The Royal Observatorium of Demonic, Divine, and Miraculous Phenomena.
Alyssa would be lying if she said that she wasn’t nervous. Her life had become so surreal. Angels, alternate worlds, monsters, magic. She had even helped stop a war, or something close enough to it. Sure, the Black Prince would probably have cleared out all the monsters without too much trouble, but the ringleader would have gotten away. And the shadow assassins… Alyssa still wasn’t sure what they were. Some sort of invisible creature it seemed. She didn’t know if they would have been able to kill the Black Prince or not, but they had never been given the chance to try thanks to her.
And yet, she somehow found herself exceedingly apprehensive about actually entering the domed building. She had marched right up to the Brechen Overlook with barely a thought while knowing that there were people there who weren’t going to be too pleased to see her. Here should be different. She had been invited by a princess.
Maybe that was the problem. With the Overlook, she hadn’t had the time to think of all the ways things could go wrong. Not to mention that she hadn’t known what she would find. Here, she knew Irulon. More importantly, she remembered Irulon’s soul. The dragon.
Both Oz and Tzheitza, two people who would know better than anyone else Alyssa had encountered, had said that dragons couldn’t change their form like Kasita. Asking the mimic had turned up nothing at all; Kasita had never met a dragon before. Still, with two different people telling her the same thing, Irulon was a human. She had to be. But that didn’t make her less unnerving. There was her creepy smile. The same smile she had while threatening to throw Alyssa into the stocks.
But Alyssa had passed that little test. There shouldn’t be anything to worry about. She was overthinking everything far too much. Not only that, but she had come prepared this time.
Tzheitza had introduced Alyssa to the most wonderful thing. Public bathing. Well, the public part wasn’t the most comfortable aspect, but the fact that she had bathed more than made up for that. There were simply some concessions she had to make in the name of cleanliness. And the baths were, to be quite frank, exquisite. Branches of the aqueducts carried water to a large open-air building. There, it split off into three different chambers. Two smaller heated pools and one large cold pool were only a few of the building’s features. There were both saunas and steam rooms as well as a massage room, though Alyssa hadn’t used any of those facilities. She had stuck with the medium-heat pool. The hot one might as well have been lava and the cold pool, which occupied most of the building and was possibly bigger than the lap pool at her gymnasium back on Earth, had been far too crowded for her tastes. It had been unnerving enough being naked in public in the smaller rooms. It wasn’t like they had a men and woman’s side.
But she had made it through and felt so much cleaner than she had the last time she approached the Observatorium.
A bath wasn’t the only preparation she had taken. Since she had packed a few dresses to sell, she had pulled one out to wear. Nothing fancy. Neither Alyssa nor her mother owned anything truly fancy. It was just one of her mother’s church dresses. Alyssa had long since stopped going to church—as odd as that seemed knowing what she knew now about angels—but her mother still attended weekly services. It was a simple blue skirt that went past the knees and a light blue top. She had also put on some jewelry. Two rings, a bracelet, and a necklace. Nothing too extravagant.
Hopefully she didn’t look like a hobo who had robbed a jewelry store this time.
Taking a deep breath, Alyssa started up the large marble steps all on her own. No Tzheitza. No Bacco. Not even Kasita had wanted to follow along. Something about arcanists having the ability to detect her presence. Just as before, the doors were wide open and there wasn’t a guard in sight. Being situated near the palace on the eastern side of the city, the Observatorium hadn’t even seen a single goblin in the near vicinity. It was like a completely different world over here. Alyssa should know, she had been to two. People wandered about on the streets just as they had before the attack. There was no construction, no nervous glances at alcoves, no guards patrolling about.
It was like the attack had never happened.
Shaking her head, Alyssa passed through the trophy room to get to the library staircase. Irulon had said to meet her there and since no one was in the trophy room to speak with, Alyssa didn’t have a better destination. When she crested the top of the spiral staircase, she paused and frowned.
No one was around at all apparently. No other students. None of the administrators she had heard about. And no Irulon.
The time of day was roughly the same as it had been a week ago. Had schedules shifted? Were the other students in class?
Or… how long were weeks in this world? Seven days, right? It wasn’t something she would ever have thought that she would need to think about. If weeks were less than seven days, then she had missed her appointment. Princess Irulon… might just throw her into the stockades. If she was lucky.
Grinding her teeth together, Alyssa spun around. She just about ran straight back to Tzheitza to ask a question that should be common knowledge. But no. If weeks were seven days or more, she hadn’t missed her appointment but still might if she ran off. If Irulon never showed by nightfall, she could go home and ask Tzheitza about the calendar. Maybe weeks were eight or more days long. If so, she could just come back again.
For now, she had come here to learn magic that might get her home and keep her safe from angels. Irulon or no, she had an entire library to herself. There weren’t other students to be embarrassed about making mistakes in front of like last time. And after that trip to the public baths, she wasn’t sure that taking a little longer to search the bookshelves even registered on her embarrassment meter.
Since that terrible angel still hadn’t returned her phone, she decided to head over to the same shelf as last time, dropping off Aziz’s satchel on a nearby table on the way. Aziz’s satchel was her new favorite carrying case. Having left her bulky pack at Tzheitza’s potion shop, it served as an adequate purse for smaller items. It had the added bonus of being native to this world. At the moment, it just had several writing implements and a spare magazine for each of her holstered pistols.
It didn’t take long to find the same book she had copied from last time. Although she seemed to have a decent source of clean water and food through Tzheitza’s kindness, the Draw Water spell still interested her. It could be absolutely invaluable if she ever had to strike out on her own again. Not to mention that it was an interesting spell from a more experimental standpoint.
Draw Water did just what its name implied, from what she had read last time, and drew water from whatever it was aimed at. A body of water, usually. What she really wanted to know was how pure the extracted water ended up. Unfortunately, she would probably have to find a microscope to tell if there were any bacteria and… pathogens or whatever—she wasn’t a biologist, but if something was moving in a supposedly pure glass of water, it probably still needed boiling. After that, she wanted to know how versatile the spell was. Could it be used on humid air to get a source of water? Dryer air? Human sweat? Humans? Humans were seventy-something percent water after all.
Though she might not try that last one anytime soon. It sounded like it could get… messy.
“I was beginning to wonder if you would ever enter the building.”
Alyssa’s heart leaped out of her chest. Her fingers had barely brushed the leather bindings of the book when Irulon’s voice touched her ear. Spinning around, she found the princess at a respectable distance. Irulon had sounded—felt—so much closer. Magic to carry her voice? Whatever. Her dark painted lips pulled into a vacant smile as she stared with her pale violet eyes. Not wanting to disrespect her, Alyssa tried to return the smile.
“I feared I had the wrong day. With the attack on the city, I got a bit mixed up.” There. Hopefully Irulon hadn’t been waiting for twenty-four hours if weeks were shorter than Alyssa thought. But if they were and if she had, at least she had a mild excuse.
But Irulon just blinked her eyes in confusion and tilted her head. “Attack?”
An uncomfortable silence clung to the air following her question. Did she really not know? Alyssa had expected a princess to be sheltered, but how could she have possibly missed the giant army just outside the city walls. Before she could actually say anything, Irulon’s eyes widened.
“Oh! The trolls breaching the wall. My brother mentioned something about that. You got caught up in it? I am so sorry you had to experience such a horrible thing. Are you alright?”
“I… Yeah, I’m fine.” Alyssa couldn’t believe that Irulon actually cared at all. The tone of her voice. Her apparent forgetfulness. Even the way her smile turned to a look of concern was too… practiced. It wouldn’t surprise Alyssa in the slightest to find out that Irulon woke up bright and early every morning to practice her facial expressions in the mirror. Or maybe she had some sort of Royal Expression Coach. Either way, she needed more practice. “It was just a bit hectic at the time, you know?”
“No. I don’t.”
It was a rhetorical question, Alyssa thought to herself.
“But,” Irulon continued, “I have seen my eldest brother running about all harried. As heir to the throne, it is his duty to restore order. I’ve even heard it rumored that we will need to increase the tax on several of the larger villages this harvest season in order to fully feed the city. It is truly a tragic incident.
“Enough of this depressing talk for now,” she said, concern vanishing from her face in an instant to be replaced with her usual smile. “You came here to learn magic. Good news! Chief Administrator Devo has… consented to allowing you library access. Though I must say, when I described your appearance to him, I wasn’t expecting you to look so… different.”
Deciding that nothing good could come of questioning just how she convinced the administrator to allow her access, Alyssa focused on her appearance. “That was my first day in the city. I hadn’t even found a real place to stay.”
“You’ve found a place now?”
Irulon went silent for a moment, perhaps wondering if Alyssa would elaborate on just where she was staying. If the princess wanted to find out where she lived, she would just have to expend some of her princessly resources. It probably wouldn’t be that difficult, but she was just unnerving enough that Alyssa really didn’t want her stopping by Tzheitza’s potions shop if it could be helped.
“Hm. Well,” Irulon gestured back to a nearby table and chairs, “mind if I ask a few questions?”
“I suppose not,” Alyssa said as she took the indicated seat.
“You are not from around here.”
Alyssa couldn’t help her sigh. “That is correct.”
“I mean anywhere near here. The whole continent. You aren’t from across the northern desert. You aren’t from across any of the oceans. You aren’t from south of the Fortress of Pandora. You are a creature of the Underworld.”
Irulon blinked. Then she blinked again. “I’m wrong?” she said, losing her smile. “No. You aren’t from the surface. You must be from the Underworld.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never lived underground. How did you even come to that conclusion? Does where I used to live really matter?”
Again, Irulon blinked. She eyed Alyssa with suspicion in her eyes, but eventually nodded her head. “I suppose it doesn’t. I was sure… hm. Never mind. But you don’t deny being inhuman. You are a creature of… some type.”
“I hate to break it to you, but that’s wrong too. I am a human. I was born a human and I imagine I’ll continue to be a human for the rest of my life.” Alyssa watched, half expecting the princess’ eyes to switch to those dark versions with white rings. But they didn’t. Irulon did narrow her eyes, but it wasn’t even directed at Alyssa. It was more of a brow-furrowed-in-thought kind of thing.
“You don’t have to deny that,” Irulon said after a moment. “Even if you’re one of the great Monster Lords, it won’t matter to me. I’ll keep your secret.”
“I’m not a monster!” Cid and Bacco had thought the same thing. Or at least Bacco had. She had thought it was because of some obtusely answered questions on her part, but had it been something else? Why would Irulon think she was a monster? She had seen other people with brown hair and brown eyes around the city. So it wasn’t like she looked inhuman. If anything, Irulon was the monster! Who even had violet eyes? Giant dragons disguised as humans, that’s who! But Alyssa didn’t say that. Obviously. “Look. I’m human. I was born to human parents. I was born on the surface and have lived there my entire life. Yes, it was far away from Lyria. I do concede that point.”
“How old are you?”
“Have you ever died?”
“What? What kind of question is that?” Alyssa rubbed at her forehead. This was not how she had imagined meeting the princess would go. Where was she even getting these ideas. “Princess, I don’t mean to seem rude or anything, but you seem to have drawn some odd conclusions about me from… somewhere.”
“Hm. Curiouser and curiouser…”
“I don’t suppose we could switch the topic to magic? It is what I came here to learn, after all.” Anything to get the topic off herself.
Irulon stood, making Alyssa’s stomach lurch. For a moment, she thought the younger woman was going to stalk out of the room. Maybe offended at the lack of accuracy in her notions. But she didn’t. She nodded her head as she opened the tome chained to her waist. “I see I need additional data to formulate proper analysis of you, so I suppose there is no harm in switching to a magic discussion for the time being. First however, I would like to see you cast a spell once more.” Pulling a card from the tome, she placed it face up on the table between them. As soon as it was down, she promptly took a half-dozen steps backward.
Frowning, Alyssa glanced down at the card. The base design was a triangle. Inside that triangle were more triangles, each of which had more triangles. Just as with every other spell card she had seen, the angelic runes were written all over it. This card seemed to have more than others, but maybe that was her imagination. “What is it?”
“Fractal Mirror. A Rank Six spell.”
“What does it do?”
Irulon’s perfect smile froze on her face. “Hm. I wonder.”
Well that wasn’t omnious or anything. The way she backed away didn’t help with Alyssa’s confidence. Her tome was still open in her hand. Her other hand was fingering one of the cards as well. Something to cast should this Fractal Mirror go wrong? What could the spell be?
She knew what mirrors were. Fractals were… some math thing. They made interesting pictures on the internet. Or people made interesting pictures and called them fractals. The specific image she had in mind was an animated gif that zoomed in forever. So how would that translate to a spell?
Shrugging her shoulders, she decided to try what everyone else did. Holding up the card with the pattern facing away from her—though also not pointed at Irulon—Alyssa said, “Fractal Mirror!”
Nothing happened. The card stayed between her fingers. Nothing she looked at changed. There were no mirrors and no fractals anywhere to be seen.
Irulon’s smile widened ever so slightly. Her fingers flipped through her tome before she held up an identical card. “Fractal Mirror,” she intoned in a low voice.
The card shattered into thumb-sized shards like it was a piece of glass. It didn’t just disappear or burn up. The card didn’t stop with just breaking. The pieces flew out of her fingers, filling the air around her with far more glassy slivers than could possibly have fit in the paper card. They exploded, doubling in quantity without shrinking in size. It happened over and over again until Alyssa could only see Irulon’s silhouette through the glass.
Said silhouette reached out and casually tapped one of the shards. As soon as her finger made contact, the entire array of glass crushed inward, folding in on itself. Irulon’s silhouette went with it, twisting and breaking as the glass pressed into a small ball. The size of a beach ball. The size of a volleyball. The size of a marble. Soon enough, there was nothing left. No glass. No magic.
Alyssa stood with a start. Was she invisible? Had something gone wrong?
She barely started panicking when she heard a soft sigh from behind her.
Spinning around, Alyssa found the princess standing just a few paces behind her. A thin sheen of sweat glistened on her skin that hadn’t been there before, but she otherwise looked just as she had before casting a spell.
All that for a teleport!? was Alyssa’s first thought. Thinking about it for literally one more second had her in absolute awe. She was far too used to Hollywood and flashy instant teleports in movies. But Irulon had literally moved from one side of the room to the other without crossing the space in between. That was absolutely amazing! Something no technology could possibly replicate. At least not any technology on modern day Earth. It was showy, flashy, and had taken a good three seconds—probably enough time to have simply walked across the room—but still. It wasn’t like everything needed a combat application.
Glancing down at the card in her hand again, Alyssa wondered just how versatile it was. Could it get her back to her home? If so, she could go home, shower, spend the night, and come back every single day. When—or rather, if she ran out of ammo for one of her guns, she could go home and resupply. The food she had left behind. The spices. Anything valuable. The internet. Her printer. This spell could be the most useful thing she had discovered so far.
If it could get her home, could it get her home?
It looked like it had taken a bit out of Irulon. Her stance wasn’t quite as perfect as it had been before. Sweat glistened on her skin. Having been to the gym on a regular basis before coming here, Alyssa had seen plenty of people doing the slow breathing exercises to get back to a normal rate that Irulon was doing now.
Still, even if it was a bit exhausting, it would be worth it.
“Mind if I try again?” Alyssa said.
Irulon took a deep breath, let it out nice and slow, and nodded her head. “Go ahead if you think you can.” Again, she stepped far away and opened her tome to grab onto a card.
Alyssa didn’t mind. It was probably some defensive spell that would keep her from dying if the shards of glass went out of control or something like that. Instead of paying attention to Irulon, Alyssa focused on the spell. Disappearing and reappearing two steps to the left—while she wanted to go home, she really didn’t want to go without a quick way back. And she couldn’t go home home while those angels were still running around. Two steps seemed a good test.
As soon as she imagined the shards of glass whirling around her, it happened. Her card shattered just as Irulon’s had. The pieces multiplied over and over again as they surrounded her. Soon enough, she couldn’t see out of the cloud. She could see herself reflected in the facets.
But the shards continued swirling around. It had been three seconds between the card shattering and Irulon appearing behind her. But it had been far more than ten seconds now.
At least twenty seconds passed before she realized that something was wrong. The glass whirled around her, each little shard reflecting herself. Her elation at finding a teleportation spell died, replaced with an unnatural dread.
The glass surrounded her.
There was no way out.
No way anywhere.
She had a narrow bubble of space between her and the glass. Enough to turn and see that there were no holes in the curtain. If she tried to reach out, her hand would surely be torn to shreds.
Alyssa continued turning. Her breathing quickened. There had to be a way out. Irulon had escaped.
That’s right! Irulon had escaped. Alyssa had seen it with her own eyes. The princess had reached out and touched one of the pieces of glass!
Alyssa kept her hand firmly at her side. There were so many. And they were all moving. The sharp edges gleamed. If she moved her arm, her hand would come right off.
As she looked at the glass, she noticed something. Her reflections weren’t always the same. Alyssa kept her hair in a ponytail to keep it out of her face. But one mirror showed her hair frazzled, messy, and half covering her eyes. Another showed her seated in a chair. Another still lying on the floor, bleeding out from a hundred thousand cuts. Yet another was Alyssa with her pistol drawn, aimed at the back of Irulon’s head.
She watched that last one for a moment. It was slow moving and easy to keep track of even among the tornado of glass. The Alyssa in the reflection fired her gun, but the bullet stopped short. Irulon had activated the spell in her open tome, creating some sort of reflective barrier around her. A ghastly hand reached out of the mirror toward the Alyssa in the reflection. Just before it reached, the shard of glass shattered, destroying the reflection.
What the hell was that?
Alyssa stared. Every single shard was different. Each showed a scene. Some disappeared like the one. Some appeared as if from nothing.
She was out on the street.
She was downstairs, trying to break the glass on a trophy case.
She flipped over a chair.
She curled up in a ball under a desk.
She was reading a book.
She tore apart a book.
There! One moving slowly enough to track. She was seated on a desk, feet on a chair, and her chin resting on her curled knuckles as her elbow rested on her knee. It was a pose much like how Tenebrael had appeared a week ago in the inn.
Alyssa reached out and touched it, nicking her finger in the process.
But things changed. All the images reflected in the shards of glass disappeared, replaced with the image of her seated on the desk.
The shards froze in the air, no longer spinning around. They pressed in, moving right up against her skin. The glass was like ice chilling her body. But they didn’t stop there. They kept squeezing in, pinching, pressing, digging into her flesh. Alyssa couldn’t breathe.
She tried to scream as the shards dug into her eyes. Into her ears. She tried to scream, but the glass was in her mouth. On her tongue. Down her throat. It pressed into her, pulling her apart from the outside and the inside.
Until everything stopped.