“So she just comes down the stairs and guess who is right there with her! The Tenebrael-damned princess! I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. By the time I decided to throw myself to the floor in front of her, she was already walking past without a glance in my direction. And Alyssa was just staring at me like I was some kind of idiot.”
“She ain’t wrong. Yer an idiot, Ozheim.”
“Both of your voices grate on the ears like a rusty knife,” Irulon said as she walked around a chair in the middle of the room with her hands clasped behind her back.
“Sorry,” Oz mumbled. He leaned in close to Tzheitza and started whispering, though not quiet enough that Alyssa couldn’t hear from her spot just to their side. “Shouldn’t the princess be killing monsters, not trying to help them?”
Tzheitza didn’t respond save for a slight grunt, but Irulon whirled around to glare. “I am familiar with the concept of mercenaries requiring payment for their services. Does that include remaining silent? Please, tell me so that I may divert a portion of the royal treasury to the task of keeping your mouth shut.”
Oz actually took a step back. Though he had broad shoulders, he managed to shrink down to the point where he looked like an awkward teenager. “Uh, no… that’s alright. I’ll be quiet.”
As soon as Irulon’s back had turned, Oz turned to Tzheitza and mouthed, ‘Yikes.’ The potioneer didn’t respond in the slightest. Her face didn’t so much as twitch.
Alyssa, on the other hand, couldn’t help but rub at a burgeoning headache. She might have just discovered why the princess, who had always been kind and cordial with her, maintained that bubble of space around her at the Observatorium. If everyone who spoke to her or even in her presence wound up snapped at… well, the probability that she really had no friends just went up drastically.
That girl, Caressa, had simply asked for a better excuse for their teacher—or administrator—and wound up getting a fairly snide insult in return for her efforts. And it had definitely been an insult despite Irulon’s pleasant tone of voice. Of course, there might have been some history between the two. But even the first time Alyssa had visited the Observatorium, Caressa had been the one to offer to pass messages on to the lecturers. None of which warranted the insults.
The princess just had a naturally abrasive personality. Which might explain why Bacco had said that she was an outcast. Her tone of voice and her smile clashed drastically with her inner feelings. Alyssa got the impression that the princess really didn’t care one way or the other for the wellbeing of those around her. Not unless they had something to offer her.
Which would explain the cordiality toward Alyssa. Before, Alyssa had been a curiosity that Irulon had thought to be a monster of some sort. Now, she was an alien. An alien without a soul.
She was trying hard not to think about that. Especially not before she got a verification from a second source. A source that didn’t rely on magic that might go wrong. Such as Iosefael or Tenebrael. And even they weren’t wholly immune given Iosefael’s failures to send her back home.
Shaking her head, Alyssa focused on Irulon.
Just as Irulon sat down on the chair in the middle of the room.
Oz tensed the moment she did, hand moving to his sword. Which just made Alyssa roll her eyes. What did he think he was going to do? Jump in to save the princess from the spooky seat when it grew teeth and claws? Even Tzheitza only shifted her weight from one side to the other. She had potions hanging off her little bandoleer, but that was because the Taker was still alive.
“Interesting,” Irulon said, standing up a after a moment. “Turn into a cat.”
The chair shimmered, shrinking down. The back of the chair merged into a single pole, which soon slumped like a wet noodle as a head formed at the front. The wood sprouted fur and soon enough, a cat sat in the middle of the room.
It didn’t stay that way for long. The cat sneezed, shaking its head in that tornado of fur that cats tended to do. When the shaking ceased, the head looked more like that of a chicken with fur instead of feathers. Plasticy fur. The furry chicken head ballooned up, grey fur taking on a brownish hue as it shrank into the face. Lips formed, the beak shrunk in, the eyes bulged, turning violet. A tattoo formed around one of the eyes as the facial features turned more human.
“Hm.” Irulon stared at herself. Or rather, at her head still attached to the body of a cat. “I take it you didn’t intend to do that.”
“Disgusting,” Oz said, actually earning a nod from Tzheitza. Not even Irulon complained about the sentiment.
Alyssa wasn’t sure she disagreed either. It was one thing to see someone’s head on a human body that didn’t match. It was another thing entirely to see Irulon’s head on the body of a cat. Especially when the cat failed to hold up the weight of its head and it just sank down to the floor.
“This is humiliating,” Kasita said in Irulon’s voice. The entire cat and head combo shimmered again, stretching and growing. In the span of thirty seconds, it formed into a human. Or a humanoid. It looked more like a wooden doll than a living person. But it still managed to sigh.
“That’s a no then.” Irulon nodded her head and glanced at Alyssa. “Very well. I see nothing wrong with my theory. Desecrate Spells is still active and is corroding her magic when she tries to take shape. She can hold on to an inanimate form for the same reason that she can hold my weight. Her magic locks her form into place. If it didn’t, a mimic would never be able to disguise themselves as a load-bearing object given their inherent physical weakness. However, once locked in place, there is no need to make changes. Unlike a living form which is constantly in motion, requiring constant magical updates to maintain self-consistency. As a mimic is still a magical being regardless of the form it takes, it is still emitting enough magic to keep the spell active, just not enough to disrupt the illusion.”
Alyssa blinked twice, going over what Irulon said in her head. “Right,” she said slowly. “That makes sense I guess.” And it did. She wasn’t stupid. There were surely some underlying mechanics that she wouldn’t understand without years of research—judging by some of the words Iosefael and Tenebrael said when casting their spells, magic had some heavy basis in mathematics. Math that probably wasn’t simple algebra. But Irulon’s explanation didn’t involve math at all. She was probably talking down to her, but Alyssa didn’t mind much so long as she didn’t need a doctorate in mathemagics to understand what was going on. “So how do we stop it?”
“Quite easily. As I was attempting to say before you interrupted with your insistence that I personally verify what I already know, a simple magical suppression will starve the Desecrate Spells spell.”
“And that won’t hurt Kasita?”
“No,” Irulon said without a glance toward anyone in the room. She turned to one of her open notebooks and started scribbling out a pattern. “Though, in light of your oddities, Alyssa, it probably is for the best that someone else cast the spell on anything you do not wish harmed. I’ll admit that flaw in my plan.”
Alyssa let out a small sigh of relief. What would she have done without Irulon? All the more reason to at least try to be real friends with her rather than use her for her knowledge and abilities. Kasita had to be happy as well, though she didn’t look it. At the moment, her body had turned to a gelatinous blob somewhere between a cat’s body and that of a human. If said human had drowned and their body had bloated to an unreasonable extent.
“Disgusting,” Oz mumbled again. “Have I ever mentioned how much I hate mimics? I don’t think I hated them so much a week ago. Not more than other monsters… but now?” He shuddered. “I think I’m going to throw up.”
“I was under the impression that you were a senior mercenary,” Irulon said, not looking up from her drawing. “Yet a simple illusion sends your stomach churning? You shouldn’t over-exaggerate your experience. You’ll convince others that you are capable of more than you are, winding up with you and them killed in a situation beyond your abilities.”
“You can’t tell me that you can look at that thing and not feel at least a little unnerved.”
Irulon turned her head to look directly at Kasita. Her expression, slightly annoyed but with a small smile, didn’t change in the slightest. “Fascinated would be the more accurate sensation I’m feeling. Did you know that mimics are actually larger than most objects they mimic? Heavier as well. Yet one could disguise itself as an altus and you wouldn’t be able to feel the difference in weight. Even if they rearranged their body, compressing themselves down to the size of a coin, it would still weigh too heavy to be normal. Illusion magic can only go so far in convincing someone that a mimic is actually the object. In actuality, most of their body exists outside of this world while transformed, pulling the object of their choosing from a separate fractal. Or so goes my theory, in any case,” she said with a grin plastered on her face as she pulled the piece of paper from her notebook. “To that end, Kasita, I request that you return to your natural state. I doubt Alyssa would be too pleased to find you dead because the magic suppression destroyed whatever portal you have that keeps your consciousness and the rest of your body connected to this world.”
“My natural state?” Once again, Kasita looked like Play-Doh, though if she was trying to appear as anyone in specific, Alyssa couldn’t tell who.
“Yes, yes. You can be self-conscious about it later. If you’re worried about vulnerability, just imagine how upset Alyssa would be at the others should they actually harm her pet mimic.”
“She’s not my pet.”
Irulon just dismissively waved her hand. “I am casting the spell on the count of three regardless of your current status.”
“Alright, alright. Give me a second.”
To Alyssa’s surprise, Irulon did not immediately start counting down. She nodded her head and waited. Which Alyssa didn’t mind in the slightest. Just the threat was giving her flashbacks to the Taker. Was that a common thing in this world?
Kasita’s form, roughly the size of an overweight human, didn’t shrink down. Neither did it grow. It just faded out. The flesh started out by turning transparent. It continued fading until there was nothing left. Of the flesh.
Where the mass used to be, a… thing stood on the ground. It came up roughly to Alyssa’s waist, though four legs suspended its main mass a few feet off the ground. It had no head. In fact, Alyssa couldn’t tell which direction it was facing. Each of the four legs came off the central… blob in different directions, long and spindly like a spider, though without joints. Except it wasn’t a spider. Its legs were far more snake-like, though black and flowing, like oil given form. Its core was the same.
Which was what Irulon had been waiting for. She lifted the card. “Suppression Field.”
The spider-like form of Kasita didn’t change much at all save for some minor twitching at the ends of its tentacles.
The same could not be said for the rest of the room. Alyssa’s stomach clenched as the lights flickered. The glass didn’t explode, thankfully, but the lights turned from a warm orange-yellow down to a dim brown. They struggled at the dark brown for a moment before winking out entirely. The only light in the room came from the fireplace. A cold sweat formed on her skin despite knowing that nothing around her would harm her. There was no Taker in the room. Just four people who she trusted to not kill her.
Alyssa remained silent. She didn’t trust her voice not to tremble. It was stupid, but the whole thing reminded her too much of dying over and over to the Taker. Oz didn’t say anything either, though she could see how tense he was in the light of the fire. Tzheitza, on the other hand, burst out into a slurry of profane comments as she moved about the room. While in full potionspeak mode, Alyssa couldn’t catch much. From what little she could understand, Tzheitza was worried that the spell had ruined her potion reagents. She pulled jars off the shelves and started inspecting the contents, sniffing them and even sticking her finger in and licking a bit of the contents.
Irulon didn’t seem to care about the people around her. Her eyes were locked on Kasita’s oily form. Her violet eyes. So far, Irulon hadn’t done the thing with the black sclera and white rings. “Hm.” As soon as the princess made the noise in the back of her throat, the lights returned. Dim at first, barely more than faint embers glowing in the jars. But over the course of another minute, they grew in strength until the liquid-filled jars were putting out just as much light as they had before the spell went active.
“Suppression Field deactivated. Assume a form, mimic. Something more animate than a chair.”
The spindly limbs of the oily blob shrank in on themselves, vanishing from view as Kasita shimmered into view. Kasita. Her proper form. The overly voluptuous and inhumanly beautiful woman wearing her elegant gown that showed off far too much cleavage. She looked down at herself, waiting for a moment as if she expected to uncontrollably morph into a doughy facsimile of herself. But nothing happened. She looked up with a smile. “Ufu~ That’s better.”
“Curious, curious.” Irulon clasped her hands behind her back as she stalked around Kasita. Her eyes flickered to those black pits of doom, but only for an instant. If Alyssa hadn’t been watching—and, more importantly, known what to look for—she would have missed it entirely. Oz didn’t even move. “Your body—Your true body is ninety-seven percent outside this world. But you aren’t even aware of this fact. Your consciousness is entirely here. Hm. Disappointing.”
“I really don’t know what you are talking about.”
“No. Of course not. It is a natural ability. You don’t have to think about what you are doing or where you are in the slightest. Unfortunate. I had hoped to question you on anything you might experience while transformed. But you don’t know anything. I suspect that there may be a way to force the rest of you through the portal you are maintaining, but I also suspect that retrieving you for questions would be exceedingly difficult. Perhaps if we had a second mimic. I don’t suppose you know of any others within the city.”
“Ah, no. While I don’t doubt that other mimics have traveled this far from the ruins of the First City, we’re not exactly a social bunch. I haven’t encountered another mimic since I left the hive.”
“Oh! Question!” Oz held up a finger before pointing it off to the side of the room. “If that table were another mimic, would you know instinctively? Or would you have to wave at each other or something?”
“I would know. Illusions mean less to me than they do you.”
“Mimics don’t see the world the way you or I do,” Irulon said, actually answering Oz’s question. “It would be more accurate to say that they feel the world. Another mimic would feel wrong.”
“You know a lot about my kind,” Kasita said, cocking her head to one side. “Most humans see us as a nuisance and try to kill us without much thought.”
“Hm. I suppose there is no harm in telling. All of my research is dedicated toward proving the existence of many different worlds,” she said with a quick glance toward Alyssa. “Fractal magic offers glimpses, but my theory is that the worlds tied to Fractal magic are created when a spell is cast and destroyed afterward. Mimics were brought to my attention because of questions regarding your abilities. I believe that you and your kind—”
Shattering glass interrupted Irulon. It was muffled slightly, but still loud enough that everyone turned their heads toward the source.
The store room. The one next to Alyssa’s makeshift bedroom. Something heavy crashed down within. Wood crashed against wood with the telltale creaking and snapping of boards.
“Tenebrael’s tits,” Oz swore under his breath. “She got loose.”
Irulon pressed her lips together until they were nothing more than a thin line. “Let’s not blaspheme against Her Holiness’ body, shall we?”
“Right.” Oz didn’t sound convincing at all. He didn’t even glance toward Irulon as he drew his sword. “Stay back. I’m not being paid for this, but I can’t imagine my reputation would remain intact if I let the princess come to harm.”
Tzheitza moved up next to him, frosty blue orb in hand.
“Think she’s just making a mess? Or do you have dangerous stuff in there.”
The potioneer just grunted.
Alyssa’s hands drifted to her holsters, only to remember that even if she had them, she was too injured to use them. She couldn’t even hold a gun in her left hand with how many bandages were wrapped around her fingers. “Damn,” she swore, moving back toward Irulon and Kasita. “Damn it.” This was a nightmare. Well, not nearly so bad as her encounter with the Taker. At least here, she had allies. From that Fractal Mirror experiment, she knew that Irulon could defend herself. Kasita couldn’t be hurt by conventional weaponry. Tzheitza and Oz were experienced fighters.
It was only her who was the worthless one.
“Damn,” she swore again.
“Escaped, prisoner? Poorly secured. Unworried yet mildly tense, not a significant threat but still dangerous. Mimic calm, not a magical danger. Alyssa sweating, frightened. Hm.” Irulon lifted the tome chained to her hip and flipped it open, though she didn’t actually retrieve a spell. “Perhaps you should warn me that you’re keeping an assassin magically secured in the back room before I suppress all magic in the area.”
“Yeah, yeah. We captured her once, we can capture her again. Besides, all her weapons are out here.”
“Pots. Haberin fool.”
“Right. Need to hurry then.” Oz gripped his sword, moving closer to the door. It wasn’t the best weapon for indoor combat, but it would have to do. “I open, you toss?”
Oz kicked open the storage room door.