The little guard shack on the Brechen Overlook had a small table inside. Where there once had been cards scattered all over its surface—playing cards, not the magical spell cards—there were now weapons. A bandoleer covered in orbs. Three daggers. A modern combat knife. Two pistols. An assortment of ammunition and a handful of Rank Zero spell cards. The only thing missing was Alyssa’s shotgun.
Of course, Alyssa’s captors hadn’t just left her with her primary weapon. The leader of the group was currently staring down its barrel. It was too much to hope for that he would shoot himself, unfortunately. She had always been told that it was the stupidest thing one could ever do with a gun and yet the cloaked man before her had been toying with the thing for five minutes without any accidental discharges. If only she had forgotten to put the safety on.
“Hmph.” The cloaked man stood. He held the shotgun with only one hand. Stretching his arm out, he aimed at Alyssa.
She stared back, defiant, ignoring the knot in her stomach. Even still, when he started to squeeze the trigger, she couldn’t help but flinch.
“Hmph,” the man grunted again when nothing happened. Thank… whatever deity that I put that safety on. That he hadn’t figured out the switch to turn it off was both a relief and not wholly unexpected. She had been watching him carefully ever since he started looking it over. “You will instruct me in using the artifact later on.”
Alyssa didn’t say anything back. She couldn’t. Tzheitza’s potionspeak got them both gagged with foul tasting cloth shoved into their mouths.
“Bercilak,” the only woman among the three humans said as she leaned away from a shallow bowl of water. “The force engaged with the Black Prince has been decimated. Losses are continuing for the monsters while slowing for the Lyrian defenders. At this rate, forty percent of our forces will be eliminated within the hour. Losses will increase at an exponential rate from then on.”
“Faster than expected,” the leader mumbled. Turning, he carefully placed the shotgun back on the table with Alyssa’s pistols. “Our vanguard was too slow in breaching the wall. Too many of the city guard followed him out, not knowing about the other threat to their city. It causes chaos, but chaos isn’t our goal…” He hummed to himself, crossing his arms over his chest. The dark robe made him look like some kind of Jedi. Or maybe a Sith. It would have been ridiculous in the modern world—just some edgy kid trying to act tough. But with the magic chains keeping Alyssa from moving, he might as well be an actual Sith. “The shadow assassins have infiltrated the city?”
Alyssa understood the two words individually, but apparently ‘shadow assassins’ meant something more to someone native to the world. Tzheitza stiffened and, even through the gag in her mouth, sucked in a heavy gasp of air. She tried to say something, but her muffled mumbles went unnoticed.
“They have,” the woman said. “All three groups are in place.”
“Pull the tertiary squad back, have them join with the Black Prince’s group.”
“But Bercilak, the Archbishop—”
“Doesn’t matter. He is a figurehead only. Killing Tenebrael’s bishop would be a blow to the city’s morale, but ultimately he doesn’t matter. He’s only a Rank One arcanist.” The way he said Tenebrael’s name was like the most vehement of swears. A mixture of hatred, disdain, and mocking sarcasm all in one. “Besides, the real priest is far south of this city.”
The woman started grinding her teeth together. Alyssa couldn’t see her face at all with the poor lighting and her low hood drawn over her head, but the way she squeezed her fists radiated anger.
“Morgan, calm yourself. I know how you feel. I feel the same. To strive; To struggle.”
“As God demands.”
Great, Alyssa suppressed a roll of her eyes as she thought. More religious nutsos. Apparently ones that didn’t believe in Tenebrael. Or perhaps they believed in her but just didn’t hold her in as high regard as the people of Lyria. She had thought the people of Teneville had been fairly intense in their worship, what with the human sacrifice and all… but at least Lazhar hadn’t been about to kill her even when he had been questioning her beliefs.
These people were launching a war on a city that held different beliefs than them. How barbaric. They were probably going to kill her as well, though her shotgun had apparently bought her some time.
Though she had to wonder if a religious war was the true purpose of their fight. Maybe the peons believed that, but there were enough examples on Earth where leaders used ideology they didn’t believe in to drive the masses. It might be power. It might be spices. It might be regular old food. Alyssa couldn’t know the truth without more information.
Unaware of Alyssa’s thoughts, Bercilak continued to placate the woman. “If we can kill the Black Prince and the head administrator of their Observatorium, our armies can march in uncontested. There will be no one strong enough remaining to oppose us. Then we can eliminate the bishops and priests. Perhaps even scour the very idea of Tenebrael from the face of this world.”
Morgan took a deep, shaky breath. Her voice trembled as she spoke. “You’re right. I apologize.”
“Forgiven. Now, redirect group three to the palace.”
“Yes, Bercilak,” Morgan said with a bow of her head. Standing from the bowl of water, she moved to the ring of candles. Just as there had been before the illusion had broken, a tiny person was trapped in a tiny cage. Unlike before Tzheitza had thrown her orb, he wasn’t struggling to break free of his cage. He had been pinned down to the floor of the cage like a butterfly might be pinned down in a display case. She leaned over and stared down at the diminutive being before taking a small canister from the folds in her robes. Pressing against the top sprayed a thin mist into the cage. “Fairy,” she said, voice stern. “S-Seven, S-Eight, and S-Nine to E-Five. Standby.”
The fairy gave no acknowledgment of his orders, but Morgan nodded in apparent satisfaction. She returned to the bowl of water.
Bercilak clasped his hands behind his back and walked over to his other compatriot. A man who, so far, had done nothing more than hold the ethereal chains. He hadn’t said a word and he hadn’t been spoken to. If not for his breathing and having seen him move, she might have thought he was a statue. But, just as Bercilak leaned over to speak to him, Morgan jumped up, nearly spilling her bowl of water as she moved.
“The Black Prince! He’s riding straight toward us.”
Clicking his tongue, Bercilak sighed. “I suppose he noticed the orb’s explosion after all. Very well, we cannot stay here. Ensure that the shadow assassins carry out their task then dispose of the fairy.”
Morgan nodded. As she ran back to the fairy, Bercilak reached into his robes and pulled out a series of cards.
“Message,” he intoned in a low voice. The first of the cards disappeared. “Liadri. Phase one complete. Phase two complete. Phase three compromised. Withdrawing.”
A movement behind Bercilak caught Alyssa’s attention as he spoke. The table had a few of the bullets and shotgun shells set out where he had been examining them. One of which tipped over. A gust of wind? Alyssa hadn’t felt anything. The air was still and had been all night. But the shotgun shell tipped over and rolled off the table, landing on the rock floor entirely unnoticed by anyone else. Bercilak had his eyes closed, Morgan was spraying more mist on the fairy, and the chain guy had the opening of his hood looking toward Alyssa and Tzheitza. Even Tzheitza was too busy glaring at Bercilak to notice.
The shotgun shell landed without a noise. It sat there for just a moment before the air shimmered.
Alyssa sucked in a breath. Kasita, wearing the same scandalous outfit she had worn at the whorehouse, stood just behind the table. With everyone’s back to her, she took the time to smile and wave at Alyssa before glancing down at the table. Straining, using both hands, she managed to pick up one of the pistols. The way her arms shook as she tried to hold the pistol just reinforced how inhuman she was. The men at the Waterhole had said she was weak, but even a child could hold a gun. Still, she managed to get it leveled at at the man holding the chains.
He was completely unaware, as were Bercilak and Morgan. Tzheitza finally noticed, she stilled and stared, but she couldn’t move or do anything.
And neither could Alyssa.
With the gag in her mouth, Alyssa couldn’t even shout a hint. With her arms bound by the chains, she couldn’t mime any assistance. Kasita was going to make the same mistake as Bercilak and not turn off the safety!
The snap crack of a gunshot rang through the air. Kasita flew off the edge of the cliff, taking the pistol with her. At the same time, the man she had been aiming at cried out in pain and shock. He hadn’t been fatally hit, but it was enough. The translucent chains around Tzheitza and Alyssa dispersed into the air, freeing them.
Tzheitza snapped into movement, tackling Bercilak to the ground and knocking away a deck of cards before he could draw any single spell. She started pummeling him with her bare fists. Alyssa, a bit slower to react, chose to tear the cloth out of her mouth first and foremost.
A mistake. Morgan spun around, only taking an instant to absorb the situation. Her eyes flashed dark gold and her hand clenched around a card she had drawn from somewhere in her robes. “Fireball!” she shouted.
Alyssa didn’t know why these people were saying their spells before they cast them, but she was definitely thankful. It gave her a slight moment to throw herself flat against the rock.
Burning heat scorched Alyssa’s back. It was like suddenly standing too close to a campfire if campfires were a hundred times hotter. The main heat lasted only a second, dissipating to a warm, uncomfortable air. Even with her face down and her hands over her head, Alyssa could still feel when the fire hit the stone. Bits of searing hot rubble rained down on her.
Gritting her teeth, Alyssa did her best to ignore it. She pushed through the pain and got to her feet before Morgan could fire off another spell. The table! It was only a few steps away. If she could just grab one of her weapons…
She made it two steps. The man who had been shot managed to recover enough to grasp at her. His fingers brushed over her shoulder, not quite gripping her but knocking her off balance enough to for her to stumble. Alyssa bumped into the weapon table, knocking a few of the loose bullets off. None of which turned into any mimics. She reached for the shotgun.
Something slammed into her from behind, knocking over the entire table. The rest of the bullets clattered to the rocky ground along with the shotgun and the remaining pistol. Alyssa fell along with it all, skinning her elbows on the edges of the table. As soon as she hit the ground, she rolled onto her back to see behind her.
The man was right on her feet, trying to pin her down. She kicked out, catching him in the arm and sending a deck of cards flying from the sleeve of his robe. With a snarl, he balled a fist and punched her right in the stomach.
Alyssa curled in on herself, coughing as she tried to breathe in with the wind knocked out of her. Her fingers grasped the rock and dirt, but she couldn’t reach her guns. The table had fallen over with her on one side and the weapons on the other. Instead, her fingers found the deck of cards. They were all fanned out, but kept together by a little metal ring like the kind one could find on a key chain.
Whipping back to face him, still barely able to breathe, she aimed the patterned sides of the cards at him. One of the several dozen cards had to be a fireball. She thought, considering for a bare instant a ball of fire. It didn’t take much imagination with how common such things were in movies. The second she had the image of a flaming ball of gas in her mind, a full quarter of the cards vanished from her fingertips.
She could see his eyes widening ever so slightly in the growing glow that formed between him and her outstretched hand. He let out a shout. With a rush of air, he vanished from atop her. The scream cut off abruptly.
Alyssa blinked twice, looking around for him, ready to defend herself if he tried attacking her.
It took a moment to realize that the streak of flame and smoke arcing through the sky was not Tenebrael or Iosefael. It was the man who had been pinning her down.
Shaking her head, Alyssa focused on the situation at hand. Morgan had chains around Tzheitza again, though the latter woman was still on top of Bercilak. Scurrying about to the other side of the table, she finally clasped her hands around her shotgun. The spell cards she had probably contained more of those ethereal chains. However, Alyssa didn’t have a clue how to properly work them. It might be possible to bumble into it as she had with the fireballs, but she could just as easily accidentally chain herself up. Better to use something that she knew how to operate.
The air had a musky heat to it that shouldn’t have been present with how cool nights were. Breathing in, trying to calm her trembling hands, tasted like a vacation to California in the summer. Alyssa wasn’t sure if it was the fireballs, some other magic, or if tonight was just a particularly hot night and she hadn’t noticed with all the excitement going on. Whatever the case, the brief moment of respite filled Alyssa with determination. Furrowing her brow, she flicked off the safety and popped up over the top of the toppled table.
Morgan had moved. One hand still held Tzheitza’s chains. A dagger in her other hand, high in the sky, was poised to come down on Tzheitza. The two were too close together for Alyssa to risk firing at Morgan. But Morgan’s arm…
Aiming higher than she really should in an attempt to keep Tzheitza from being hit, Alyssa fired.
Though she stumbled back and dropped the dagger, Morgan didn’t even make a noise. Alyssa couldn’t tell if her shot had hit or if the woman had merely been startled by the noise. Either way, Tzheitza was safe for now. From the dagger. Unfortunately, Morgan still held the chains. With the way she shifted her body, she hid fully behind Tzheitza, blocking off any further shots.
“Morgan… The Black… Prince…”
“Shhh. Don’t speak. We still have the upper hand. I’ll get you out—”
Tzheitza had done a number on Bercilak. Even though she was mostly off him, he hadn’t lifted an arm. His face, beaten to a pulp, looked like someone had taken a meat tenderizer to him. Both of his eyes were puffed out and swollen shut, blood flowed freely from his nose, his lips were shreds where Tzheitza had broken the skin against his teeth, and, as he opened his mouth, Alyssa could see several broken or missing teeth as well.
“Can’t… be captured. Escape. Or… die.”
“Do not move!” There was a tremble in Alyssa’s voice as she spoke. It didn’t sound convincing. Like a child trying to act older than they were.
Apparently, Morgan felt the same way. She took a step backward, then another step. With Tzheitza still between them, Alyssa couldn’t even fire. Morgan backed up one more time. Her feet were right at the edge of the plateau.
Her hand darted into the sleeve of her robe. “Recall!” she cried, turning as she drew a card. Before Alyssa could do anything, Morgan leaped from the edge.
Still holding the chains.
The ethereal links around Tzheitza pulled taut. With an audible “Hurk—” Tzheitza flew back, yanked off Bercilak. The chains faded out, dispersing as they had after Kasita fired at the first man. But Tzheitza continued to tumble and roll. She slipped over the edge before Alyssa could even move a muscle.
Alyssa sprinted around the table, running to try to… she didn’t know what. Catch Tzheitza? The potioneer was already over the edge. Gone without so much as a shout.
Instead of continuing, she skidded to a stop near Bercilak. He had finally rolled over, stretching out his hand for the deck of cards he had lost. Alyssa reached down and plucked it away before he could get his fingers around the key ring.
As soon as the spells were out of his reach, he slumped over, apparently losing all motivation to continue moving. What an idiot. Did he not have any spares? As soon as she considered the possibility, Alyssa started eying his hands. Both were out in the open not moving… anywhere, really. He was just breathing heavily.
She didn’t know what to do. The Black Prince was on his way, according to Morgan. She didn’t really want to meet him, but she couldn’t just run off. Bercilak might get up and… do something nefarious. The fairy was still alive in its cage. Alyssa wasn’t sure what to do there. As much as she wanted to go up and let it go, she couldn’t discount Tzheitza’s warning about it mind controlling her if freed. Given her earlier experience with Rizk nearly killing her, she was inclined to trust Tzheitza’s instincts. But Tzheitza, she had fallen off the edge. Was she still alive? What if she needed help? And Kasita fell off the opposite side. With the pistol. Losing that was… unacceptable.
Slowly, Alyssa edged back toward the table and the side where Kasita had fallen.
“If you have… any mercy… kill me now.”
Bercilak’s words stopped her cold before she could move more than three steps away. He hadn’t moved. Even his fingertips were still resting against the ground right where they had lost their motivation. He just breathed with a slight whistle in his broken teeth.
“The royal family will torture me… keep me from dying as long as possible… before sending me to their demon goddess. Please.”
“Tenebrael?” Alyssa said, uncertain. The Observatorium listed demonic phenomena right in its title as things that it observed, but Irulon had Tenebrael’s eye tattoos. She couldn’t picture the Pharaoh’s daughter worshiping Tenebrael while the rest of the family worshiped demons. That combined with the fact that Alyssa had thought of Tenebrael as a demon more than once made her ask just to be certain. Bercilak didn’t actually respond to her question, but the way his muscles tensed was answer enough. “I think Tenebrael will eat you after you die regardless of the how or when.”
He coughed twice, spitting a bit of blood and a tooth to the ground. “Your beliefs… are not mine… but even if that’s true, I’d rather go quick than suffer torture for months.”
For a moment, just a bare instant, Alyssa felt sorry for him. A loud crack off the edge of the plateau stole her attention, forcing her eyes back to the burning fields and literal war going on just outside the city walls. “No,” she said, gritting her teeth together. “You just unleashed a monster army—a mind controlled monster army no less—on a city of at least mostly innocent people. For what? Because you don’t like Tenebrael? I don’t like her either but you don’t see me destroying people’s lives and ruining people’s peaceful nights. I didn’t want to come out here today. I didn’t want to get captured and probably end up killing that one guy. I just wanted to find a safe place to relax for a few hours! You and your… friends and your little war. You deserve whatever you get.”
A heavy thud on the end of the plateau shook the ground. Alyssa stumbled, grabbing hold of the outstretched leg of the toppled table for support. When she turned to the noise, she found herself face to face with teeth.
Sharp pointed teeth. Each as long as one of her fingers. Rows and rows of them with a thick red tongue moving behind them.
Alyssa let out a shriek as a thick blast of hot air slammed into her face. It was like another fireball passed her, but with no fire. She caught a glimpse of yellow eyes with a single black slit down the middle as the head turned to reveal its rider.
The Black Prince, dark armor and glowing sword, towered over her. The raptor, and the prince himself, were taller up close. Much taller. Alyssa lost the strength in her knees, compounding his height as she fell backward against the toppled table.
But he didn’t have eyes for her. The thin slit of his visor was aimed squarely at Bercilak. Even the monster he rode had lost interest in her. As one, they stomped across the suddenly much narrower plateau until the raptor’s sharp talons dug into Bercilak’s thigh. The man screamed out in pain, but no one reacted to it. Swinging a leg over the raptor’s spikes, The Black Prince dismounted and stooped over the whimpering man.
“Yes,” he said, voice deep as the night with a metallic reverberation from his helmet. “A quick death would be far too kind for you.”