Irulon glanced up from her notebooks the second Alyssa popped her head into the Observatorium’s library. Her violet eyes flicked from Alyssa’s face to her shoulder then down to her hand. Each jump served to deepen the princess’ frown. It was the first time since meeting the princess that she hadn’t put on her smiling mask.
But Alyssa continued toward her anyway. She owed it to Kasita to at least ask for help.
“Alternate Visage,” Irulon mumbled as soon as Alyssa entered into the gap between her and the rest of the students. As soon as the shimmering bubble of a spell encircled them, she continued on without even giving Alyssa a chance to speak. “I see my efforts have gone to waste. I gave you all the tools you needed to succeed and yet the Taker still lives and you have come crawling back to beg me for more help. Giving charity is not a habit of mine, Alyssa.”
The conversation was already heading in a bad direction and Alyssa hadn’t even said a word yet. She still wasn’t speaking, not sure how to react. While she had expected complaints on how she had handled the situation similar to what she got from Oz and Tzheitza, this… What was Irulon even mad about? She hadn’t been the one getting torn apart over and over again before being torn apart in real life. All she had done was scrawl out a few lines on some papers.
Of course, Alyssa didn’t say that out loud. It would be a surefire way to ensure that she never received help again.
Instead, Alyssa had to ask. “How can you know all that? Have you been having me followed?”
“Your face is riddled with worry. Not the triumphant confidence one returning from victory would have. More, you failed to dress up. Even the first time you came here when you were practically shaking from being nervous, you tried to make yourself look wealthier than you actually are. In your haste, you forgot completely. You didn’t even stop to look around the room, failing to notice the two administrators present today, both of whom are watching us closely.” Irulon waved a vague gesture over her shoulder, making Alyssa look up.
She just about jumped back as she noticed two older gentlemen staring right at her. Most people in the library were her age. Give or take five years. These two were clearly much older, having white hair and beards as well as extensive wrinkles lining their faces. Alyssa shuddered at their gazes. She didn’t like being watched, especially not so intensely. Only remembering that the spell Irulon had used kept them from seeing the real her let her calm slightly. She almost asked how Irulon had known they were staring without looking back only to realize that it probably wasn’t that hard to guess. Irulon had apparently threatened the administrators to allow her access to the library. It was only natural they would be curious about her.
“On top of all that,” Irulon continued, “you are injured. While I do commend you for surviving a physical encounter with the Taker, given his reputation, you should never have gotten close enough to him to be hurt in the first place. You clearly squandered my spells.”
“Yes, well, if the spells acted as I thought they should, everything would have been fine. How was I supposed to know that Infinite Regress and Desecrate Spells interacted poorly with each other.”
Irulon looked up to where Alyssa stood, actually meeting her eyes as she tilted her head to the side. “What do you mean?”
Alyssa didn’t respond right away, somewhat shocked that Irulon didn’t know something. In fact, that might just be the first real question she had ever asked in all their meetings. “I don’t know,” she said eventually, slumping down into the seat opposite from Irulon. “I was under the effects of Empty Mirror, I used Infinite Regress outside the room the Taker was in.”
It only took a few minutes to explain everything that went down during her confrontation with the Taker. For most of the talk, Irulon sat there nodding her head as if she had expected every word of it. It wasn’t until she got to the Desecrate Spells part that Irulon started frowning again. This time, her frown wasn’t directed at Alyssa. She was doing more of the furrowing her brows in thought sort of thing rather than getting angry over something. At one point, she pulled over one of her notebooks and started scribbling in it, all without breaking eye contact.
“And then we left. The Taker couldn’t move, but Kasita accidentally freed him before more than his arms could break. He did lose an eye in the process, apparently. So that’s nice, I guess.”
Irulon didn’t say anything right away, continuing to write in her notebook. As soon as she finished, she nodded her head. “First, I can think of at least twenty ways you could have killed the Taker even after burning yourself. And that’s just off the top of my head. Second, none of that should have happened. Fractal magic toys with the world. And other worlds. Infinite Regress effectively copies reality, allowing you to play with anything you wish as you would a doll, affecting the true world as much as a doll might. Nothing you could do should have done anything to the outside world.”
“Yeah. But it did.” The more she played with it, the less she thought she liked magic. It was too unreliable. When she pulled the trigger on her gun, it sent a slug of metal hurtling away from her at twice the speed of sound. When she cast a spell, she couldn’t quite be sure what she would get. Maybe that was the fault of her own ignorance, but then there was the fact that magic didn’t seem to work right around her either. Tenebrael had been shocked that Spectral Chains had been able to touch the pair of angels. Nothing Iosefael had tried to do to her had worked. Even Tenebrael had said that a large number of spells simply failed on her.
Maybe it wasn’t magic that was the problem. Maybe it was just her.
“Anyway, I didn’t come here because of the Taker. Though if you have a concrete plan for killing him, I’m all ears. But I came here because of that mimic I mentioned.”
“The one you rescued from the whorehouse.”
“Yes, I…” Alyssa blinked, searching her memories. “Did I tell you that?”
Irulon shrugged and waved her hand. “You were saying?”
“She was in the area when I used Desecrate Spells. And now she’s… unable to maintain her form. Her body keeps twisting into amalgamations of… whatever. My face with Tzheitza’s hair and giant boobs or worse, my face with a man’s body. And the faces are all messed up too. Like I can tell when it’s supposed to be me, but it looks like she built it out of Play—er, wet clay.”
“Ah ha. Truly?”
“It’s not funny,” Alyssa said with a frown. Seeing Irulon smile and laugh at the situation gave her a little hope that she might at least take a look. This was the first thing she had smiled at. With a real smile, anyway. Her usual fake smile didn’t count. “It’s eerie enough looking at her when she’s normal, but now it’s like a horror movie come to life.”
“It’s like a play. Theater. Never mind.”
With another shrug, Irulon slid one of her notebooks to the side and pulled over another one. She started flipping to an already written page, eyes flicking across the words. After a moment of reading, she pushed it away and pulled over another book. “Interesting. I hadn’t thought that Desecrate Spells would work on non-active magical effects. Then again, I suppose a mimic would have their magic constantly active. Still, spells like that don’t normally work on monsters’ natural abilities.”
“Yeah, well, magic doesn’t seem to work normally around me, so that’s par for the course. My real question: Can it be fixed?”
“Desecrate Spells should strip magic in the area. Once there is no more magic for it to feed on, it dies off and spells can be cast normally once again. Without further analysis, I can only guess that the mimic, being a magical creature, is constantly feeding the spell, keeping it active. Killing it would stop magic generation. I assume you wish to rectify the issue without destroying your efforts to save it in the first place.”
“If you mean that I don’t want to kill her, then yes.”
Irulon flipped her drawing notebook to a blank page and picked up her pen. “Try this…”
“Wait. Is this another spell that you want me to cast? Right after I said that magic tends to go strange around me? On someone who I don’t want to kill?” Alyssa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I know you’re probably extremely busy, but I would feel much safer if you would cast it. Or someone you trust. Maybe after examining Kasita just to make sure your theory is correct…” She trailed off, shrinking in on herself. Taking the spell before complaining would have been a much wiser course of action. Now…
Now Irulon’s eyes had changed again. They were black as the night, the only whites being the two concentric rings where the edges of her irises used to be.
Just like last time, her eyes turned back to the normal violet before Alyssa could so much as blink. But all amusement on her face had vanished.
“No,” she said, simple as that. “I’ve humored you so far because you are something of a quandary. A curiosity that might potentially be useful. I can’t figure out what you are. You’re obviously not human, but I believe that you believe that you aren’t from the Underworld either. However, the intrigue you bring is not infinite. These problems you bring me are despairingly mundane, even if they have interesting backstories. Perhaps you could be of use to me one day, but the more I interact with you, the further off that day seems to be. You are correct in assuming that I am busy. Human lifespans are not so extensive that I can waste my time away from my research.”
This again, Alyssa thought. It took a force of will to keep from rolling her eyes. She didn’t know why Irulon thought she wasn’t a human, but apparently her protests last time hadn’t been thorough enough. And all that research? Why? For what? Did she never leave this library? That couldn’t be healthy. Aside from that, however, she could see what Irulon was talking about.
So far, every time Alyssa had shown up at the Observatorium and met with Irulon, she had a problem. And every single time, she had expected Irulon to have a solution handy. While convenient, that wasn’t any way to treat another person. What did she actually know about Irulon? She was a princess. She was good at magic. Her eyes turned scary every once in a while. That… was it. Alyssa had known more about her old coworkers on the first day of the job than she knew about Irulon.
In fact, what did she know about anyone on this world? Oz was a mercenary, but surely there was more to him than money. He had some kind of history with Tzheitza, having left her behind in a tomb. Tzheitza used to be a top tier mercenary, but something bad had happened to her team involving the Taker. That was literally everything she knew about the two of them. Kasita… did she know anything at all about Kasita?
Alyssa had wound up encountering extremely useful people since entering the city, but had been so focused on their usefulness that she barely saw them as people.
Then again, what did any of them know about her? She had hardly told anyone a single thing about herself. What she had told were half-lies or things people wouldn’t understand. Such as her being from America. Her being cagey had been for reasons that always seemed good at the time. She still didn’t think telling people about Tenebrael would be a good idea. Or that she came from another world. But Irulon at least clearly suspected something along those lines already.
“I’m sorry,” Alyssa said, tone solemn. “I’ve been treating you like a tool rather than a person. I don’t suppose…” A part of her just wanted to close her eyes and take a breath. It was the best way she had found to recenter herself. But she wanted to come off as sincere. She wanted to be sincere. Rather than close her eyes, she looked straight at Irulon’s, holding the eye contact. “I still need to fix Kasita. It’s my fault she wound up like she is. I would appreciate any assistance you could offer. However, I would like to… not use you. Let’s be friends?”
“Yeah.” Alyssa rubbed the back of her head. The way Irulon said the word wasn’t encouraging. Did she have any friends? Any at all? Given her status as a princess, most people in her life were probably a station below her. The only ones above would be her brothers and parents. “Friends help each other out. I won’t lie and say that my motivations are wholly selfless. I need help. But don’t think it will be a one-way street. As soon as I get my phone back, I’m sure there will be plenty of things I can offer you. But friendship is more than just a mutually useful relationship. Friends have fun together, hang out, share—”
“Are you deliberately trying to be insulting? Or does it come naturally?”
Crossing her arms, Alyssa scowled. More at herself than at Irulon. She was already messing this up. “I don’t have many friends. I mean, I don’t have any here, but even back home, I mostly made acquaintances and never went beyond that stage.”
Irulon’s eyes lit up. Not literally. They were the same violet that they normally were. But she leaned forward with a smile. “Friends also tell each other information about themselves. Information such as where you are from.”
“That’s… I’m from America.”
“A word without meaning to those who don’t know it. Try again.”
“I don’t know…” It figured that Irulon would be far less accepting of the answer than anyone else she had given it to. Being a princess, she was probably far more learned about the nations and geography of the world. But Alyssa was still not willing to bring Tenebrael into the conversation. Still, she wanted to give Irulon something. An olive branch, even if it was a small one. “Let me put it this way: When I looked up at night, the stars overhead were different than they are here. Different patterns. Different arrangements. Maybe entirely different stars altogether. The moon glowed a brilliant white with dark craters rather than the uniform pasty grey that’s over this place. I’ve never seen rings in the sky before a few weeks ago.”
Irulon stared, keeping her expression blank. She didn’t move. Her eyes stayed locked on Alyssa. Her fingers didn’t twitch. As far as Alyssa could tell, she wasn’t even breathing. But, before Alyssa could look around to see if Tenebrael had shown up and stopped time, the spell broke. Irulon turned to her notebooks. She snapped one closed. Then another. Then a third.
“Anything else I could tell you would just be more out of context names,” Alyssa said, growing desperate. “America is a country that borders Canada and Mexico. They—”
“Enough.” A card appeared in Irulon’s hand. It hadn’t come from her tome and she didn’t wear sleeves, but Alyssa hadn’t been paying much attention. She mumbled something. The books stacked up on the table vanished with the sound of shattering glass. “You cannot tell me where you are from because you don’t know where you are from in relation to here. I understand.”
Alyssa flinched as Irulon turned her head to stare—her black eyes with white rings weren’t just still this time, the white rings were… spinning. The inner rings ran clockwise and the outer rings moved in the opposite direction. “The pieces have all fallen into place. You aren’t from Nod at all. That explains the occasional blank looks, the questions, the lack of basic knowledge. But you aren’t stupid. Ignorance and imbecility are on opposite sides of a vast ocean.
“Your world lacked magic, but you managed to use mundane substitutes to make up for it.” Irulon paused for a moment, watching Alyssa’s face before continuing. “Mundane substitutes which you believe are vastly superior to magic. Interesting. They’ve given you a soft life, a safe life, and plentiful food judging by your ample muscles despite being practically destitute on your first visit with all that false jewelry. Your clothes are evidence to this. The weaves are too tight, too precise to have been done with human hands.”
She said it as if she had just discovered that fact. Or had just come to that conclusion. Alyssa hadn’t said a word. She was too busy trying to not shirk too much under Irulon’s pressure. It was like she was looking at her dragon soul again, the massive beast occupying the entire room. Except it was all compressed and contained in those obsidian eyes, focused to a tight point as they bored into Alyssa. She wasn’t even sure that Irulon was right. Though she definitely believed that modern society outstripped Lyria, she wasn’t sure that magic was the cause. It was definitely a difference. Whether or not it was true, she wasn’t about to correct the princess right now.
Instead, Alyssa remained silent as Irulon continued dissecting the situation.
“Your world has no magic, but you arrived here through magic. Hm. An apparent paradox, but easily resolved. I’ve long theorized the possibility of other worlds existing. Real worlds. Fractal magic is proof of that, though convincing others is irritating. If someone else discovered your world, it would not be out of thought that they were able to go there. Or that they simply pulled you here without transporting themselves at all. I’d ask what spell brought you here, but your lack of magical knowledge might give me false information.”
At that, Alyssa had to nod. She couldn’t even clearly remember the design for Tenebrael’s spell. It had been big. Maybe a triangle or dozen. Some crosses? Yeah. It was better that Irulon not ask. And besides that, Alyssa might start talking about Tenebrael. Even if she didn’t mention the angel by name, Irulon might pick it out. Her guesses were almost perfectly accurate, if relatively general.
The rotating of Irulon’s eyes slowed down, stopping after a moment. Blinking her eyes, they returned to their usual violet. As soon as everything was back to normal, she smiled. “Fascinating. I knew you were interesting, but this is far more enticing than merely being an unknown denizen from the Underworld. Anyone can come and go from there.”
“Yes, well, I’m glad you’re happy.”
“Hm. I still need to prove that your world exists. No one would believe that you aren’t from this world, even with your lack of or hidden soul. The administrators humor my theories because I am the princess, but I know they laugh behind my—”
“Wait. Stop.” Alyssa held up a hand. “You just glossed over something that sounded really important.”
“Your soul?” Irulon tilted her head. “I wasn’t going to let you catch a glimpse of my soul’s state without checking your character first. Spectral Sight showed nothing at all, which is what garnered my interest in the first place.”
Alyssa let out a slow breath. A spell had failed on her. That was all. Nothing strange, given that magic didn’t work right around her anyway. Besides, surely Tenebrael would have noticed something as big as her whole soul missing. On her first time meeting that angel, she had threatened to throw Alyssa’s soul into the corpse of the man she had killed.
That’s right. Nothing was wrong. Besides, even if she didn’t have a soul, what difference would it make? Alyssa was Alyssa. She had her own thoughts and they were hers. Maybe it would even be a positive. Tenebrael couldn’t eat her soul if she didn’t have one. Yeah. It was a good thing.
Alyssa hiccuped, trying to stop herself from breathing so heavily. This time, she actually closed her eyes. In through the nose, out through the mouth, she thought as she started trying to control herself. What did the soul matter anyway? Before Tenebrael had shown up, she hadn’t even believed in a soul. Not really. It would have been nice if there was something after death, but it hadn’t been something that she was counting on.
“Try not to pass out,” Irulon said, tone turning terse. “Dragging you out of here wouldn’t be pleasant. It would be difficult to inspect your mimic if you cannot lead me to it.”
Alyssa’s breathing stopped abruptly. “You’ll take a look at her?” she said, opening her eyes. That’s right. Focus on something else. Nothing had changed between now and five minutes ago. She was still Alyssa and Kasita still needed help.
There would be plenty of time for existential crises later.
“Of course.” Irulon’s smile returned in full, though it was once again her false mask of a smile. “Friends help each other out. Tess is always telling me to associate with others more. I’ve never found anyone worthy of my time. I’m still not sure that I have, but your world is enticing enough for now.”
“T-Thanks.” That really wasn’t what friendship was about, but Alyssa wasn’t going to comment on it until after Kasita got fixed. Maybe she was still being manipulative, but so was Irulon. There would be plenty of time to become actual friends with Irulon, Kasita, Tzheitza, and even Oz once things had calmed down.
And maybe once she had a chance to think about what a missing soul might actually mean in the long scheme of things.
For now, Alyssa smiled and stood with Irulon. “Oz is waiting down in the museum-type-area. He walked me here, just in case the Taker does show up again, but he couldn’t get up the stairs.”
“Of course not. Lead the way.” As soon as she spoke, the shimmering field of glass around them shattered. No one looked twice at it, as if they hadn’t noticed anything in the first place. Irulon turned to the two older men in the room with her perfect smile in place. “Administrators, I apologize. Business has come up and I will be unable to attend this afternoon’s lectures.” Her back remained ramrod straight without a hint of deferring power to them. As soon as one of them nodded, she turned on her heel to face the little mousy girl that had spoken to her on Alyssa’s first visit to the Observatorium. “Caressa, if you would be so kind as to inform Administrator Devo. If he asks for a reason, tell him that it is related to my research. An opportunity to discover something limited in time.”
Her brown hair swung around her shoulders as she bowed. “Of course. Though I doubt he will be satisfied without more details.”
“Fishing for information?” Irulon’s smile remained, but her tone sounded as sharp as the Black Prince’s sword. The girl must have sensed it as well, for she deepened her bow until her long hair brushed against the floor. “No matter,” Irulon continued with a half-laugh. “Unless you’ve managed to comprehend just the basics of Fractal magic, all the information in any world would be useless to you. Come, Alyssa.”