“I’m not crazy right? There should be guards out here?”
“We’ve already seen one shadow assassin. They rarely operate alone. I would guess that there are three to five of them somewhere in the city. Possibly more if they are being controlled by fairies again.”
Alyssa shuddered. She did not like the sound of that. One had been bad enough, thank you very much. If there were two of them in any given area, she might just die of despair. And that wasn’t even including the fact that they were invisible and could sneak up on her without her knowing. Edging just a little closer to Kasita, the only one who could detect the monsters, they passed through the wide-open gates of the palace wall.
“But wouldn’t there be bodies lying about?”
Kasita shrugged her shoulders. “Shadow assassins are good at what they do. They wouldn’t have such a blatant name otherwise.” She paused and walked off to the side of the path. Alyssa stuck right by her side as she knelt down. “Bloodstains. They were dragged off, probably shoved in some corner where people aren’t likely to stumble across them and run off to the garrisons to raise the alarm.”
“That’s a good idea. We should… I don’t actually know where the main garrison is. Presumably close to the palace, right?”
“Don’t know. I try to avoid anywhere where people might check for mimics on the regular. The military is prime among those.”
Alyssa clicked her tongue in annoyance. Having any kind of backup would be appreciated. There could be more humans running around, infiltrating the city. Or there could be far more shadow assassins than Kasita was guessing. Or there could be whole other monsters that she had yet to hear of. Or any number of other things. If only… “Message spell,” she said, snapping her fingers. As she spoke, she started pulling supplies from Aziz’s pouch. “I know the names of city guardsmen. I can send a message to them. And the damn prince too. Why didn’t I think of this before?”
“Maybe because you were thinking solely about Irulon and what kind of danger she might be in rather than everybody being endangered with the entire palace assailed by assassins.”
“Still stupid of me,” Alyssa mumbled as she started writing out the spell cards. It was a good thing that Message was only a Rank One spell. It was annoying to write out every time, but it could have looked like Fractal Mirror and caused a migraine anytime she looked at it. In short order, she had three cards written out. It took maybe ten minutes. Kasita kept a watch out the entire time, something Alyssa found greatly reassuring given her ability to penetrate most illusion techniques.
Standing up, Alyssa held one card out. “Message. Brakkt. Hi, this is the person you gave a commendation to the other day. There are shadow assassins in the palace. Several guards dead. I killed one shadow assassin. I have reason to believe that they are targeting Irulon. Just thought you ought to know.”
The second she finished, she immediately pulled out the second card. “Message. Oxart. Hi, this is Alyssa, we met earlier today at the hospital. Thought you ought to know that I just killed a shadow assassin outside the palace and several guards are missing. Raise the alarm and maybe get here to back me up if at all possible. I need to get inside to find Irulon, so if I’m not here, I made it inside.”
The final card was slightly more personal, though still somewhat important. “Message. Tzheitza. Hi. Sorry for not checking in earlier. Got caught up in events… killed a shadow assassin outside the palace. There are probably more inside. I have reason to believe Irulon is in danger and am heading in to see if I can help.”
There. Three messages out to a variety of people. Hopefully at least one of them got through. She honestly couldn’t remember if she had introduced herself to Brakkt during her rambling recount of the events that led up to the Brechen Overlook. Since the Message spell required a name, he wouldn’t be able to message her back. She should have thought of that during the message itself, but too late now. Both Oxart and Tzheitza knew her name, however. At least so long as Oxart remembered. Hopefully one of them would at least acknowledge that they had heard her.
The drawback was that only Brakkt would be in immediate position to do anything. Assuming he was actually at the palace. Oxart was all the way up at the north wall and Tzheitza wasn’t far from there… unless she had run down to the markets with some guards to inspect that plague quarantine breach. But even that was on the opposite side of the Observatorium. She shouldn’t expect anyone to show up within at least a half hour if not more. Perhaps Oxart would send a horse or Message to a closer barracks or garrison, but Alyssa wasn’t going to be counting on the calvary anytime soon.
For now, Alyssa packed up her writing tools and slung Aziz’s pouch over her shoulder. “Into the palace?”
“Right through the front door?”
“A place like this is probably filled with secret passages.” That fit with pretty much every movie she had ever seen. Normally, Alyssa would dismiss something like secret passages as being an unrealistic Hollywoodism that would never happen in real life. Except she had been to the Waters Street dungeons. They had a whole secret tunnel hidden with ‘elvish engineering’ from some ‘abandoned’ house to the main whorehouse. If some gang could put in passages, surely the biggest building in the city had managed one or two. “But I wouldn’t know where to start looking for them. So unless you have a better idea…”
“If I were in control of a group of shadow assassins, I would definitely station one right above the main palace entryway. It could drop down on anyone that wanders inside looking for the guards.”
“So what then? Try to kill it? We killed that other one, but it was across the courtyard. This one would be right on top of us far too quick. In fact I’d rather avoid them indoors if at all possible. The quarters are too cramped. Leave them to mercenaries, the Black Prince, or some other specialist.”
“I agree. Which is why we should enter through the windows.”
“The windows? Can they even open?” Alyssa said with a frown. The palace did have windows. Quite large ones at that, with a definite seam right down the middle where the two sides might open. And the glass was clear for the most part. Even the high quality glass at Tzheitza’s shop looked warped. As if whoever had made the glass had done so poorly or carelessly. And her windows were better than most buildings had… if they had windows at all. But the windows of the palace were nearly indistinguishable from modern glass. “But that won’t work. It’s the palace. The royal palace. They have to have some magical protection against breaking or being opened by random people outside.”
“Ufu~ You’re probably right.” Kasita put on a wide smile. The same one that she used whenever she was making fun of someone. Rather than explain what she found so amusing, she walked right up to the palace’s nearest window. Its bottom was around shoulder-height, but Kasita didn’t care at all. She climbed up onto the narrow ledge—having a body without much mass had to come in handy for situations like that—and put her hand right between the panes of glass. “Oh good!”
Kasita’s hand squeezed in on itself, becoming nothing more than a thin line. Which she then pressed through the glass. Alyssa couldn’t bother with even the slightest modicum of surprise as the rest of the mimic followed her hand through the glass. Enough strange things had happened since arriving at this world that a known shapeshifter slipping through a thin crack didn’t even register as being at all odd.
As soon as she was through, Kasita turned and waved through the glass. Flipping up the latch took her a bit of effort. She had to use both hands. But she managed in the end. Again using both hands, she pressed one side of the glass outward.
“Ufu~ Doesn’t look like they had anything stopping someone from opening the windows from the inside.”
“Yeah, yeah. Aren’t you a genius.” Hoisting herself up on a shoulder-high ledge wasn’t the easiest task in the world. However, Alyssa wasn’t a weak woman. And she had the practice of climbing up the Brechen Overlook under her belt. Once she swung her leg up on the ledge, it became quite a simple matter to flip herself up and over, into the sitting room within the palace. Though she didn’t land half as gracefully as Kasita had managed to climb inside.
“Yes, let’s all laugh at the poor human whose body actually has weight,” Alyssa grumbled as she picked herself up off the floor. Ignoring Kasita’s ufufu~s, Alyssa drew her pistol and took a quick look around the sitting room they had found themselves in. Given Kasita’s lack of agitation, there probably wasn’t anything dangerous, but Alyssa preferred to see things with her own eyes.
It was a larger room. Probably the size of Tzheitza’s shop floor and back room combined. The walls were stone, but sanded and polished to a smooth and almost shiny surface. Several portraits were set about, the most prominent of which sat just above the wide couch, featuring a distinguished older man. He had short black hair and a goatee with just a touch of grey like he belonged on some men’s hair care product advertisement. Needless to say, Alyssa didn’t recognize him. Maybe the pharaoh. Maybe a previous pharaoh. It could even be one of Irulon’s siblings. She had never seen Brakkt without his helmet on after all.
Turning away, satisfied that the room was empty, Alyssa let out a soft sigh. “Irulon once told me that she lived up at the top of the palace. I don’t suppose they have an elevator, do you?”
“Possibly. If the original builders coerced an elf to build it for them.”
“Huh. Really? I wasn’t expecting you to know what I meant.”
“Elves are master craftsmen, as I have mentioned before.”
“Yeah, but elevators are… Never mind. Let’s just try to find one, shall we?”
Alyssa blinked. A nearly weightless body probably wouldn’t have an issue climbing up a hundred flights of stairs, but Alyssa would hardly be in any kind of shape to help Irulon after manually scaling the palace. “Why not?”
“Same reason why we avoided the main entrance. Any main stairwell or elevator would be a prime ambush location for the shadow assassins. There are sure to be side stairs used by servants to keep them out of sight and out of mind.”
“That is a good reason…” Right, she had to keep ambush locations in mind while prowling through the palace. Depending on how spaced out any assassins might be within the structure, even if they encountered and killed one, the shrieks or gunshots could call every last one to their location. The halls could be troublesome as well, though if Kasita was right in her half-dozen estimation, the assassins couldn’t afford to patrol around every single hall. It didn’t matter much anyway. Unless they found a possibly nonexistent secret passage, they would have to brave the halls. “So we’re looking for servant-frequented areas to find stairs. Kitchens, sleeping quarters, storage rooms…”
“While avoiding shadow assassins. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?”
“How easy is it to hide from one of them? Do they have special abilities for detecting people? Thermal vision?”
“Not that I know of. I don’t know if they have regular vision at all. They listen to their surroundings.”
“Oh. That’s… kind of a relief, maybe?” Alyssa really didn’t want to be chased around by a Predator. They already had invisibility and some kind of despair-inducing voice. Though if she were being picky, Alyssa definitely preferred being chased by a Predator rather than an Alien—both would kill her but the latter would would turn her into a living incubation chamber until the baby woke up and ate her from the inside out as it burst from her chest. A concept that would hopefully never be relevant in this world.
Alyssa moved up to the door and strained her ears trying to hear anything on the other side. “Alright,” she said after a moment. “No footsteps or breathing or anything. Unless you can see through walls with your ability, we might as well start looking for a kitchen.”
“Sorry. I could slip out into the hall if you wanted.”
“I’d rather we didn’t even take the chance at being separated.” Alyssa might not have a full mental library of every spell possible, but she did have a decently sized background in watching movies and television. There were hundreds of scenes where one person walked through a door and either couldn’t get back through or the door wound up connecting to a different room for each person who walked through. With all the craziness Fractal spells were capable of, Alyssa didn’t doubt for a moment that there could be some Party Separation spells or some other nonsense like that. “Stay close to me. I’ll shoot at anything you point out without hesitation, but please try to avoid making me shoot people, accidentally or not.”
“Ufu~ Accidents are accidents. I can’t help them.”
“Kasita…” Alyssa shot the mimic a glare and got a shrug in return. But Kasita did move up right next to Alyssa, so close that her arms were brushing against Alyssa’s. Trying to keep her nerves down, Alyssa pushed open the door.
She stepped out into a long hallway. Tiled floor and a curved roof with period arches. At every arch, marble statues stood on either side of the hallway, holding out jars of light on outstretched hands. Dozens of doors lined either side between the arches, though windows occasionally lined the wall that shared the room Alyssa had just left. One end of the hall was so far off that she could barely see it. The other was much closer, blocked off by a heavy-looking door made of wood that was as tall as the hallway roof.
“That way leads toward the main entrance. I suggest we avoid it.”
“Yeah, but…” Alyssa looked down the long stretch. “How are we going to find anything in this place? What could they possibly need all this space for?”
“Ufu~ Humans, right?”
“We just have to think logically. The Pharaohs would want to greet their guests in the fancy sitting rooms with large windows that looked out over the gardens. Kitchens would be placed more to the center of the building then, where servants could reach all areas quickly, or in the areas furthest from the main entrance. In fact, there is probably a back entrance for delivering food and other goods that will be sequestered away from the fancier halls. But…”
Alyssa looked upward at the ceiling. The height of the arches was about twice the average ceiling height of any modern building she had been inside. But modern buildings typically had drop ceilings that hid pipes, wires, and air ducts. This place likely wouldn’t have anything like that. The top of this ceiling could easily be the bottom of the next floor up. It was as much of a skyscraper as it looked from the outside.
Looking down at the floor, she couldn’t help but wonder: Was there a basement as well? Dungeons would be underground, probably. Irulon had kept mentioning an oubliette and while Alyssa wasn’t one hundred percent sure on the definition of the word, it was definitely a dungeon-like structure. Unless the dungeons were held off-site.
The floors, she noticed, were clean. Almost shiny enough to see herself in the polished stone. Frowning, she walked over to one of the statues, bumping into Kasita with every step. “I don’t know that you need to stay that close,” Alyssa said… not that it mattered much to her. She barely felt the bumps. It was the mimic who had to readjust her gait with every step. At the statue, Alyssa ran her finger over the back of its neck. It was a bit larger than life, a man standing a head and shoulders above Alyssa with a large hat on his head, so she had to get up on the tips of her toes. When she pulled her finger away, it was clean. “No dust. Unless there is magic for that—” Which wouldn’t surprise Alyssa in the slightest. “—this place must be filled with servants. So where are they all?”
“Dead. Or maybe hiding,” Kasita said, brushing a hand against Alyssa’s arm.
Turning, Alyssa found one of the doors ajar just a little.
And a foot sticking out.
Pistol gripped in both hands, Alyssa cautiously approached and pushed the door fully open.
She clamped her jaw shut, staring down at the floor.
The foot wasn’t attached to anything. It ended in a bloody stump where the knee should have been. A streak of red led off down a perpendicular hall, though this one lacked the extravagant statues and artistic archways.
“Ah. Forgot to mention,” Kasita said as if she were discussing nothing more interesting than the weather. “Those teeth shadow assassins possess are not just for show.”
“Th—They ate him?”
“Most of him,” Kasita said, kneeling and prodding a finger at the foot. “Wonder why it left just this much behind.”
“Maybe it wanted to leave room for a wafer thin mint,” Alyssa grumbled, eyes searching over the hallway. Kasita wasn’t worried, but that did little to calm her nerves. “Quit playing with it. We are on a time limit.”
“We’re going to follow the blood streaks that almost certainly lead to the thing that killed this man?”
“This hallway isn’t meant for showing off wealth. There aren’t any statues and the quality is far worse. This foot almost certainly belonged to a servant. We lucked out. One of the doors here has to lead somewhere useful.”
“Why not just ask a living servant, they can lead us around.”
“If we find one, that’s perfectly fine. A great idea, even.”
“Well, look over here.” Kasita stood and walked over to a section of the wall. “I may not be able to see through walls, but I can see the walls themselves. And this one is a bit different than the rest. More importantly, it moved when we walked in.” She leaned close, pressing her ear to the stone as she knocked a few times. Her knuckles made hardly a sound.
“Hello?” Alyssa said, moving up and knocking louder so that someone might hear. “Is there anybody in there? We’re not here to hurt you.” Unless you’re a monster. “We’re here to help.”
After a moment of no movement, Alyssa turned to Kasita, about to ask if she was sure about what she had seen. But the moment she did, the stone moved. The entire wall pulled inward and slid to one side, just enough to see a crack into the tiny room within.
It really wasn’t a room at all. Maybe a closet. Alyssa couldn’t understand the purpose of it at all until she noticed the two holes in the opposite wall, spaced just enough apart for someone to peep through. A room designed specifically for spying on whatever lay on the other side of the wall.
A bright green eye, tinged with tears, moved to fill in the narrow crack. “You’re human.”
“Yes,” Alyssa said softly. Kasita didn’t say anything, but she was standing off just a bit out of view. “We’re not going to hurt you,” she said again.
“You’re her. Oh thank Tenebrael! You’re her. The lich!”
Alyssa blinked… staring at the eye in the narrow strip. “The… The what?”