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Every jar of light in the room exploded.

The room was plunged into darkness. Being underground with no windows, the only light came from the thin cracks in the wood of the closed door that led back into the hall. Which wasn’t enough light for anything but a reference point in the pitch black.

Alyssa’s heart jolted. She remembered! Every time she had entered the room during Infinite Regress, the Taker had done the same thing! Throwing herself to the side to avoid the dagger that was surely already flying through the air, she rolled once before managing to get off her knees and back to standing. But she didn’t hear the telltale clatter of a metal knife hitting the stone floor.

She heard screams.

Kasita cried out, though her voice cut off after a second. The Taker shouted in his nasally tone, in pain but not quite screaming as Kasita had.

Desecrate Spells. It had to be. Alyssa hadn’t a clue what was going on, but it was that spell’s fault. She should have receded back into the hall, right where she had left her clone. Was this still in Infinite Regress? Recede.

Nothing. Still darkness. The Taker made another grunt of pain from somewhere in the room—his enchantments being torn apart by Desecrate Spells. It had to be. And this had to be real. Even if it wasn’t, even if this was still in the Infinite Regress spell and Desecrate Spells had simply disrupted her ability to recede, she couldn’t afford to treat it as anything but real.

Alyssa unslung the shotgun from over her shoulder. The jars of magical potion lights had exploded. Kasita had screamed. The Taker was still making occasional pained noises. Regardless of whatever had gone wrong with Infinite Regress, Desecrate Spells was still working. So long as it worked as advertised, the Taker’s projectile reflection wasn’t.

She just had to find him.

Even with a few seconds in the darkness, her eyes hadn’t adjusted. They probably wouldn’t ever adjust enough to see with how little light seeped in through the door. Since her back was to the door, Kasita’s cell would be to her right. But the last noise had been straight ahead.

That had been a second or two ago. There hadn’t been any noise since.

Alyssa grit her teeth. Sweat poured down her neck. She could almost feel something crawling up her spine—her imagination, surely. It still got her thinking. Could the Taker see in the dark?

No. All spells should have been destroyed, including anything that might have granted night vision. But something was wrong. She was missing something.

What was it?

Alyssa turned her head, straining her ears for anything that might tip her off as to his location.

A noise! Mumbling to her left? Alyssa didn’t hesitate in the slightest. She swung her shotgun around and fired. A bright flash at the muzzle lit up the room for a fraction of a second—too bright to see, it burned a white light into her eyes.

The pellets hit something. A man screeched.

But it wasn’t in the Taker’s nasally tone. Bacco? She had completely forgotten about him!

Alyssa threw herself to the side without thinking.

Too slow.

Icy metal sliced through her upper arm, grazing her.

Ignoring the burning sear on her skin left in its wake, Alyssa pumped the shotgun, sending a shell across the room, and fired again. This time, she aimed where she thought the dagger had come from.

She didn’t stand around wondering if she had hit anyone. Alyssa moved immediately, running along the wall of cages toward where Kasita had been.

Bacco kept moaning. He wasn’t dead, but he didn’t sound like he was having a good time. She could picture the larger man rocking back and forth as he put pressure on wherever she had hit. If they both survived, she might just apologize. Until then, the Taker was still around.

The Taker wasn’t moaning and groaning. Her second shot hadn’t connected. She counted herself lucky that his second dagger pinged off the stone wall harmlessly behind her as she moved around the room. There was some rustling of clothes, but it was difficult to hear over Bacco. From what she could tell, the Taker had moved to that side of the room, keeping opposite of Alyssa.

“Kasita,” Alyssa hissed out into the darkness, hoping that the noise Bacco was making would cover up her voice. “Please tell me you’re alive.”

The mimic gave her no response. Not a pained groan, not a snarky giggle.

With a frown, Alyssa moved on without waiting long, keeping her elbow along the wall so that she didn’t run into it. Her voice could have given her away to the Taker. She had a flashlight she could use to look for the mimic once the Taker was dealt with. Of course, like the Bacco situation, that relied on her surviving. Shining around the light now would just get her a dozen daggers thrown in her direction.

As she moved, she pulled out her deck of cards. Shooting blindly into the dark room wasn’t working. True, she had only tried twice, but the Taker had already mentioned being passably familiar with the gun. He wouldn’t let her find him easily. It was far more likely that the longer this went on, the more likely she would find herself impaled on his sword again.

She had to be quick and careful in retrieving the deck, just in case the Taker did end up showing himself. The darkness kept her from seeing the cards—even her own hands might as well still be invisible with how little she could see. But she hadn’t needed to know which cards were which back when she had blown away Bercilak’s goon with a few dozen fireballs. The faint feel of indents in one side let her orient the cards with the spell designs facing out.

Fingers trembling, Alyssa stopped directly opposite from the door. Facing it, she slung her shotgun back over her shoulder and fanned the cards out in front of her.

There was one small advantage she had. Every other person she had encountered who had cast spells had said the name of the spell out loud. It was a definite weakness, even if it only gave their opponents a split second to make a decision.

She had one shot at making something good of this. The Taker was too smart to not catch on if she failed.

The fan of cards lit up with a quarter of them vanishing. Fireballs formed at the tips of her fingers, lingering there momentarily before flying away from her in all directions. One slammed into the chair in the middle of the room, sending it toppling aflame. Most splashed harmlessly against the stone or metal bars in the room.

One welled up, swelling bright as it struck something only a few paces from Alyssa.

Without a sound, the Taker spun, throwing his flaming coat to the floor. Bloody streaks ran down his arms and it looked like a tiger had taken exception to his face. But he raised his sword in the same smooth motion that got rid of his coat, not even caring about the blood running down his face. He didn’t make any expression at all as he stepped forward to strike.

But Alyssa wasn’t done yet. Pivoting to orient the spells directly at him, she—

Intestines slipped from their fleshy prison, landing on the floor with a loud slop along with a pool of bright red blood.

Alyssa stumbled backward, recoiling at the sight of the sword swinging toward her.

Its black metal tip whisked past her face close enough that she could feel the air rushing past.

And it was coming back!

She tried to duck and slip out of the way.

But didn’t quite make it.

“Argh!” The sword bit into her shoulder. Not much. It dug in half a finger’s length before connecting with metal.

Her shotgun caught it, keeping the sword from taking off her arm.

Arm screaming in pain and not knowing what else to do, Alyssa shoved that same shoulder into the Taker’s chest. He stumbled back. It wasn’t enough to knock him down, but it let Alyssa put some distance between them by using him as a springboard.

Alyssa’s head snapped back. Something caught her hair. Her half-tumble away from the Taker turned to a full tumble as she lost her balance. Hitting the ground shoulder first, Alyssa let out another cry at feeling a snap in her arm. Grinding her teeth together and blinking back tears, she rolled over onto her back.

The Taker closed the distance between them almost casually, letting a fistful of brown hair drift to the floor. Tilting his head side to side let out loud cracks. “You have been an irritating opponent,” he said like he was discussing nothing more important than the weather. “But I have taken the lives of many far worse than you. I wish I could ram my sword through your skull. Unfortunately, my boss wishes for a decisive example to be made of you.”

That hadn’t stopped him from killing her in any of those Infinite Regress attempts. What changed? She couldn’t think about it now. This couldn’t be the end. If she gave up, Tenebrael would eat her. And that was not going to happen!

Spell cards still clenched in the fist of her broken arm, she twisted herself, aiming the faces at him. He raised his sword high above his head. The first spell that came to mind vanished from the deck, unleashing its power on him as the sword came down. She squeezed her eyes closed and turned to the side with a wince, fully expecting that to be her last conscious thought.

But nothing hit her. Peeking one eye open, the sword stopped inches from her ear. It froze no differently than if it had hit a stone pillar slightly larger than her body.

His dark eyes widened ever so slightly, catching in the flickering light of the burning chair. But he didn’t move. The Taker stood with his arms outstretched, both hands on the hilt of his sword.

As fast as she could, Alyssa slid out from under the blade. The way it didn’t even waver actually had her laughing, though she didn’t laugh for long—a spike of pain in her arm cut that off quick. But still! It worked. “You know what that spell was, don’t you?” she said with a forced smile. “I’m surprised you managed to react that fast. How long do you think you can hold that position?”

The Taker didn’t respond. He couldn’t! Not without potentially killing himself.

Alyssa burst out laughing despite the pain in her shoulder and back. It wasn’t funny, but she couldn’t help it. All the tension and stress just evaporated all at once. She had won! The Taker couldn’t move. Not unless the spell wore off.

Her laughter died off with that sobering thought. As she had decided beforehand, she couldn’t leave him alive. Reaching for the pistol at her hip, Alyssa stopped with a jerk at the pain in her right arm. For the first time, she looked down.

Blood drenched her shirt, soaking into the fabric. The gash in her shoulder—more of her collar bone—was deeper than she had thought. Red meat and… bone? Alyssa wobbled as a sudden lightheaded sensation unfocused her eyes. The shoulder was the Hollywood go-to location for injuring a character without killing them, but was that true? She was almost positive that she had read somewhere about a major vein or artery that ran through the shoulder, making all those seeming flesh wounds into actual death sentences.

The lightheadedness went away as panic set in. She needed to fix this. Bandage it or something. Quick. Before she passed out, bled out, and died. Trying to move her arm again just brought up another problem. Her arm, between her elbow and her shoulder, had a curve to it that definitely hadn’t been there before.

Broken. She had broken her arm in that fall.

Aware of her injuries, the hurt ramped up. Like getting a paper-cut and not feeling it until noticing the wound. Except worse. Ten thousand times worse. She could see her angel-damned bones! Each throb of her heart turned the sting to a fiery heat.

Shock! Alyssa realized. I’m in shock! Just realizing that fact didn’t help. Her mind remained blank. What to do? What to do! She needed to stop the bleeding. But how? She could tear her shirt into strips, but would that be enough to stop a gash this big? Her shirt was already full of blood. With the angle of the cut right above her shoulder, she couldn’t tie a tourniquet.

Frustration mounting along with a woozy feeling in her head. It took all her willpower to force herself to remain conscious. If she passed out, the Taker would get free, most likely. But what could she do? Kasita, gone. Dead? Maybe just unconscious. Either way, if she hadn’t shown herself yet, she wasn’t going to be able to help. The Taker would kill her the instant she released him. Maybe if she had saved the Contract spell. Bacco? Alyssa turned to his cell. He was still alive. She could hear him. But she winced as she looked in.

He was broken and bloodied. Her shotgun hadn’t done that. In fact, in the dim light from the flames, she could see where her shot had hit—nowhere near him. The Taker must have tortured him.

No. Not like this. She wouldn’t accept it. So long as Tenebrael was out there waiting for her soul, Alyssa wouldn’t—couldn’t die. There had to be something. She just wasn’t thinking right. Her thoughts came too quick in her panic, focusing on one thing was hard. But she had to try.

Alyssa looked down at the spell cards in her hand, thinking through the possibilities. Nothing came to mind that could heal her. Most everything was flame magic, death magic, or basic utility spells. Nothing that would mend her arm. Alyssa couldn’t do anything but clench her fist. All this magic and nothing that could save her.

A thought slammed into her like a freight train. Fire magic! Using just one hand, she started going through cards, tossing useless ones to the floor rather than try to keep hold of them all.

There! Flame. One of the simplest spells. Alyssa wasted no time in casting it. As soon as the small candle-sized fire appeared at the tip of her finger, she moved her hand to her shoulder.

She barely felt the burn before the candle was snuffed out among the viscera. It wasn’t enough. The flame was too weak. Not hot enough. Even if she used up all the flame spells in her deck, it probably wouldn’t be enough to even partially cauterize the wound. There had to be something bigger. She started going through the remaining cards. All the fireballs were gone, but they probably would have been too much in the wrong direction.

The solution stared up at her from the floor. A pentagram with five triangles intersecting the sides, connected at a single point in the center. There was more to it, but Alyssa focused more on what it could do rather than the actual shapes. Immolating Gloves. It should light her hands on fire with enough heat that it would make her drop any weapons. Enough heat to burn closed her wound? Hopefully enough to get to Tzheitza and get some help.

Out of options, Alyssa knelt to pick up the card. She didn’t even bother standing again. Slipping the card between the fingers of her right arm, she aimed the face at her left and cast the spell.

Heat flared up immediately, searing the skin of her hand as orange flames enveloped her hand. Alyssa hissed in pain, but she didn’t let that stop her from slamming her hand onto her shoulder.

A high-pitched scream echoed off the walls of the circular stone chamber.

The spell didn’t last long. It wasn’t meant to. But it did its job. Alyssa grimaced as she looked at her shoulder. Every throb of her heart sent needles of pain through her, but the blackened skin wasn’t bleeding anymore.

One crisis averted for the moment, hopefully. Now she just had a million more things to worry over. Infection, disease, cancer. More immediately, would she ever be able to use her arm again? Or her hand, for that matter. It hadn’t survived unscathed. Her fingers and palm were just as charred as her shoulder. She didn’t even want to try clenching her hand into a fist.

For a few minutes, Alyssa just sat there on the floor, trying to keep from crying more than she already had. What a nightmare. What an actual nightmare. And it wasn’t over yet.

She glanced up at the Taker, still standing exactly where she had left him. Except the tip of his sword was trembling as he held it in his outstretched arms. She flashed him a grin. An actual honest grin despite everything.

I survived.

Killing him wasn’t in the cards at the moment, so to speak. Neither of her hands were in any shape to hold a gun, let alone fire one, and the spells were all scattered across the floor. Maybe she could pick one up. But it probably wouldn’t matter.

The Taker was trapped in Rigor Mortis. A Rank Five Death spell. Its target became unable to move. To be clear, it wasn’t some Petrificus Totalus spell that literally prevented movement. It froze his movements for only an instant, after that, it released him. The Taker could move if he wanted to. But any part of him that significantly moved from its frozen position would have its bones broken. If he tried to let go of his sword, every bone in his fingers would snap. If he tried to shift his weight, his hips would break. If he tried to speak, his jaw would be crushed. Even worse, it wouldn’t stop at the first bones broken. So if his fingers broke and he tried to shout in pain, his jaw would split in two. If he recoiled from the pain…

He might as well be as good as dead. Especially with how his sword wasn’t steady anymore. It had to be heavy. Holding it straight out in front of him pulled at his muscles.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t just slam into him again to trigger the effects. External influence broke the spell. It was the deadliest game of freeze-tag.

Alyssa forced herself to her feet. She couldn’t sit around. If Cid or anyone else walked into the room, she had no way of defending herself. She needed to get outside and hope that Tzheitza and Oz had dealt with whatever assassin they had encountered.

“Kasita,” she called out, throat sore and voice hoarse from shouting. “Kasita, I need you to come out. Or just make some noise so I can carry you out.” Alyssa looked to the trap-door cell, expecting the mimic to pop up with a giggle. Nothing happened. No voices. No shimmering beautiful women appearing out of nowhere. “Anything,” she tried one more time. Tenebrael hadn’t shown herself, so Kasita shouldn’t be dead. Unless the demonic angel didn’t bother with monster souls. But it looked like Alyssa would have to trust the mimic to find her own escape once she recovered. If she ever did.

“Please…”

Alyssa turned her head to the opposite side of the room, wincing as the motion pulled at her burned shoulder.

It wasn’t Kasita. Bacco pressed himself up against the bars of his cell. He stretched his hand out to Alyssa, though his fingers were all bent and twisted in the wrong ways. “Please,” he said again, voice almost as bad as Alyssa’s. “You can’t leave me here.”

Alyssa frowned, closing her eyes. Without the adrenaline running through her body, she felt about ready to fall asleep. The Taker made examples of people, according to Irulon. And Bacco definitely looked like he was in the process of being made an example of. But… “I don’t have a key.” Even if she wanted to help, she couldn’t. The Taker probably had the key on him, but touching him would free him.

Rather than choking up and falling to despair, Bacco actually straightened his back. “No key needed! The cells are opened with that panel near the door.”

Turning and barely able to see in the rapidly dwindling light of the burning chair, Alyssa found a series of toggle switches right where Bacco said they would be. Not electrical switches, but more like the lever that closed the hidden staircase. Despite what he had done to her, she couldn’t leave Bacco here in good conscience. If the Taker did manage to escape the Rigor Mortis, through help or simply because passing out would make the spell fizzle, he would surely start by dealing with the large man. So, with a preemptive grit of her teeth to ready herself for the pain, Alyssa lifted her left hand and carefully pulled down on the levers. She didn’t grip it with her burned skin so much as she used her whole arm.

The third switch dropped Bacco’s bars into the floor. He lumbered out.

Alyssa tensed as the large man turned his head to the Taker. All it would take was a light shove to free him, which would probably earn Bacco some redemption points from the torturer. As well as inadvertently kill her. But she managed to breathe out a sigh of relief as he turned away.

“What did you do to him?”

As soon as Bacco spoke, the sword fell to the floor with a loud clatter.

Alyssa jumped, fearing that the Taker would rush at her. But he didn’t. Three of his fingers twisted in on themselves even worse than Bacco’s fractured fingers, one joint bending such that his skin broke, spilling a small amount of blood to the floor.

Surprisingly enough, he didn’t move more than that. He didn’t jerk back his arms in pain or make the slightest sound. The man definitely had self-control. Hopefully not enough to last.

“Bacco,” Alyssa said, throat hoarse from shouting. “Can you move your fingers?”

“A little.” He notably did not demonstrate, even paling slightly at the question.

“Good… Good enough.” Did she trust him? Did she have a choice? The Taker had too much self control and she felt too weak. If she passed out, the spell would likely stop. And the Taker would be freed. Alyssa couldn’t take that risk. He had proved himself far too dangerous during the infinite regress sessions. “My side,” she said, turning slightly to make sure he could see the pistol at her hip. The button holding the gun in the holster was already undone so that she could have grabbed it easily if needed. “Take it out.”

Bacco hesitated. It took a “Now!” from Alyssa to get his hands moving. His fingers truly were broken and injured, but he forced through the pain, grabbing the grip of her gun.

“Put it in my hand,” she said. Her arm and shoulder were broken. She could barely move them now. But her fingers still worked. When Bacco placed the gun in her hand, she quickly flicked off the safety. “Now help me point it at him. Just lift up my arm a bit.”

The Taker’s eyes widened. They didn’t have bones in them, just muscle, so he was free to look around. She could see the sudden onset of fear in his eyes as the gun slowly raised to his face.

For her part, Alyssa was just trying not to scream as her ruined muscles and bones protested the movement. Sweat covered her face. Her vision wasn’t clear. Was the pistol even properly aimed at the Taker? It was hard to tell. But Bacco had stopped moving her arm. Did she trust him? No. But she trusted that he, at least, was not about to backstab her the way Cid had tried. So she started to squeeze the trigger.

The Taker moved before she could. He thrust one hand to a pocket. His arm broke clean in two on the way, but his twisted fingers made it inside. “Projectile Reflec—” His jaw snapped to the side before his nasally voice could finish.

But it was enough for Alyssa to hesitate. He hadn’t finished, but was what he had said enough? He hadn’t pulled any cards out of his pockets either, so she couldn’t tell if one had disappeared. Nothing shimmered around his form that looked like a shield, but he hadn’t had one on earlier either. Heart plummeting to the depths of her stomach, she released the pressure on the trigger. Maybe it hadn’t worked. But if it had, she would wind up shooting herself in the face.

It was enough to make her want to cry. More than she already did, anyway.

She couldn’t kill him.

The spells scattered across the floor, she had already dismissed them during Infinite Regress. Until she learned exactly what Projectile Reflection would and wouldn’t reflect, she couldn’t use most of them. The rest, she hadn’t had the time to identify them. A few daggers were lying about. And the sword. But between her burned hand and her broken, gashed arm, she couldn’t use them.

Bacco? Could he chop off the Taker’s head? If he failed, if he freed the Taker from Rigor Mortis and didn’t do enough damage, the Taker still had one good arm. Alyssa didn’t doubt for a moment that he could kill both of them with that one arm. And Cid had once said that Bacco wouldn’t hurt a slime. Of all the things Cid had lied about, that might be the most believable.

“W-What now?” Bacco asked, realizing that she wasn’t going to shoot. He helped her lower the pistol back to her holster. It hurt like a bitch, but Alyssa’s mind was racing to find any possibilities that might lead to the Taker’s death.

And she was coming up blank.

“Let’s go,” she said, not bothering to answer his question as she wedged the door open with her ruined hand. Rigor Mortis was still active. No one, not even the Taker, could maintain a perfect stillness forever. Especially while in an awkward pose with one arm out and their body leaning forward. She would just have to stay awake as long as possible.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t stick around. Her wounds were great. And if anyone from the brothel, or any other secret room, came down here… Things would likely end up poorly.

She needed to get to Tzheitza and hope that the woman had something that could help her. Then she needed to prepare. Just in case the Taker did survive.

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