Vacant Throne

by

TowerCurator

005.003 Lyria, The Grand City - The Observatorium

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Lyria was not as filthy as Alyssa had imagined a medieval city to be. Maybe that was a bit rude or insensitive to the people who lived here, but just the fact that they lacked indoor plumbing had to mean they didn’t have decent sanitation. But Lyria had a river that ran right next to it. A river that apparently collected a great deal of waste. She could only hope that they took their drinking water from upstream. Far far upstream. According to Bacco, there were cisterns around that collected rainwater like gigantic man-made wells, but who knew how clean those were.

Once again, Alyssa felt the need to reorder her priorities. It would be awfully difficult to research counter-angel magic if she died of dysentery. Could magic purify water? Or create it from nothing? Either one would be a most welcome change and save her hundreds of matches boiling every scrap of water she came across. Hopefully she would find out soon enough.

“This is the magic academy?”

“The Royal Observatorium of Demonic, Divine, and Miraculous Phenomena. Though nobody calls it that.”

“Yes, it is quite the mouthful.”

The building was smaller than she had expected. Larger than the surrounding buildings, but didn’t even come up to half the height of the tall towers or the central pyramidal building—which was apparently the royal palace where the pharaoh lived. Interesting that their ruler was a pharaoh. Given the more European-medieval bent of everything else she had seen, she would have suspected a king or queen instead. Then again, a majority of the names she had come across weren’t exactly European either. Aziz, Yzhemal, Lazhar.

Were regional differences on Earth even relevant on this world? Probably not. Still, Alyssa thought of things in terms that were familiar to her.

And most of the buildings in Lyria looked like they had been copied right out of an Egyptian history book—now that she was actually looking, things like that were obvious. She hadn’t paid much attention to it before hearing about this pharaoh. Lots of flat roofs, all the exterior walls were made from stone of some sort. Sandstone or maybe adobe bricks. On the other hand, the magical academy had more of a Roman design to it. Lots of white marble pillars, a tall domed roof, and three blocky wings pulling away from the central domed area.

Three was a reoccurring pattern that Alyssa had noticed within Lyria. Three towers on the borders of the city. Three branches on the royal palace. Three wings on the academy. Even three items that the academy primarily observed, judging by its name. One of which had her somewhat concerned.

Miracles were almost synonymous with magic, from what she had read of Aziz’s book. There were a few nuances that made them different, mostly regarding who or what was doing the spell casting. Divine obviously referred to angels. Or Tenebrael, if other angels were unknown to these people. But demonic? If angels were evil soul-eating absurdly powerful creatures obsessed with maintaining some nonsensical order in the world, she did not want to find out what real demons were like.

“Can just anyone walk in?” There were people on the street passing back and forth on their way to whatever occupied their lives. None looked up to the building despite its out-of-place architecture. The majority of the people must be locals, entirely used to the magical academy. In the ten minutes she had spent observing the Observatorium, not a single person had entered. No one had left either, for whatever that was worth.

Next to her, Bacco shrugged. “This is the closest I’ve ever been.”

“Well, let us find out, shall we?” With one final adjustment of her backpack, Alyssa headed across the street.

Only to freeze.

Alyssa’s head whipped around, scanning the crowd. There weren’t any crosswalks, but then again, there wasn’t any traffic either. Every now and again, a horse drawn carriage—carrying either boxes or people—would pass through the streets, but they were both infrequent and slow. No forty-five mile an hour car that she had to worry about blowing through a red light.

But the horses and people didn’t make her stop. Just in the very corner of her eye, she had thought she saw something catch the light of day. Something white-gold. The same color of Iosefael’s wings.

No matter how hard she looked, she couldn’t see any angels, either among the crowd or flying overhead. There were monsters. Elves it seemed. Tall, pointed ears, fairly lithe. Most had a bluish hue to their skin. Not a one walked by without chains. Sometimes around their wrists. Sometimes around their necks.

Slaves, apparently. She had asked Bacco upon first seeing one. They were stronger than they looked and masterful craftsmen. Highly desired by the nobility, according to Bacco. He had apparently encountered one up close in a whorehouse, the thought of which had Alyssa scowling. She didn’t mind so much the idea of a red light district, but an elf would almost certainly be there entirely unwillingly.

Pushing the thought out of her head, Alyssa continued on. There was no sign of Iosefael and Bacco’s constant fidgeting was getting irritating.

Just as she reached the bottom of the steps to the main entrance, someone else started climbing toward the Observatorium. A younger girl, maybe eighteen at the oldest, with dark hair and wearing an excess of gold. Gold earrings, gold bracelets, a single gold armband on her left arm that looked like a snake wrapped around her bicep.

Maybe this woman was who she had mistaken for Iosefael.

Behind Alyssa, Bacco drew in a short, clipped breath. “Someone you know?” she asked quietly.

“Irulon. The Pharaoh’s only daughter.”

“Really?” Alyssa focused on the girl, memorizing her features. It might not be important. She might never see her again, but it could be useful to know her face. The princess—was that the proper term for a pharaoh’s daughter?—had darker skin roughly on par with Alyssa’s with sharp and pointed features to her face. Her eyes were either tattooed or had makeup drawn on in a mirror image of the designs around Tenebrael’s eyes. The colorful dress she wore was definitely befitting of her royal status. The yellows, greens, and violets were absolutely unmarred by dirt and filth that clung to pretty much everything that existed in this world.

Looking around, Alyssa found herself confused. “Shouldn’t she be accompanied by guards of some sort?” True, this wasn’t exactly the shady section of the city. It was relatively close to the palace, past it and on the eastern section of the city, a long way from the inn Cid and Bacco had taken her to which was more in the north-west area. But with how the guard at the entrance to the city had accosted her, she would have thought that someone as presumably important as the princess would have a whole swarm of people protecting her.

Unless she didn’t need protection. Alyssa couldn’t help but notice a thick tome attached to the princess’ hip by shiny brass chains. It was probably filled with spells. A simple research notebook like Aziz’s wouldn’t need to be chained to her hip.

“I don’t know for certain, but rumor has it that she is something of an outcast among her family. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her this close. The only other times I have seen her are when someone in the royal family is making a proclamation to the people. She generally stands in the background looking bored.”

“So, a black sheep then.” Interesting. Ultimately irrelevant at the moment. She started up the steps herself, only to pause again as Bacco put a hand on her shoulder.

“What are you doing?”

Alyssa took a deep breath, closing her eyes to gather herself. Act. That was all she had to do. Act. Opening her eyes, she shot a dark glare at Bacco. “I came here for magical knowledge. The princess, or whatever she is, and her academics don’t matter to me.”

“But—”

“Is she going to have us arrested for entering the same building as her?”

“Maybe not you, but I’m not exactly an upstanding citizen, if you haven’t noticed.”

Alyssa looked him up and down. He still wore the same somewhat ragged clothing that he had on the night before. No shirt, just an undone vest. His hair was a ragged nest of black dreadlocks—not the modern, styled sort but free formed mats made from neglect. Comparing him to the people walking around, he definitely stood out. Not in a good way either. Even if a fraction of the other people had similar hair care techniques, they at least wore proper clothing. Being in the wealthier section of the city, there were few tears and snags in their far more expensive-looking outfits.

For Alyssa herself, she was wearing modern clothing. Not any of the fancy dresses that she had brought under the assumption that they could be sold, but at least it looked decent. Though she was in pants. The princess was in a dress, as were several of the women passing about. Would that be a problem?

If it wasn’t for her pack, she could probably walk in without worry. As it was now, she looked like some sort of servant, carrying the heavy load. She considered handing it off to Bacco and having him wait here. With how scared he was of her, he probably wouldn’t try anything. But if he did, she would be out so much. It wasn’t a chance she could take unless she wanted to end up destitute on the streets. Even returning to her home wouldn’t be easy without any supplies.

Maybe if he followed her up, she could claim that he was her servant? But that still had the same problem of him potentially running off. And it required him to play along.

Alyssa shook her head. “Just wait here.” She started up the steps again before pausing and reconsidering. “Or don’t. If you don’t like being here, I’m sure I can find my way back to that inn again. We can meet up there later on. Either way, I’m going to check this place out now.”

He fidgeted a bit but didn’t make a move to follow as Alyssa climbed the stairs. There weren’t a lot of them. Just enough to raise the entire building a few feet off the ground. However, each step, while they didn’t go upwards much, was wide. A few footsteps to cross a single one of the stair steps. It had the side effect of recessing the main entrance to directly below the dome, well away from the street. The ends of two of the wings stretched all the way out to the street front.

The stairs led up to a wide open doorway. There were doors, tall ones at least thrice the needed size for Bacco, but they had been propped open. Welcoming. A good sign, hopefully. An even better sign was the utter lack of guards. There wasn’t even a receptionist. The central room had several other doors leading off to the three wings and another pair of doors that looked to go to courtyards in the rear areas between the wings. A pair of spiral staircases went up into a floor above the high ceiling of the central room. The feet of the princess disappeared up one of the staircases just as Alyssa glanced up to see.

That wasn’t to say that the circular area was an empty space. Glass display cases held all manner of items. From mundane wooden poles that might have been walking sticks—or magic staffs?—to something that Alyssa could only identify as the severed head of Medusa.

Wondering if it was real, Alyssa couldn’t help but wander closer. The thing’s jaw was slack and open, displaying a full set of sharp teeth behind the scaly skin of its face. Its eyes were closed, thankfully. True to modern Earth depictions of Medusa, it lacked hair, with thick tentacles sticking out in all directions instead, each mounted to a point in its display case, suspending the head in the air. She couldn’t actually tell if the tentacles had been snakes as the ends had all been cut off, but it seemed likely.

Tearing herself away from the somewhat morbid display, Alyssa found herself scowling. Would it kill these people to label some of the doors? There were no signs for directions. No arrows saying that lecture rooms twelve through thirty seven occupied one wing. No marker for the library or archives. Hopefully they had a library. That was probably something that she should have found out about a long time ago.

With five choices, three wings and the two staircases, she could really only pick randomly. To start with, Alyssa headed up the same staircase that the princess had gone up. Libraries would be in the central location, right? That was how it worked at her university. If it wasn’t, then there was at least one person up there who might be willing to answer a few questions.

Alyssa slowed as she neared the second floor, stopping completely once she could peek over the top of the floor.

It looked like she had chosen correctly. Once again, the area was one big room. This time, the circular walls were covered in shelves. Shelves full of books. And scrolls! Like actual rolled up sheets of paper. There were even a few stone tablets here and there. Tall windows surrounding the entire room let enough light in to allow for easy reading. Instead of display cases, the main floor was filled with benches, chairs, tables, and desks.

And people were seated at most of them. Some people were up by the shelves, browsing the texts. Pretty much everyone was dressed well enough that even if Alyssa ditched the backpack, she would still stand out like a sore thumb. None were quite so opulent as the princess, but there was a great deal of gold, opals, rubies, sapphires, and so on adorning all the women. In comparison, the men were fairly plain looking. Well dressed, but not looking like they had just robbed a jewelry store.

Alyssa ducked back below, moving down a few steps and hoping that nobody had seen her. Just waltzing in looking like a vagrant was sure to get her… well, glared at if not thrown out. As far as she could tell, there still weren’t any guards. Then again, if any of these people were Rank Two arcanists, they might not need guards. She really needed someone she could trust to hold onto her backpack. Short of Lazhar or Yzhemal randomly showing up, she didn’t have anyone.

Right on the steps, Alyssa dug through her backpack. All the way at the very bottom was a small wooden box. Her mother’s jewelry box. Alyssa didn’t have much in the way of jewelry herself. It had never suited her. She didn’t even have her ears pierced. Tattoos, yes. She had a tribal pattern tattoo on her right shoulder and arm, covered at the moment by her long sleeves. But the most jewelry she owned was a ring or two and maybe a bracelet. Nothing gaudy and golden either.

Her mother, on the other hand, had a whole box filled with things that Alyssa wasn’t sure she had ever seen her wear. Maybe she just enjoyed collecting it. Whatever the case, the collection would come in handy here and now. Alyssa started slipping on bracelets, rings, and a fairly heavy golden necklace with a few jade stones hanging from its chain. It probably wasn’t real gold, but she wasn’t planning on letting an appraiser get too close to it anytime soon. She sprayed on just a hint of perfume. Just in case she smelled like sweat or worse. Alyssa didn’t think she did too much, but it was hard to tell. For just a moment, she considered tossing on the purple cloak but decided against it in the end. It was more of a traveler’s cloak than anything one would wear to school. Not only that, but she was still unsure of the exact connotations behind it being a noble’s cloak.

She wasn’t trying to look like a noble. Just rich. The princess would probably know every noble in the city by sight.

The backpack was still a problem, but aside from leaving it lying in the middle of the floor, she really didn’t have much choice. If questioned on it, she would have to come up with some excuse. Slipping it back on, Alyssa took a deep breath. The number one key to getting away with things was to act like said things were completely natural. Like she was supposed to be here. She put on a calm smile and, ignoring the butterflies in her stomach, walked back up the steps without hesitation.

Alyssa tried to avoid looking at anyone in particular. She didn’t want anyone who chanced a glance in her direction to think she was staring. Instead, she headed straight toward an empty section of the shelves. Empty of people, that was. There were plenty of books. The books were labeled on their spines in English, thankfully. Their titles weren’t all that promising.

Aetherial Calculations in Relation to Divinity. Constructing Arrays: Concepts and Connections. Practical Methods of Physical Manipulation.

It was like browsing the textbooks at university. Couldn’t they just have a book on transportation magic? Or maybe Magic Spells to Kill Divine Beings. Even just Water Magic Basics. Maybe she was in the wrong section. Practical Methods of Physical Manipulation looked the best out of the dozen or so titles she had read. She pulled it off the shelf and turned around to find a place to sit.

Her breath caught in her throat. She almost lost her composure. A good quarter of the room had their eyes on her. Most people were bent over their own books, but not everyone. The ones who had been getting books, the ones who weren’t so focused on their studies, the ones who were softly speaking with one another, they had all noticed her. With another deep breath, getting herself under control, Alyssa ignored them. Unfortunately, there weren’t many empty seats that were also isolated from the students. She really didn’t want to sit near anyone and invite conversation. The only really available seats were near the princess. Irulon had a whole bubble around herself that nobody dared to pass, giving her a good five feet of empty space.

Should I try sitting nearby? Irulon looked busy. The table she sat at had a three books set out that she was looking between as she wrote something down on a fourth tome in the middle of all of them. The princess might not even notice Alyssa’s presence if she sat on the edge of the bubble.

Plan in mind, Alyssa carefully approached, moving briskly but trying to act unhurried. The moment she crossed the threshold of the bubble, she realized she had made a mistake. Everyone gasped. Not obvious gaping gasps, but when thirty or so people all drew in even a small breath at once, it made some noise.

Irulon blinked twice, looked up, glanced around, and quickly spotted Alyssa.

“Sorry for disturbing you,” Alyssa said as politely as she could, hoping her smile wasn’t too strained. “Is this seat taken?”

The princess looked around again, slowly this time. As she did so, everyone her gaze crossed immediately tried to look like they were doing something else. Reading, browsing books, or simply staring at the ceiling—which, now that Alyssa noticed, was fairly ornate with some Sistine Chapel-like mural covering most of it, though this mural depicted a certain terrible angel instead of anything she was familiar with. When Irulon finally looked back to Alyssa, she smiled. “Not at all. Feel free.”

There was something about that smile, about the way she spoke. It should have been a kindly gesture, but it sent a chill down Alyssa’s spine. She couldn’t put a finger on why, exactly. The smile didn’t look fake and her words were said in a jovial tone. Maybe it was too jovial. Too much genuineness to her smile. Her eyes lacked the curiosity that the other students had even as she stared at Alyssa.

“Thanks,” Alyssa said, trying to ignore it. She shrugged off her backpack, tucked it under the marble bench she had chosen to sit on, and started flipping through the book she had taken. All the while, she tried her best to not look up and stare at the princess.

The very first thing she noticed was the lettering in the book. English, thankfully. More interestingly, it was all hand-written. Each letter differed from their neighbors ever so slightly despite the scribe having taken great care to make everything as uniform as possible. In her head, Alyssa knew that books had been written by hand long before the printing press came into being. It was still somewhat of a novelty to see firsthand.

Once she got over the lettering, she started looking at the actual contents.

The book might actually be more useful than she had initially thought. First of all, it had spell diagrams that Aziz’s book lacked. Most were Rank One, but there were Rank Two and even a few Rank Three spells as well. Secondly, apparently physical manipulation meant anything that physically existed. That didn’t just mean boxes, wood, or dirt, though moving around such things was possible in a variety of ways. There was one spell simply titled Draw Water. According to the text, it could draw a stream of water from a larger source. And only water. Did that mean that it would leave behind fish? Dirt? What about bacteria and contaminants? It could very well be the spell she had been looking for—and on her first book no less—but without a microscope, she wasn’t sure how to actually test it out.

Aside from things that could be done with machinery, there was one Rank Three spell that actually shortened the distance between two points for someone to travel along. Just thinking about how that was supposed to work actually hurt Alyssa’s head. Yet there were several pages dedicated to explaining the subject.

Flipping through each of the spell diagrams, Alyssa couldn’t find any that manipulated time as Tenebrael had earlier in the day, but perhaps that was a higher ranked spell. Maybe time didn’t physically exist, so it wouldn’t be in this book. Still, manipulating distance could be invaluable. If she could make a shortcut all the way back to her house… well, she would have a relatively safe place to store things such as her pack. Though that might be a little problematic. The furthest distance anyone had ever shrank, according to the book, was no bigger than a room’s size. Even if that unspecified room had been as large as this library, that was still a far cry from the two week journey to Teneville.

Alyssa opened up her backpack and started to pull out Aziz’s satchel. In order to test these all later, she needed to write them down. But she thought better of it. As it was, she could still be kicked out at any moment. She didn’t dare look up, but she could still feel plenty of eyes watching her. Writing down all the spells one by one could take all day. Especially while ensuring that she didn’t make a mistake in replicating the spell designs and all the runic text associated with them. She was sure to be kicked out before then.

Taking a slight risk, Alyssa pulled out her phone and started snapping pictures of each spell diagram. She put a caption on each, just a short description of what the spell was supposed to do. Draw water, shrink distances, decrease weight, and even a Rank Three illusory class spell that was supposed to disguise an object without changing its function. How exactly that last one worked, she might have to experiment with. If she could disguise her backpack as a fancy cloak and combine it with the decreased weight spell, carrying it around all day might actually be feasible.

She had snapped up a good twenty spells before she felt something. Just a slight change in the air around her. A slight darkening of the book’s pages as a shadow came over them. Alyssa looked up and immediately let out a short squeak from the back of her throat. Irulon was standing over her, staring.

“That’s an interesting trinket. I am unable to identify the spells that make it work.”

“W-well,” Alyssa stuttered, wracking her mind to come up with some explanation. “Some folks back home took a rock and tricked it into thinking by flattening and firing lighting through it.” Thank you internet for the best description of computers to give to someone in a magical society.

“I would like to perform some analysis, if you please.” She phrased it like a request, but Alyssa couldn’t hear anything but an order in the princess’ voice. The way she was already reaching out to take it only cemented that feeling.

Alyssa drew back. “Sorry,” she said, “but it is keyed to me and won’t work properly for anyone else.”

Irulon’s eyes shifted. The sclera turned black. In fact, her entire eyes turned black save for two white rings on the inner and outer edge of her irises. It was over in an instant, only being a slight flicker that might have been nothing more than a trick of the light. Her eyes were back to normal human eyes with pale violet irises.

For a moment, she frowned. It didn’t last. “That’s a shame,” she said with a sudden smile more serene than any Alyssa had ever seen. The way she leaned in closer, towering as she stood, just lit Alyssa’s nerves on fire. “I must admit, I know most every Obsevatorium attendee, but I don’t believe I have seen you before. Your face and complexion indicate local parentage, but your attire…” Irulon trailed off as she looked over Alyssa’s clothing.

Alyssa ran a suddenly dry tongue over her lips, trying to get a little bit of moisture back in her mouth before choking on her own words. “America,” she spat out as soon as she felt able. “I’m from a town called America.” It was a vague, generic response, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t like anyone here would recognize any place she named.

“Haven’t heard of it,” Irulon said with a musical hum, confirming Alyssa’s thoughts. “I know the names of all villages between Lyria and the Fortress of Pandora. It must be far.”

“More than you could imagine.”

“Well—”

Whatever the princess had been about to say got cut off by a bell ringing. Not modern school bells or even church chimes, but a heavy bass ringing loud and deep enough to shake the walls. The princess remained where she was, leering over Alyssa, but whatever spell had enraptured the other students broke. Loud, relative to the near silence the library had been before, discussions cropped up everywhere around the room as they started replacing books on the shelves and folding up their notebooks.

“Princess?” A mousy girl with brown hair and far paler skin stepped closer, though she maintained her distance enough to preserve Irulon’s bubble. “Shall I tell Administrator Devo that you will be missing his lecture?”

Irulon finally took a step back, twisting her neck and shoulders enough to elicit noisy pops. “I will be there, Caressa, though I may be late. Inform him of that, if you please.”

“Of course,” Caressa said with a deep bow that had her long hair swooping down to nearly touch the floor. She backed away without properly righting herself and started running to the stairs.

Everyone else in the room seemed to take that as their cue to get out. Their efforts to pack up doubled and soon enough, the library was completely empty.

Except for Alyssa and Irulon. Alyssa couldn’t help but rest her hand on the grip of her pistol. Killing royalty would probably land her in some extraordinary trouble, but she couldn’t help it. There was something very very wrong with the princess.

Irulon looked back down at Alyssa, this time without any of the invasive posturing. She just smiled and spoke with the same happy tone she had used when Alyssa asked if she could have a seat. “You aren’t a student here.” At Alyssa’s shake of her head, she nodded. “I thought not. The administrators won’t be happy about that, you know. Most everyone here paid exorbitant prices to be given the honor of being lectured by said administrators in their great orations.” Her voice, though still toned to be pleasant, had a hint of snide sarcasm as she mentioned the administrators. “Dreadful.”

“The doors were wide open. I figured anyone was welcome.”

“The administrators like to show off their students’ prowess and accomplishments. But the artifacts on display should be protected against theft and the rooms protected from entry by those not inducted. You should have been unable to pass through.”

Alyssa didn’t say anything. She hadn’t known that there were any protections, presumably of the magical variety. There hadn’t been any signs or warnings. It made sense though. People didn’t just leave things unguarded. Especially not things valuable enough that they would be put under glass cases. As such, she didn’t have an answer for how she got past them. Of course, she had been doing all sorts of strange things. Even two separate angels had been confused about how she could see them. And according to Aziz’s book, no one got magic right on their first or second try. Not even Rank Zero spells.

“I see,” Irulon said. Alyssa had never answered her implied question. “You have no magical training. You have cast spells, but nothing impressive with what you were copying from the book.” Her fingers brushed over its pages, but her eyes didn’t leave Alyssa. “A tutor outside the Observatorium would not be out of the question.”

“None.”

“Hm.” Her eyes flicked to Aziz’s satchel. “Your tutor was a failed student. There is no shame in admitting that. You were able to cast the meager spells he had to offer and found yourself wanting more. Some of those you copied were Rank Three spells. Your desire to cast and your ability to cast might not be equal.”

Alyssa licked her lips. Bringing the bag of a student who had been kicked out not so long ago might have been yet another poor decision that she hadn’t fully thought through. But Irulon didn’t seem to care that much. Her focus was more on whether or not Alyssa could cast higher level spells. Licking her lips again, she said, “Won’t know until I try.”

“Ah hah, I like that attitude. So many people here can’t cast a Rank Two spell after a few tries then just never try another Rank Two again, calling themselves Rank One arcanists for the rest of their lives.” She hummed again, pulled up the book chained to her hip, and started flipping through pages. She stopped around halfway through and, with a light tug, pulled free a card just like those in Aziz’s collection. Alyssa tensed, expecting a spell to be cast on her, but Irulon had other plans. She held out the card for Alyssa to take.

It had a continuous spiral on it, along with plenty of angelic runes. Though the spiral wasn’t complete. It had been cut straight in half through the middle and both sides were offset, making the lines not match up. The spell wasn’t one that Alyssa recognized from her admittedly small reservoir of magical knowledge.

“What does it do?” she asked without taking the spell card.

“Spectral Sight. It is a Rank Three Death spell that allows the arcanist to view the state of souls. It is considered extremely invasive and can be punished harshly if you’re caught using it around unwilling people. However, it is also one of the few Rank Three spells I have that won’t have dire consequences for me if you fail to use it properly. Or succeed in using it, for that matter.”

Alyssa frowned, not taking it still. “You’re not going to have me arrested for using on you, are you?”

Irulon let out a light giggle. As with everything else she did, it just had too much happiness for it to be natural. “If you succeed, I’ll ensure you can come here without being bothered by students or staff. If you fail… we’ll go with your suggestion! Some time in the stocks will teach you to intrude on this noble place of learning.”

Alyssa couldn’t help but shudder. She honestly couldn’t tell if the princess was kind or cruel. But she had to take the chance. Plucking the spell card from the princess’ fingers, she looked over its offset spiral. “What do souls look like?” she asked, already having something of an idea. That liquid-like mist that Tenebrael pulled out of the deceased had to be souls.

“No one has any idea what actual souls look like. This spell views the state of souls, which not only is different for everyone who uses the spell, but is different for the viewed as well. And it can change over time. Some people see an aura of colors. Some see familiar objects that they liken to a variety of derangements or attributes. A cracked mirror might indicate a deep and ingrained hate for oneself, for example.”

Maybe more of a personality test than their actual souls then. With that in mind, Alyssa closed her eyes and concentrated, just as she had when trying out her other spells. This time, instead of thinking about fire or light, she thought about souls. A much more abstract concept. The mist sounded like it could show up, but now she was thinking about the hundreds of internet personality tests that existed back on Earth. Which fictional character are you? What is your spirit animal? Ten questions that will determine your favorite color! Vapid, silly quizzes that Alyssa had nonetheless taken more often than she would like to admit, mostly in her teenage years.

The card vanished. Even with her eyes closed, she could feel it there one moment then not the next. It had worked then? Slowly, Alyssa opened her eyes.

And stilled, barely wanting to risk a single breath.

The library room was large. About as big as basketball gymnasium, though squared and with the corners rounded off. Alyssa and the princess were not near one of the walls, but close enough that the majority of the room was behind Irulon’s back.

Most of that space was occupied by a dragon. A great winged dragon made of wispy black smoke, glaring down at Alyssa with all its sharp teeth on full display. Its eyes were black with two rings of light, just like Irulon’s eyes had been for that brief instant earlier. The princess herself stood just beneath the dragon’s head, standing with her arms crossed over her chest as she stared down at Alyssa with a serene expression. “It worked! Rank Three without even specializing,” she said with a sudden clap of her hands. “I’m so happy. It would have broken my heart to have had to fill the stockades.”

Alyssa drew in a deep breath, held it for a moment, and let it out slow and steady. She didn’t believe the princess in the slightest. But the dragon was just an illusion. It wasn’t real. Looking closer to its legs and belly, it passed right through the desks and benches. The real question, what was Irulon? Was she a dragon? Or was it some personality quiz nonsense that Alyssa was seeing the answer to but not the questions? What did a dragon represent? Avarice? Power?

She wished she would have snapped a picture of the spell card before consuming it. Then she could have tested it later on Bacco and gotten some comparison. Though, depending on how long it lasted, maybe she could get out to the street and observe a passer-by for a few moments. If everyone showed up as monsters or animals, then there probably was significantly less to worry about.

“Your pupils are dilating. A fear response. Whatever you see cannot hurt you. It is merely an illusion.”

Alyssa forced her eyes down to the real Irulon. “I’m fine,” she said. “I just wasn’t expecting to see… a triangle. Glowing green and spinning rapidly above your head. It’s quite pretty.” If Irulon really was a dragon, masquerading as a human in a city that supposedly hated monsters, mentioning as such might be dangerous.

“Good. As per our agreement, I’ll speak with the administrators. I doubt they’ll be pleased if you try to show up for lectures, but you will have unrestricted access to this library. Though it might be a few days. Why not return next week… I just realized, I never got your name with all the excitement.”

“Alyssa.”

“Alyssa,” Irulon repeated. “What a lovely name. Well, Alyssa, if you’ll excuse me, I have lectures to attend, administrators to thre—talk to, and research to delve into. I expect to see you here this time in a week. Don’t disappoint me now.”

Choosing not to comment on the princess’ slip of the tongue, Alyssa just watched as Irulon walked past her to the nearest staircase. The dragon followed after her, though it didn’t walk or even fly. It just glided around, passing half through the walls and then the floors as Irulon descended. Alyssa waited until the tips of its wings were well below the floor.

Only then did she release a great sigh of relief. Maybe that was enough magic for the day. Her phone had a bunch of spells that she could look over. That should be enough to hold her for a week. As scary as Irulon had been just now, she couldn’t pass up that offer to use the library. One week. Nothing more today. While the room was empty and she could probably stick around, it might be trouble if one of those administrators spotter her. Deciding to leave, she removed her jewelry, piece by piece, and replaced them in the jewelry box.

Hoping that taking off her adornments bought enough time for the lower lobby to empty itself of princesses and anyone else, Alyssa hefted up her pack and quickly made her way out of the library, through the display cases, down the steps, and onto the streets.

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