Alyssa blinked. She was staring at Irulon for some reason. The princess had a look of genuine surprise on her face, but she quickly schooled it away behind her smile, which opened right up as her lips began to flap. Noise came out. Vibrations in the air that might as well have been static on a radio for all Alyssa could understand it. So she didn’t bother trying. Instead, she focused on herself.
Moving ever so slightly rubbed her the wrong way. She was soaking wet. Sweat poured off every inch of her skin. It wasn’t the good kind of post-workout sweat either. It was a cold, clammy sort of sweat. The kind that she might wake up with in the middle of the night after dreaming about something frightening. One of her hands shook as she watched it. The other was propping up her chin. Without it there, she would probably have fallen. Somehow, she had wound up sitting right on the edge of a desk. No matter how hard she tried, Alyssa couldn’t think of how she actually got atop it.
That wasn’t to say that she had lost her memories. “There was so much,” she said, voice shaking. She had seen herself a hundred thousand times in countless glass shards. Every version of her had been doing different things. Sometimes two different shards did similar things. Sometimes they were wildly different. Every single one felt burned into the insides of her skull. But she clearly remembered picking and touching one where she was seated as she was now.
She just couldn’t remember how she moved from one side of the room to the top of the desk.
The floor lurched forward. Alyssa tried to jump back, away from it, but it didn’t help. The hard stone smacked into her face before she could do anything.
“Oh dear,” Irulon said. She moved forward a few steps, allowing her gold-cloth shoes to come into view as she stomped on the floor, though it was too late to beat back its assault on Alyssa. “Has your mind fallen to pieces? I’m afraid I cannot fix that, but rest assured that I will take great pleasure in taking you apart to find out exactly what you are.”
Alyssa groaned, pressing her hand against the smooth floor. The thick layer of sweat clinging to her palm just about made her slip, but she managed to hold on. “What,” she ground through grit teeth. Her head felt like it was going to explode. “What was that?”
“Ah, are you recovering?”
It took some effort, much grunting and muscle strain, for Alyssa to get herself up into a proper seated position on the floor. At no point did Irulon lift a finger to help, though she had fallen silent, thankfully. Every noise was making her head thump. The princess just stood aside, watching while Alyssa used one of the table’s legs as a back rest. Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back and just tried to empty her mind.
Alyssa stood behind Irulon, swinging a chair down over the other woman’s head. The wood seat fell into a mirrored surface that appeared between the two.
Alyssa elbowed the glass case containing the Medusa’s head, getting nothing but pain for her efforts.
Alyssa tripped down the stairs. Her arm broke as it caught in the railing’s bars.
Alyssa jerked, snapping open her eyes and sucking in a sharp gasp of air.
Irulon stood over her, leaning over with a smile. A strange smile. It wasn’t her usual expression that she had probably practiced in the mirror a hundred times a day. It was… pleasant yet unnerving at the same time. Her lips pushed up her cheeks, forming just the shadow of wrinkles around the corners of her eyes. It was far more natural than the mask she usually wore.
Which just made this all the more unnerving. Just what had made Irulon happy enough to genuinely smile.
Worse still, Alyssa had the odd sensation of deja vu. This… was this real? She had already seen it. One of the shards of glass had this exact scene.
“Alyssa? Can you hear me? Hello?”
“What was that?” Alyssa asked, just as she had in the shard. But the shard hadn’t shown her further than this point. Although the scene itself was vivid enough in her mind that she might as well be rewatching it on her phone, she couldn’t actually remember the piece of glass itself. Had it disappeared? Crushed like the ones where she had apparently died in some manner? Or had it simply gone out of her sight?
“Fractal Mirror. A Rank Six spell that allows the arcanist to view every conceivable action they could take within the next sixty seconds. Upon touching a pane of glass, the spell then forces this world to correspond with what you saw in whatever shard of reality you chose. All intervening actions are effectively discarded in favor of the end result.”
That didn’t make much sense to Alyssa, but it was magic. Rank Six as well. Far from her estimation of the lower ranks being easily replicated by mundane means.
“Everything is probably blurring together at the moment. It will get better as time passes and you can further divorce yourself from what you witnessed. Changing location can work as well. Shall we move to the other side of the room?”
“I’d rather avoid moving for the foreseeable future, if that’s alright with you.” Once again, Alyssa tried to close her eyes. She could still see all the possibilities, but Irulon was right. Sixty seconds must have passed. While she had been lying on the floor almost exactly as she was now in any number of those possibilities, she hadn’t once heard what the spell actually did. Knowing how it worked, Irulon had probably done that on purpose.
It showed the future? What kind of insanity was that? Now that she was actually thinking about it, just that aspect of the spell alone was crazy enough. Then it had to go and what… break causality? That was what it had done, right? Alyssa wasn’t some sort of physicist or any other kind of scientist, but she had definitely heard about causality in various fictions. Just thinking about it made her headache worsen.
“So, you are capable of casting spells at the peak of human limits. Quite impressive. There are only three others in the city able to do the same. Administrator Devo and my dear father. Myself included, of course.”
“Are all high level spells so…” Alyssa shuddered.
Which just made Irulon giggle. “Fractal magic has a long and storied history of driving its users insane. As such, it is not a well researched specialization. Such an unexplored facet of magic could open up countless unknown possibilities. My particular fascination revolves around the possibility that all the possibilities you saw are real, actually happening somewhere out there.”
“It makes people insane?” Alyssa clung to that one line, barely hearing the rest of what Irulon had to say. “And you made me cast it, ugh. I still feel like my brain is melting through my ears.”
“Truthfully, I did not believe you would be able to. When you actually initiated the spell, I assumed you were doomed. I was all prepared to call in some servants to clean up the mess.” Irulon took the seat in a chair near where Alyssa sat on the floor, crossing her legs as she sat down. “I am truly impressed. As expected of some unknown creature of the Underworld.”
“I’m not… Ugh, whatever. It hurts to argue.”
“Ahaha! You’re a fascinating one. Shame I can’t take you apart.”
“I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t.”
“Perhaps later. For now, you want to learn magic. Tell me why.”
That was a question Alyssa had expected before even showing up today. So it didn’t take much thinking to go through her options. Of course, she had come up with answers before she knew about Irulon’s obsession with this Underworld—some place, presumably, that Alyssa had never heard of before now. “I arrived in Teneville a few weeks ago through a magical accident. I would like to get back home.”
“There is a pit leading to the—”
“I’m not from the damn Underworld! I’ve never even heard of it until today!” Alyssa groaned. That outburst hadn’t helped her headache. “Before arriving in Teneville, I didn’t even know magic was real. I don’t know what spell brought me here or how to reverse it. However, I do know that the creature who sent me here was not a human. If I go back, it will probably try to kill me. So I need a way to defend myself as well.” Okay. Technically the one who sent her here wasn’t going to try to kill her, that would be Iosefael, but Irulon didn’t need to know the difference between Tenebrael and Iosefael. Or any other angels that might exist for that matter. “Can you help me?”
“You’re being awfully vague. Though I suppose that is why I’m interested in you. There are a plethora of spells related to combat and defense. Transportation magic… hmm…” Irulon took her violet eyes off Alyssa for a moment, scanning around the library. “I assume you require something for long distances.”
“I’ve never heard of Lyria. Or Teneville. Or the First City. Or the Fortress of Pandora…”
Irulon looked back with a jerk of her head. Her eyes flickered for an instant, reverting to that black with white rings where her irises should be. Whatever it was, it only lasted a quick second. Could it have been a spell of some sort?
No. Everyone she had seen cast a spell had called out the name of the spell. Even Irulon had called out the Fractal Mirror spell.
“Hey,” Alyssa said softly. Her headache was dying down enough that it was just a mild ache rather than the thumping pain. “How come people shout out the spell names when they cast?”
“Humans trigger the spell through a verbal phrase. Humans,” she repeated with a smile.
“I am human,” Alyssa said with a scowl.
“Hm. Did you know that you’re missing… No. Never mind.”
Glancing around, Alyssa worried for a moment that the mirror spell had not moved something when it moved the rest of her. Both pistols were still holstered, one under her arm and one at her hip. All the rings, necklaces, and other such jewelry were still in place. Her hair was still pulled back into a ponytail and she had both arms, both legs, and all her fingers and toes. Naturally, her dress was still in place as well. Aziz’s satchel should have been on top of the desk, but it hadn’t been on her person while using the spell.
Maybe Irulon was mistaken and that was why she had said never mind. Shaking her head, and feeling slightly better, Alyssa used the table to get back on her feet. Her stance wasn’t so steady, but she managed to keep herself from toppling over. The satchel was right on top, right where she had left it, and a quick search through showed nothing missing.
“Take out your little copying trinket,” Irulon said. “I’ll show you a few generic spells you can use to defend yourself. After that, we should determine your specializations.”
“Uh…” Alyssa shifted side to side as she averted her eyes from Irulon.
“Uh? Uh what?” Irulon’s violet eyes shifted to the satchel, Alyssa’s waist, her hands, then back to her eyes. “You don’t have it. Why? With how you reacted last time, I do not believe you would have given it away. Damaged then? Lost. With its apparent value, you would have been exceedingly careful unless I grossly misjudged your personality. Stolen then.”
“Not stolen per se. I wanted it upgraded a bit and handed it off to someone who could do that. They… uh… have probably forgotten completely at this point.” The night before, Alyssa had tried to get it back. She had closed her eyes, clasped her hands together, and verbally asked Tenebrael to appear before her. That stupid angel obviously hadn’t—she was probably too busy torturing that other idiotic angel. Or whatever they were doing together. Alyssa hadn’t seen either since that night. Ugh, was it too much to ask that they bow to her every whim? Or at least return the phone.
It had been absurdly embarrassing, especially with Kasita watching her the whole time.
“An upgrade implies that they are familiar enough with the trinket to delve into its inner enchantments. Meaning that they could build another one.” Irulon stood, arched her back in a quick stretch, and looked to Alyssa. “Take me there. I would like to acquire one for myself. While we’re out, we can find you a proper tailor.”
Blinking, Alyssa glanced down at herself. Her long blue skirt and the light blue top were perfectly fine looking. Maybe wrinkled from being packed in her pack for two weeks along with a bunch of other junk, but relatively clean. They weren’t dirty or frayed around the edges. Given that Alyssa’s mother had roughly the same body size and shape, they weren’t even overly large.
In comparison to Irulon’s elegant silk gown with all its purple and golden colors, Alyssa’s cotton or polyester or whatever it was did look a little worse. But who cared? She hadn’t come here for fashion tips. She came for the magic! Which, unfortunately, seemed like it was being blocked by her phone.
“Unfortunately, the person upgrading it doesn’t exactly have a shop.”
“And you don’t have a way to locate them?”
“I tried already, just yesterday, and failed. I think I’m just going to have to wait for her to bring it back to me.”
“Hm. This sounds more and more like it was stolen, though through your own foolishness rather than any guile on the thief’s part.”
“Nope, I’m quite sure that this person is entirely trustworthy… with this one specific thing.” And maybe the location of Bercilak as well. Anything else, Alyssa would take with a grain of salt.
“And you have no means of contacting them? Perhaps a Message spell?”
Actually, despite being in Aziz’s notebook, that spell hadn’t even crossed her mind. The only other means of contacting Tenebrael that Alyssa could think of had been to go out and murder someone—or find someone about to die. And she wasn’t about to do that. It was true that she had… killed a small number of people since that fateful night, but she wasn’t some murderer! Not even over something as extraordinarily useful as a stupid phone.
Though it would be lying to say that she hadn’t been keeping her eyes open for any goblins while delivering Tzheitza’s potions over the past few days.
“How exactly does Message work?” She knew roughly from what she had read in Aziz’s notebook, but it was a higher ranked spell. Higher than Zero, anyway. With him unable to cast Rank Zero, he had only brief descriptions of much beyond. Yet another reason she still hadn’t tried to fly.
“You say Message, followed by the name of the recipient, followed by a short verbal message.”
“Won’t work,” Alyssa said instantly. “I don’t know their real name.” Except she did. Dominion Tenebrael. She couldn’t just speak it in front of Irulon. With that tattoo around Irulon’s eye mimicking Tenebrael’s, claiming to be friends or enemies with Tenebrael would likely see her exiled for heresy or blasphemy. According to Kasita, the typical punishment for that minor crime was exile to the First City. Maybe she could find some monsters as friendly as Kasita. Maybe she would wind up food for some creature from beyond her nightmares. However, as soon as she got back to Tzheitza’s potion shop, the message spell would be the first thing she tried.
“I see,” Irulon said, all amusement missing from her voice and her face. “So you handed off a trinket, the likes of which I have never seen before, to someone who you don’t know, doesn’t have a proper business, and you have no way of locating. And you think this was a good idea?” Shaking her head, Irulon sighed. “I had thought—perhaps even wished in a moment of weakness—that you were more intelligent than the average imbecile. Sometimes I forget how slowly other people think.”
Well if that wasn’t the most arrogant thing Alyssa had ever heard, she didn’t know what was. At the same time, she could see where Irulon was coming from. The phone would have become worthless after only a few hours in operation anyway because of the battery running out, so if she didn’t ever get it back, it wasn’t that big of a loss. She would have needed to go without it anyway. Without knowing that, it was perfectly understandable for the princess to be upset.
“If you weren’t a Rank Six arcanist, I would probably have you thrown into my oubliette. As it is, I am considering the benefits of having you publicly flogged.”
“Hm.” Irulon stared as if seriously considering the prospect.
“Look, uhh…” Alyssa said quickly, desperate for a change in the subject. “Why don’t we, uh…” She had just about asked about the duplication method Aziz had mentioned so long ago, wondering if it were possible just to clone Irulon’s spell tome. But that was a bit close to their current topic of using her phone to copy down spells. Mentally, Alyssa snapped her fingers. “I’ve never created a spell card before. I’m sure an arcanist of your caliber has all sorts of tips and tricks. Would you show me how?” There! Perfect! A bit of busy work to distract the princess along with a hint of ego stroking.
But Irulon made a face. “I knew you were new, but you haven’t scribed a spell? That’s the most basic of basics.”
“Then it shouldn’t take long to teach me. I am literate and well educated in non-magical matters. Think of it as… an investment. I can’t be an effective Rank Six arcanist if I can’t even cobble together a single spell card.”
“To be an investment, you must be something that I can use. And I definitely can find uses for an unknown arcanist with your potential. Very well. Your compelling argument has convinced me,” Irulon said in a flat tone of voice. She wasn’t even trying to pretend like she had needed convincing.
Teeth clenched together, Alyssa forced herself into a smile. “Great. Sounds lovely.”