distance.
A… being emerged. Slowly. It moved as if it were wading through water. Or even molasses. A white-gloved hand reached out, grasping the edge of the portal as if it were a simple doorway. Soon enough a body followed the hand from the starry expanse beyond the portal. At first, it looked humanoid. Two arms. Two legs. A torso with a head set on top. It even had long white hair billowing in the wind, though its face was entirely androgynous. A blindfold hid its eyes, further obscuring its features. An aureole much like that of the rest of the Astral Authority stretched in a high arc from shoulder to shoulder behind its head.
The more Alyssa stared, the less she could make sense of the being. It held a sword in one hand and carried a set of scales in the other, but the hand that had grasped the edge of the portal had clearly been empty. It didn’t have three arms or anything of the like, but it seemed to shift in and out of being. One moment, Alyssa would be following the line of its arm with her eyes, only to discover a leg coming off the end. But it still held onto the sword in a regular hand.
Six feathered wings followed it out of the portal. Once completely clear, the shimmering edges collapsed into nothingness, leaving it on Nod, alone.
At seeing those six wings, Alyssa feared the worst. That she had somehow called down a Seraphim. One was supposed to lead the Astral Authority, after all. But the aureole in place of a proper halo and how stiff and fake its androgynous face was gave its true nature away. From Iosefael’s descriptions of the Astral Authority, this had to be a Cardinal Virtue of Justice. One of the four high ranked leaders of the Astral Authority, second only to the Seraphim.
Iosefael had neglected to mention its size.
Infected launched themselves at it, led by the true demon. More than just the Taker were fighting with weapons and intelligence. Alyssa didn’t know what separated them from the ferals, but, as far as she could tell, almost none of the ferals were attacking in formation with the others. They were left to fight the Patiences and other minor members of the Astral Authority with their bare hands.
Bodies were falling all across the edges of the pit. Both of the fake-angel variety and of the infected. The true demon was teleporting around like a madwoman. One moment, she would be splitting a Diligence in two. The next, she would be scything the soul of one of her fallen comrades through the pentagram. As soon as her scythe touched the body, she would vanish again, appearing high up to try to slice through the Justice’s blindfold.
Alyssa snapped her head toward Kasita’s shout, pulling her attention off the battle, only to find herself face to face with a Kindness.
The bubbling, boiling eyes stared at her. Its porcelain mask wasn’t even facing directly toward her, but she could tell that its full attention was on her and nowhere else.
The scythe, still in Alyssa’s hands from her brief encounter with the true demon and the Taker, spun in her hands, slicing straight through the center of the Kindness.
Nothing happened. It stayed right where it was. No soul came out of the creature. Her scythe came out as clean as it had gone in. There wasn’t even resistance in attacking the Kindness as there was with infected. It took Alyssa a moment to realize why.
The Astral Authority didn’t show up to her sense of souls. They didn’t have souls. Spectral Axe killed by separating the soul from the body. Of course it would do nothing to a literally soulless being.
“Tenebrael,” Alyssa said, dismissing the scythe and drawing her pistol. “Bring down the hammer of wrath on the—”
Alyssa stumbled in a sudden blast of wind.
The Justice raised its sword. The mere motion of the sword lifting into the air was enough to send out a strong enough breeze to nearly knock her over. If that sword came back down…
Thoughts of the Kindness fled from her mind as her stomach plummeted. Her mind scrambled through the spells she had on hand. Anything that might protect herself and her friends from what very well might end up more destructive than a dozen Annihilators.
And she was drawing up a blank. Projectile Reflection might help against some debris and detritus. But she doubted it would prevent her from being buried underneath an avalanche of earth. Let alone the possible damage from the sword hitting them directly.
There wasn’t time to ask Tenebrael to stop time. Spell cards were instant. Sitting about making a request was not.
Sucking in a breath, Alyssa activated the one Time spell she had.
Everything slowed down. It didn’t come to the complete standstill that happened when Tenebrael’s magic stopped time, but things still slowed down drastically. Even the true demon’s instant flashes of her scythe were more like long sweeping arcs that took actual time. The Justice, who already looked like it was moving through molasses because of its size, did look almost completely stopped with its sword high in the air overhead.
Alyssa didn’t actually feel any different herself. Waving a hand in front of her face felt a little funny. Like she was trying to push through water. The air was a bit harder to breathe as well. Neither thing happened during Tenebrael’s time stop. It was a little concerning. Alyssa didn’t feel like she wasn’t getting enough oxygen, but if she passed out here, she might as well shoot herself and get it over with.
Deciding to not waste more of what was possibly very limited time, Alyssa stepped around the Kindness. Its eyes tried to track her movements, but were lagging behind enough that one single step to the side was enough to move her out of its direct line of sight. If not for its dozens of eyes around its entire body, a second step would likely have moved her well outside its peripheral.
Alyssa’s slow steps picked up into a sluggish run as she crossed the distance to her friends. As she ran, she spoke.
“Tenebrael, your emblem burns in the sky, burning brightly. With it there, enemies have arrived. We need deliver—”
Another gust of wind took the words right out of Alyssa’s mouth. Literally. With the way the air felt like thick soup, it felt like a whole half of her body had been struck at once. Like she had fallen on her side without making any effort to right herself.
Panic welled up as she feared that the effects of Accelero had ended. But… that wasn’t true at all. Izsha and Kasita were almost completely unmoving. The feral that was grasping for Izsha’s tail wasn’t even touching the ground, yet it was falling so slowly that Alyssa could take a relaxing nap, wake up, brush her teeth, and even have a shower and breakfast before it hit the ground. That was definitely because of Accelero.
The Astral Authority were frozen too. The Kindness that Alyssa had just passed was still trying to turn to keep her in its primary focus. But it was moving only a little faster than the falling infected.
Alyssa turned to look at the Cardinal Virtue of Justice. Its sword was still high in the air, but it had turned almost a full quarter of the way around. It had turned just enough to stare directly in Alyssa’s direction, even tilting its head downward.
That motion must have been what caused the wind this time. And it moved in response to her trying to formulate another request to Tenebrael. Alyssa had thought that they would leave her alone for the moment. At least while all the demons and the pit were around. But no. It was clearly focused on her. And, with how it had moved despite the effects of Accelero, it could probably drop that sword at any moment.
But it didn’t.
It waited. Watched. Observed. Perhaps it wondered if Tenebrael would appear if Alyssa finished a request.
Alyssa clamped her mouth shut.
Better to find a way to escape under her own power than to draw attention by relying on Tenebrael. She needed the Astral Authority to stay here and carry out their duty with the demons.
Alyssa’s eyes widened as she stared up at the Justice. And what was in front of the Justice.
The true demon was spinning end over end, flying directly toward her. And she wasn’t moving in slow motion. The only reason she had time to think at all was because of how far away the height of that monster was. The true demon had been knocked down from far overhead.
Maybe the motion had actually been to smack her out of the sky.
So Alyssa thought as she took three steps forward before diving to the ground.
Earth exploded high into the air. Some particles flew higher than buildings. But, as the explosion reached its peak, the dirt slowed. It just hung at the top of its arch. Accelero and its time manipulating powers made the earth stop moving. Or, it stopped moving from Alyssa’s perspective.
Groaning, Alyssa got back to her feet. With a glare, she looked to the person-sized crater, not sure if she was hoping for the true demon’s death or for the demon to survive so that she could go distract the Astral Authority some more.
In the funnel of dirt, the true demon stood upright, oversized scythe resting on her shoulder. Tilting her head from one side to the other let out a series of snaps and crackles. Slowly, her head turned toward Alyssa. What had once been dull embers burning in her sole visible eye was now a blazing beam of red light.
“It’s hard enough to predict that thing’s movements as is,” she said. “Try to avoid doing anything that forces it to move unexpectedly, hmm?” Her voice was strange. Whereas before, she merely spoke with an odd accent, she now spoke at a completely different pitch. And her words were clipped together, almost slurred.
Accelero. It had to be. She was speaking so fast that, even to the altered flow of time that Alyssa was experiencing, it sounded almost normal.
She couldn’t help but shudder. Someone… Some thing that could do that at will just to say a few meaningless words had to be a fearsome opponent. It called her earlier fight against the Patience in Lyria into question. Had she just been messing around? Maybe even toying with that Patience in order to get Alyssa to attack it?
Alyssa couldn’t understand the thoughts of these demons in the slightest.
But she did not want to end up in combat with one. Not a true one, anyway.
Brushing a bit of dirt off her shoulder, the demon crouched and jumped straight out from the funnel of earth.
The Justice started lowering its sword.
A mile-long blade of metal was coming down right where the demon had just been.
Right where Alyssa was now.
The slight hope that the demon would intercept it vanished as she flew straight past the metal to strike at the Justice’s blindfolded face. She struck with enough force to rock the Justice backward, but that sword was still coming down.
Alyssa grit her teeth. Raising an arm, she did the only thing she could think to do.
Every single Annihilator spell burned through the sky as one brilliant beam, either unaffected by Accelero or moving so fast that it didn’t matter. It was bright to the point where she couldn’t see anything. Even closing her eyes made it seem like she was staring into the LED highbeams of one of those oversized trucks in the middle of the night.
Despite the blistering heat from the spell, it was a small comfort. At least, if the blade was still moving through all that, she wouldn’t be able to see it coming. It would just kill her instantly without anything to worry over.
The ground twisted and shuddered under Alyssa’s feet in a magnitude of earthquake that she had never felt before. She hit the ground about as hard as the demon had, though her crater wasn’t as big. Scorching air rushed over her a moment later, burning her exposed skin. Bits of earth as large as baseballs flew off instead of striking her thanks to Projectile Reflection.
When the spots in her eyes cleared, she found the Justice still there, still high in the air, but it had rocked over to a forty-five degree angle. The sword was over its head, buried into the earth on the far side of the pit, almost exactly opposite from where Alyssa had been. It was slowly trying to right itself, but the demon was standing on its face, slamming her heel into it over and over again. With each kick, it lost a tiny bit of progress.
It wasn’t going to be able to use its sword again. Not for a few minutes at least.
Now was the time to get out.
Alyssa got to her feet, shaking and trembling. She sucked in the air, trying to inhale enough oxygen to survive. It wasn’t easy. The air was hot. Hotter than any sauna she had ever been in. And drier as well. She just had to make it to Izsha and Kasita, and then…
Looking in the direction she had been headed, Alyssa’s breath hitched.
Izsha and Kasita were nowhere to be found.