Alyssa hammered her fists against the Observatorium’s closed doors. To no avail. The Observatorium had officially closed for the night. No amount of knocking or pushing against the doors got them to open. Even if they had magically opened for her, the likelihood that Irulon was still inside would have been next to nothing. Still, she had hoped that someone would be around, if only to confirm that Irulon was gone. Maybe one of those administrators could have explained whether or not Alyssa had done something wrong in her spell casting.
Realizing that she still had Aziz’s pouch and his notebook with her, Alyssa had scrawled out a quick Message spell, just as she had practiced with Irulon the other day. It truly was a wretched spell. She had no way of knowing whether or not she had succeeded in warning Irulon about a threat to her life. Alyssa had received no messages back and Irulon wasn’t waiting at the Observatorium, where she had said she would be headed.
What happened to a message spell if the recipient was asleep? Had it gone through but Irulon had simply been unconscious? What if she was unconscious for another reason? Irulon could already be in trouble, knocked out or simply captured by whoever wished her harm.
“So, to the palace then?”
Alyssa glanced over to Kasita. The mimic looked far more relaxed than she should be—than Alyssa felt. It weirded Alyssa out a bit, feeling like her stomach was turning but seeing a near copy of herself lean against the marble pillars outside the Observatorium with a smile on her face. For whatever reason, her own amusement most likely, Kasita was still disguised as Alyssa’s sister. But honestly, her amusement was likely to be expected. Even with her comment about paying back what she owed Irulon, Kasita probably didn’t really care if Irulon died or not. Alyssa wasn’t sure that she rated all that highly on Kasita’s empathy meter. As much as she would like to think that she meant a little more than the average person, there really wasn’t anything special about her except for the fact that she had come from another world.
And that she talked with angels on a daily basis.
In fact, Kasita looked far more amused than she had before if anything. That amusement came from finding out that Tenebrael not only didn’t care in the least about someone who ran around with a flattering tattoo on their face but had actually turned said someone’s life into what was essentially a contest. Would fate win or would Alyssa overcome all odds! Tune in next time, same Angel-time, same Angel-channel!
Maybe I’m projecting a little.
“Yeah. To the palace. We’ll send her another Message first. I don’t want her to come all the way out here, potentially putting herself into danger, and miss us as we head toward the palace.” As she spoke, she pulled out writing tools from Aziz’s pouch. The Observatorium had lights set about the place, so Alyssa sat down on the step to draw out another spell.
“I still don’t know what you think you’re going to do. If someone like the Taker gets the drop on her and you’re nearby, you’re just going to get killed too.”
“Honestly, if we can just get her locked into a side room of the palace for the next eleven hours, that would work well enough for me.”
“What if the threat is that the palace is going to collapse?”
Alyssa looked up. The top of the palace peeked over the buildings around, stretching high enough to pierce the moon. Not literally, but it sure looked like it from this angle. “If that’s the case, then a good half of the city will be in danger. Probably more than that depending on what actually caused the collapse.”
“All the more reason to just walk away. Maybe head out of the city entirely, as your mercenary human suggested.”
“Unless plans have changed, he isn’t leaving until tomorrow. Whatever is happening with Irulon will happen in half a day.” Alyssa paused her drawing to look up. “Besides, I thought you wanted to save her?”
“That was before I learned that this Monster Lord can predict deaths accurately enough to give you a clock that counts backwards to the time. Not to mention all the other… unsettling sensations Tenebrael causes. I can’t believe humans actually pray to this thing. Why not pray to me instead? At least I don’t eat their souls when they die.”
“Because they don’t know.”
“Then we should tell them!”
“I’d really rather not get exiled to the First City. Or worse.”
“Humph. It isn’t that bad.” Kasita crossed her arms, narrowing her eyes as she watched Alyssa put the finishing touches on the Message spell. “Are you sure we should even try to save Irulon? By all empirical evidence, Tenebrael has her thumb on this whole death business. What with her knowing exactly when everyone everywhere dies.”
“Her predictions are not infallible,” Alyssa said, voice firm. She took a deep breath, holding the Message spell up to the light to check her work. But she couldn’t concentrate on it. Instead, she turned to Kasita and spoke in a softer tone. “If they were, I wouldn’t be here.”
The mimic raised an eyebrow. She didn’t hum, she didn’t ufu~. She just looked and asked a silent question.
Alyssa answered. “Before I came here, before Tenebrael brought me here, my home was invaded. Simple burglars, nothing more. I killed one of the thieves. Tenebrael appeared and told me that the other was going to kill me. Thirty-seven stab wounds, none of which would have been enough to finish me off. Instead, I would have bled out. The way she described my impending death was… disturbing. She was looking forward to it. Getting ready to relish my soul like it was a fine wine.”
“But you didn’t die.”
“Obviously,” Alyssa said with a wan smile. “That angel told me how and where I would die. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have died even if she hadn’t appeared, but I easily could have. Because she did tell me, I moved locations and prepared to defend myself. Really quite anticlimactic in retrospect. But the point is that just because she says that Irulon is going to die doesn’t mean that she actually is. It does, however, mean that there is almost guaranteed to be some danger around that could lead to her death if we aren’t careful.”
Alyssa opened her mouth, but hesitated. She didn’t actually have a good refutation for that. Instead of trying to downplay the notion, she nodded her head and conceded the point. Holding the completed Message spell between two fingers, Alyssa spoke. “Message. Irulon.” She wasn’t sure if she actually needed to speak. None of the other spells required it. But this is what had worked back when Irulon had shown her how to create spells, so she wasn’t going to experiment while on a time limit. “Hi, Irulon. It’s me, Alyssa. I’m at the Observatorium, but the doors are locked tight and you aren’t anywhere to be seen. Heading to the palace. Don’t know what I’m going to do when I get there so please message me back!”
Phones were so much better than the Message spell. Not even smart phones, just regular dumb phone could do the whole Message function two-way without having to scribble out a card for every sentence. Not only that, but a phone had feedback. If no one answered, then the caller knew because it went to an answering machine or voice mail. With Message, Alyssa had no idea if the spell had even worked. The only feedback she got was the card disappearing from her fingertips and that had been as soon as she said the spell’s name, before saying the actual message.
Nothing to do about it though. Nothing but find Irulon and hope that she wasn’t chained up in her own oubliette.
“Alright. The palace is only a few streets over.” Alyssa practically sprinted down the long steps of the Observatorium. Kasita followed after her. Aside from the two of them, no one else was around. Night had fallen. People generally didn’t wander the streets after dark and that held true in the wealthier sections of the city. Even the excess of street lighting couldn’t get all that many people out.
The lack of people suited her just fine. While more people around might appear safer, it wouldn’t be hard for an assailant walking in the crowd to bump into her with a sword. Without people around, she could keep an eye on the few people who were out. Kasita, with her sense of everything around her, should be able to warn Alyssa if anyone approached from behind as well.
Which was why Alyssa’s hand drifted to the hilt of her pistol when she saw someone at the end of the street, watching them. She didn’t recognize the figure; a vast majority of people in the city were complete strangers, but a vast majority of people didn’t wear concealing cloaks. The person actually looked like Bercilak, except their cloak was of a slightly different style. Bercilak had worn bath robes with hoods. It had no designs or emblems on and no flairs either, purely meant for the utility of hiding the wearer’s identity from anyone who might have seen him.
This one was clearly designed to be far more stylish. It had a hood, but the chest was more like an open vest without sleeves, relying on some underclothing to cover the skin. A silver chain crisscrossed to keep the vest from flying open from movement or a light breeze. Morgan, Bercilak’s minion who had escaped, might have worn something similar. Alyssa really had only paid significant attention to the main man, however, so she wasn’t positive.
It could have just been some noble or a merchant out for an evening walk, but Alyssa got bad vibes. Probably because that hood, pulled forward just enough to keep the face completely in the shadows, was aimed directly at her. The figure wasn’t even moving down the street anymore. And, as Alyssa walked, that hood followed her precisely.
“How well do you remember what people look like? Or feel like, or whatever it is you do? And from how far?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Just a bad feeling from that person up there. Was wondering if it was someone we knew.”
“Oh? Hum.” Kasita didn’t turn fully to face the person, but she did start frowning. “Ufu~ I can barely pick you out of a crowd of humans. There is magic surrounding her, however.”
“Well that’s just great.” Alyssa unlatched her holster, pulled her pistol out, and flicked the safety off. She kept it firmly at her side, not aiming it anywhere. Her finger wasn’t even on the trigger, resting just to the side. But she didn’t want to take any chances. “Can you tell what kind of magic? Is it that same reflective spell that the Taker had on him before I appeared in the room?” If so, Alyssa might have to run. She had no spells. A combat knife might work even with the projectile defense spell, but that would require her to get up close.
“Don’t know. She isn’t using illusion magic. I know that much. The rest of you humans’ magic is a bit difficult to tell the difference between one thing and another.”
“Get ready to keep up,” Alyssa said. They took three more steps before she grabbed Kasita by the arm. “Now,” she said, pushing Kasita between two buildings.
The moment they deviated from their path, the robed woman started sprinting toward them.
That was enough evidence for Alyssa. This person was not a friend. Whether or not it was related to Irulon’s situation, she didn’t know. It could just be another of the Taker’s minions who didn’t care in the slightest about the princess. Either way, she was a complication.
“If we can get to the palace,” Alyssa said, running between the buildings with Kasita hot on her heels, “the guards there will help us.”
“Unless they decided to check for mimics.”
“No one has yet.”
“Doesn’t mean they won’t.”
Alyssa ground her teeth. This wasn’t the place to argue. Nor the time. An iron fence blocked off the path up ahead. But Alyssa didn’t stop moving. It only came up to her shoulders. Gripping the top crossbar, Alyssa vaulted over. She landed among soft grass, though far taller and more unkempt than any modern lawn.
Looking back, Kasita had stopped on the other side of the fence. She didn’t reach up and climb over as Alyssa did. Staring straight ahead, she simply walked forward. The bars passed through her body with barely the slightest resistance. Her form molded around the metal until she was fully formed on the other side.
“Alright Terminator, let’s—”
Links of ghostly metal wrapped themselves around Kasita, who had the audacity to smirk. As with the bars, she simply walked out of them. The chains fell away and disappeared before touching the ground.
Alyssa grabbed Kasita’s wrist and dragged her off to the side, out of view of the alley they had just run up. Just in time to avoid a ball of flames crashing into the iron fence. The metal bent outward with a screech, twisting into a spiked bramble while the grass around it withered and started smoldering. Alyssa did not take the time to stop and gawk. Kasita still in hand, she ran. The ruined fence might keep their pursuer from following this way, but she would surely take a side path around.
The fence separated a rather large yard and an even larger building from the rest of the city. A mansion. Probably belonging to one of the nobles she had heard so much about. Feet pounding against the ground, Alyssa took a sharp turn around the side of the home. For a moment, she considered running up to the door. Surely a mansion like this had guards that could help fight off their pursuer. But none of the windows had any lights in them—not a strange sight out in the western homes on the opposite side of the city, but given the wealth here, there would surely be at least one light on so soon after dark if it were occupied.
So she headed toward the iron gate. It had an ornate emblem, silver with a purple stone the size of her head embedded in the center. Familiar, but Alyssa couldn’t place where she had seen it before at the moment. She focused on the latch keeping the gate shut. It was a simple metal pin holding the two sides of the gate together with no lock, making it a simple matter to throw it open.
Many of the streets in the eastern and northern sections of the city had clearly not been designed for carriages and carts. The wealthy preferred their space, making almost every road wide enough for two carts to pass by in opposite directions. But this… This wasn’t so much a street as it was a town square. A wide pavilion opened up. Several buildings lined the brick road—more houses, probably of nobles given the mansion-like size, the large yards, and the heavy iron gates separating them from the rest of the world. Each gate was adorned with an emblem of some type, usually metal with one or several colored stones decorating it.
Beyond the pavilion, the palace stood tall directly ahead with a wall even larger than the one around the city keeping it isolated. It was still quite a run away. The houses around this pavilion were huge. The one she had run around had taken a good minute. And she had run right up alongside the brick building. Every mansion had plenty of yard space between it and the next.
“She’ll catch up to us easily,” Kasita said. “And this courtyard doesn’t offer much in the way of protection from her spells.”
“Yeah. Some of those other mansions have lights on. Think we could get help there?”
“There are certain to be guards around the palace. The ones there may be more obligated to help citizens as well.”
If there were guards in the nobles’ homes, they might be far more concerned with getting their charges to safety than Alyssa. If there weren’t guards, she could get herself and the occupants killed. “Palace it is,” she said. “Whatever happens, keep running. Find a—”
Kasita pressed a hand over Alyssa’s mouth and then pressed her whole body right up against hers. It took Alyssa a moment to realize that she was trying to push her against the stone pillars that surrounded the iron gate. The light pressure the mimic was capable of exerting just wasn’t enough. Once Alyssa did realize, she put her back to the wall, eyes wide as she scanned the pavilion in an attempt to figure out what had spooked Kasita.
As far as she could tell, the pavilion was entirely empty. Not a soul wandered around. There were no guards standing outside any of the gates. Now that she was thinking about it, wasn’t that strange? Each gate had a little alcove next to it that might have been a guard post. Shouldn’t at least one of them be occupied? Straining her ears, she couldn’t hear anything but her own heart beating. There wasn’t even any crunching of the grass that might be the woman coming up behind them.
But Kasita put a finger over her lips. Once Alyssa nodded her head, she removed her hands to grab at Alyssa’s gun. Alyssa put up a minor resistance before deciding to trust the mimic. If Kasita truly wanted to kill her, all she had to do was dump some of Tzheitza’s potions into the drinking water. Or uncork something dangerous while Alyssa was sleeping. Or any number of other options.
Kasita didn’t take the gun. She moved Alyssa’s arm up and over toward the pavilion. Alyssa provided most of the support—if it truly came down to it, a light shove would get the mimic off her—while Kasita moved it just a little left, slightly up, then back toward the right. There she paused, aiming toward one of the other mansions, right at the empty guard post. She held up three fingers.
And lowered one.
She held the last one up for just a moment longer before dropping it with a nod of her head.
Alyssa took a breath and squeezed the trigger.
A sharp crack echoed through the night, quickly followed by a squealing. A cry of pain, high pitched and terrifying. Each cry lasted only a second, but it repeated over and over and over and over—
“Come,” Kasita said. She pulled on Alyssa’s arm as much as she was able to, but didn’t stop when she met resistance. She ran across the pavilion toward where the squeals were coming from. It took a moment, but Alyssa followed after her. Kasita reached the middle of the pavilion first. She knelt down, pointing a finger toward a black stain on the ground. “Here. Shoot again.”
“W-What is it?” The screeching was louder here. It sounded like a baby having its legs torn off. Alyssa wanted to clap her hands over her ears. To run away, far away. To hide under her bed and never come out again.
“Ignore it,” Kasita shouted. “Whatever you’re feeling will only worsen. The only way to stop it is to shoot. Right here!”
Teeth clattering together, Alyssa raised her arm. The gun wavered back and forth. It would stop if she fired. It would stop if she fired. It would stop if she fired. Her finger felt cold and sweaty against the metal trigger. The pressure increased. She started to squeeze.
Kasita used both hands to pull the gun away from Alyssa’s head.
The gun went off, sending another shockwave through the air.
Kasita stumbled back, falling to the ground from the force of the bullet hitting her.
Alyssa blinked. What… A small trail of smoke wafted from the barrel of her gun. Cold sweat dripped from the palms of her hands as she stared down at it. What the hell…
“Shoot it,” Kasita said—shouted. “Shoot the shadow assassin!”
That word triggered something in Alyssa. A sudden clarity. She had almost shot herself! Anger burned under her skin, boiling her blood. Raising her gun—this time, not to her temple—Alyssa glared at the black oil on the ground. She fired.
And fired again.
The squealing finally ceased. Once again, the night went silent.
All the tension in Alyssa’s body flooded out. She tried to keep standing, but wobbled and fell to her knees. Every breath was a struggle to fill her lungs. Even breathing as much as she could didn’t feel like it was enough. It took a great deal of concentration just to flick the safety back into place before any more accidents could almost happen.
Kasita was already back on her feet. Even a gunshot didn’t leave a single mark on her illusory body. But Alyssa’s eyes were focused on the monster between them.
Its skin was smooth and black. Not black like a person, like human, but black as the abyss between the stars. Faint grey tattoos spiraled around its body, arms, and legs. Its arms could reach twice its body length, though its legs were half that of Alyssa’s, giving it a grotesquely distorted appearance. As far as she could tell, it didn’t have a head. Just a maw of teeth between its shoulders. Four gunshot wounds were planted around its chest.
And it wasn’t moving.
“Shadow assassins,” Kasita said, voice far calmer than it had been a moment ago. “Best to kill them without letting them make a noise, if possible.”
Alyssa shuddered just thinking about the noise. Her heart pounded against her ribs despite her trying to calm herself down with deep breaths.
“Your princess might be in a spot of trouble if one of these climbed up the palace walls. We should probably hurry if you want to save her. At the very least, we should leave before that woman finds her way around here.”
“Right,” Alyssa said, heaving out a heavy breath. “Right. You’re right.” But she didn’t move. She wanted to. Her legs just wouldn’t cooperate.
“It’s alright,” Kasita said, voice nothing more than a whisper. “Their illusions mean nothing to me. I’ll keep an eye out for any others. But we have to move. That woman might still be behind us and there might be more up in the palace. Unless you want Irulon to die.”
Alyssa clenched her fists tight. “Right,” she said again. Kasita tried to help her to her feet. Her efforts were physically nothing more than a gentle breeze. But mentally was another story entirely. Alyssa found the willpower to plant one foot flat against the ground and lift herself up. Standing again, she felt much better. Much more steady. The screams of that monster still echoed in her ears, but she put it out of her mind. Her eyes focused on the tall tower of the palace. “Sorry. I’m ready.”
“Ufu~ Good. You had me worried.”
Rather than respond, Alyssa concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Then the first in front of the second. Faster and faster until she was in an all out sprint. Irulon needed her help. Tenebrael’s timer was proof of that. She didn’t have the time to despair.