“You never told me you were a lich. I’m hurt.”
Alyssa didn’t even bother glancing in Kasita’s direction. She was far too busy trying to keep her reassuring smile on despite feeling almost certain that she had just been insulted. But the eye vanished back into the darkness before she could say anything more.
The peephole door opened fully. Alyssa had apparently misjudged Octavia’s age, but this kid had to be… a kid. No older than fourteen, surely. She stepped out of the tiny room, throwing weary glances down the hall, up at the ceiling, and over both Alyssa and Kasita. Her movements jerked to a stop when the girl spotted the lone foot not far away.
Her mouth dropped open. The faint color in her cheeks vanished, turning her pale as a ghost. For a moment, Alyssa thought she might dash back into the room to hide, but she pinched her eye shut and, when she opened it again, the fear was gone. Her sole green eye locked on to Alyssa and didn’t waver in the slightest. Though that wasn’t to say that she had only one eye. Just that her other eye was covered by a curtain of blond hair.
The real question was just what she was. Her ears were slightly pointed, but not to the point of other elves that Alyssa had seen. And her skin was pale rather than the bluish-grey elves had. Apart from the ears, she looked human. Though she was fully clothed from the neck down, a long black dress that almost looked like an apron above a white blouse. Even her hands were gloved in black cloth.
“I’m so glad I found you.” Joy filled her voice, though it was short lived. As if realizing what she had said, she pulled back and narrowed her eyes, speaking in a cold voice. “Lich.”
“You… found me?” Alyssa glanced to a shrugging Kasita. For the moment, she decided to ignore the whole lich thing. Hopefully it was just another misunderstanding. She had been mistaken as a monster a few times now. Whatever a lich was, it couldn’t be worse than anything else.
“If Princess Irulon asks, please. She told me to find you around here and I don’t want to disappoint her.”
“She knows I’m here?”
“Princess Irulon received your messages. After a careful analysis of the situation and your former location at the Observatorium, she deduced that your most likely ingress point would be one of the side chambers on the ground floor. She sent me and…” She trailed off. Her eye, which had been locked on Alyssa, drifted toward the foot only to snap back with renewed intensity. “We should hurry. Irulon isn’t safe. A… A monster was trying to break down the doors when I left.”
Kasita leaned in close, staring at the girl. “Really? Breaking in?”
The girl shrank away, almost retreating back into the alcove. It took a hand on Kasita’s shoulder and a little pulling her back to get the girl to actually answer the question. When she did, she barely looked at Kasita while answering, choosing to stare at Alyssa instead. “I could hear its fists pounding against the door and the wood start to crack.”
“Odd. Do you know what was trying to get in?”
“A—A monster. I don’t know… I don’t know monsters. I don’t like monsters.” Her eye narrowed to a thin slit. “And Irulon said that anyone with the lich would be a monster unless they were an old lady.”
“Oh hoh, a monster, am I?”
“Kasita,” Alyssa said, voice hard. She gave the mimic a tight squeeze before she could do anything foolish like turn into a scary Rizk. They needed the girl. No one else could lead them to Irulon. “Please ignore her. She can’t hurt you.”
“That’s what Irulon said. And I believe her a lot more than I believe you.” She clasped her hands behind her back and held her head high. “Come. The servants’ stairwell is just down this hall.” While talking, she turned and started walking forward.
Alyssa reached out and grabbed her arm. “Wait, it could be danger—”
The girl yelped, throwing herself out of Alyssa’s grasp. She stumbled forward a few steps, catching herself on the wall. “Don’t—” She took a deep gasp of air. “Don’t touch me lich. I am Tess, personal servant to Princess Irulon. Only she is permitted to lay a finger on me.”
Alyssa shared another glance with Kasita, but didn’t say anything for a moment so that the girl could catch her breath and get herself recomposed. It didn’t take long. She snapped her hands behind her back again and glared. Her hair, slightly disheveled from her outburst, allowed both her eyes to be seen for just a moment. And in that moment, Alyssa couldn’t help but notice how tired her glare looked. A girl of her age shouldn’t have rings under her eyes. Maybe it was just the stress of the situation, but it looked as if she hadn’t slept in weeks.
What was more, she had tattoos. Not like Irulon’s. Tess had almost the entire left half of her face covered in intricate lines, starting just above her left eyebrow and moving all the way down to her neck. It probably went further than that, but her clothes made it impossible to tell for sure.
“That’s all well and good,” Alyssa said as the girl got herself under control. “And I’m sorry, I didn’t know… but I thought you might rather have us going first. Unless you are capable of fighting off shadow assassins on your own, in which case, please go first.”
That gave her a bit of a shock. Tess’s narrowed eyes widened and her mouth opened, but no sound came out. Whether or not she would have said something was forever lost as Kasita spoke.
“Ufu~ Not just shadow assassins,” she said with a smile. “While I’m not an expert on their species, I believe that a shadow assassin would not try to break down doors. Their specialty lies in ambush. There is something else in the palace.”
“Well that’s just splendid. As if invisible monsters whose voices make me literally want to kill myself weren’t enough.”
“Fun, isn’t it. I wonder if these other monsters will be up for a conversation. Though probably not if a fairy is controlling them. Ah well, they should have thought of that before having their minds enslaved.”
Alyssa just rolled her eyes. This whole world is absolutely insane. “We will just have to deal with it when we find them. For now, let’s go rescue the princess.”
Tess huffed, turning her head just enough to knock her hair back over her one eye and hide her tattoos once again. “Irulon doesn’t need saving. But since she asked me to bring you to her, I will.” She took a step forward, then hesitated. “It’s the fourth door on the left. Since you insist on going first.” Taking one hand from behind her back, she gestured down the hall with a mocking bow.
Alyssa could only frown. Figures that Irulon’s attendant would be an overly proud and somewhat snide girl. The palace could be falling to pieces around them and she would probably still act as if she were superior to anyone else. At least, that was the impression she had from their short interaction so far. But… did serving Irulon really elevate her status that much? Wasn’t she basically a peasant who did the laundry or whatever? Or maybe she wasn’t lording her status as one human to another human.
“What’s up with this lich stuff anyhow?” Alyssa said as they ascended a narrow spiral staircase. It was a narrow and claustrophobic passage with steep steps. Kasita went first, presumably under the assumption that she would be immune to most attacks. Alyssa was second in line, moving with her pistol gripped in both hands. She was physically fit and had just walked for two weeks straight, but stairs were another beast entirely. If this climb was going to take as long as she suspected, she absolutely needed something to distract herself from her legs. “Please don’t tell me that Irulon decided I was a lich all of a sudden.”
“I can comply with your request.”
“What? Why? I even told her where I came from. What is she going on about now?”
“Princess Irulon is never wrong.”
“Yes she is. She’s more wrong about more things than anyone I know…” Although, Irulon was right about a lot of things too. Or at least came mildly close to the truth. But she was still wrong about Alyssa. “Except for those doctors. Ugh, leeches.”
“She isn’t wrong.” Tess stomped a foot as she moved up the stairs. Which just made Alyssa wince in realization: She was arguing with a teenager. A teenager with a case of serious idol worship at that. Even worse than Octavia. No matter what was said, she doubted she would be able to convince the younger girl. But Tess hadn’t finished talking. “You can’t hide the fact that you don’t have a soul from someone as well versed in Death magics as Irulon. She’s—”
“Not the best time for heated arguments, if you ask me,” Kasita said in a much quieter voice than her typical joyous tone. “I think we’ve reached the top.”
“The top,” Alyssa said, blinking as she looked around. There was a narrow door here. Servants of the palace definitely had to maintain a strict weight requirement to fit through. But the stairs stopped at the door. She tried glancing back, but didn’t see much as the spiral was too tight. “This only took us up one floor? How many more stairs do we have to climb? A hundred?”
“No. This is the servant floor at the top of the tower. The only floors above here are the private quarters of the royal family. We have to use a second set of stairs to get up there—it’s just basic security.”
“But… magic. Magic made us climb a mile into the tower?” Apparently they didn’t need elevators at all. They could just magic away the space in between.
“It normally doesn’t,” Tess said with a harrumph. “But my liege is a genius who plans for everything. You best get on your knees and lick the soles of Princess Irulon’s feet in thanks when you see her.”
Alyssa shook her head, moving up to stand right next to Kasita. It was a bit narrow of a landing and the stairs lacked any handrails. If she fell, she would probably wind up tumbling down to the bottom. But she needed Kasita next to her just in case there was something invisible on the other side of the door. First, however, Alyssa pressed her ear right up against the wood and listened.
Something was on the other side of the door. Metal rattling. Every so often a heavy thud would move somewhere in the distance. Something was definitely on the other side of the door.
“Kasita, aim for me,” Alyssa whispered. “Try to confirm that whatever is in there isn’t another servant first, if possible.”
The mimic nodded and moved behind Alyssa, placing her hand around Alyssa’s hand. “Ready when you are.”
“You two look like fools.”
“And you might want to cover your ears.”
“That’s…” Tess pressed her lips together, but ended up nodding her head and clasping her hands over her ears.
Alyssa wished she had some ear protection as well. And not just for the shadow assassin’s death wails. Firing her gun inside a stone corridor this tiny would have her ears ringing for a week straight. Unfortunately, there was nothing to do about it now. With everyone ready, Alyssa pressed open the door. Slowly at first, keeping her pistol aimed at the crack. Not feeling any pressure from Kasita, she pushed open the door further.
It was a kitchen. Counters, pots, pans, food… It almost looked modern given the high quality equipment. Obviously there weren’t any electric ranges or conventional ovens. Definitely no microwaves. But there was a pot above a small fire right next to the door, boiling over as it rattled the lid.
That explained one noise. As for the other…
Kasita leaned into Alyssa, pressing her hand right and down. She held the pistol there, not giving any cue to fire just yet. So Alyssa didn’t. Waiting with held breath, she stared into the kitchen, trying to spot any movement.
There! An unnatural curling of the steam coming off the boiling pot! Alyssa’s hands moved, but Kasita pulled her back to where she had been.
“It’s a trick,” Kasita said, voice barely reaching Alyssa’s ear despite standing close enough that her whole body was pressed up against Alyssa’s back. “There’s nothing there.”
“We can’t just sit here. They know where we are now. Another one will be coming up the stairs behind us.”
“Ufu~” Her giggle brushed against the hairs on Alyssa’s neck, making her twitch. “Send the girl in. She’s annoying enough to draw it out.”
“Fine. I guess we’re putting ourselves into danger in place of some worthless human.”
“Being annoying isn’t grounds for execution.”
Alyssa stepped into the room, keeping her pistol aimed just over the top of an island-type counter. The boiling pot was rattling behind her back as she started walking around the island. Every step she took was smaller than the last. By the time she reached the edge of the island counters, she was barely shimmying along. And she couldn’t stop scowling as she stared at the floor.
“Shoot it, just in case.”
Another of the shadow assassins was on the floor, dark skin and spiral tattoos making it unmistakable. If it had a face, it would have been face-down. The only way she could actually tell which side was front and which was back were the way the legs and arms bent. Black oil spread out from its body, pooling around the still corpse. Alyssa hesitated. The noise of her gunshot could draw more. If it was dead and had been before they had opened the door, then the controller might not know where they were. At the same time, how many movies had she seen where the monster pretended to be dead just to get the drop on the plucky protagonist. With that in mind, it was much easier to give the trigger a light squeeze.
A crack rang out as the body jerked ever so slightly with the impact.
And that was it. No other sounds. No screeching that made her want to shoot herself. Just a mild ringing in her ears.
“Dead. It must have been Irulon?”
Scowling, Kasita took a step forward, kicking at the body. It barely moved under her foot. “Something was moving in here. I’m sure of it. But…” She looked up and slowly turned to look around the room. “I don’t know where it went.”
“Then we should move on quick. Before something ambushes us.” Alyssa turned back to the door they had come through. Tess had poked her head through, probably wondering if it was safe.
“There is something on the floor there,” Kasita said, pointing toward Tess at the same time as Alyssa heard it. A slight glimmering noise coming from where Kasita was pointing.
A bubble burst next to the boiling pot. A cloaked figure appeared in the midst. Alyssa raised her pistol, but a gust of wind from the bubble popping made her take a step back, squinting her eyes. That moment of distraction was enough. The figure slipped around behind Tess, grabbing her by the throat. A crooked blade found itself pressed right up against Tess’ chin, pressing into the skin but not quite breaking it.
“Let her go,” Alyssa said, aiming her pistol. She didn’t fire. The person—for it was a human or human enough that she couldn’t tell the difference with that cloak on—had stooped down, keeping most of their body behind Tess. Alyssa didn’t trust her aim half enough to fire without hitting the girl.
“You again,” a vaguely familiar voice snarled from behind the wide-eyed Tess. “Liadri knew you would be here, but why? What relation do you have to the royal family?”
“Morgan? Is that you?” That was the familiar voice. Morgan. From the Brechen Overlook. She wore the same elegant robe that the person had worn down on the streets. Which meant that she had gotten all the way up here from down there. Teleportation? Recall again? Or something else. If it was a free teleport, Alyssa really wanted that spell, but it wasn’t like she could just ask her for it. Not while she was holding children hostage.
What to do? What to do? Alyssa couldn’t see Kasita in her peripheral vision. She might have gotten knocked down from that wind… or she had just run off again. Which meant that she couldn’t be relied on at the moment. Hopefully there wasn’t a shadow assassin creeping up on Alyssa’s back.
“Bercilak will be happy to know you survived the other night,” Alyssa said, just trying to think of something that would get the knife away from Tess’ throat.
Tess didn’t struggle as Morgan dragged her a step back to the door, now using it as more of a shield than Tess’ short body. The younger girl shot Alyssa a glare, as if it were all her fault that she had wound up a hostage. Which, if Alyssa were being honest, was probably a whole lot better than how she would have handled it at Tess’ age.
“Bercilak will be happy when he is free of the dungeons, your pharaoh and his whole family are dead, and Tenebrael’s name is scoured from this world.”
“I really doubt she would let that happen.”
“She won’t have a choice. With her most powerful followers dead, the armies of Juno will be free to destroy blasphemous temples and texts.”
“Yeah, but that’s just the human side of things. I don’t think Tenebrael will allow her name to be sullied. Though maybe she will, I don’t know. I don’t really understand the rules she operates under. Like she has this little black book that tells the future—it’s why I’m here, since it predicted a friend’s death—and apparently she can’t change that future. Like, she saved the monsters when they should all have been destroyed, or something like that—kept them around past their expiration date. Apparently, that has messed up her world enough to get all the other angels in a tizzy, but it is still following and was apparently preordained by that book. So what are the other angels mad about? I’d ask her, but she has this habit of disappearing the moment I take my eyes off her. Usually after telling me something annoying, like my friends are going to die.”
That was something she had wanted to get off her chest for a while now. Iosefael had popped up to start whining about how this world shouldn’t have monsters and claimed that Tenebrael had done something wrong. Tenebrael apparently couldn’t deviate from what was written in the book no matter how hard she tried. Was the book not the plan that they had mentioned? Even if it wasn’t, Iosefael was getting mad at Tenebrael for something the latter had no control over.
It was enough to make her sigh in exasperation. But at least it was an honest frustration that might help build a bit of rapport with Morgan. That’s what they did during hostage situations in movies, anyway. Hollywood was really all Alyssa had to fall back on in situations like this. She hadn’t ever experienced a real hostage situation.
Both Tess and Morgan were staring. Tess with wide eyes and Morgan with her golden eyes narrowed, barely gleaming out from under her hood.
“You speak as if you talk with Tenebrael regularly.”
“Yeah, well, anytime someone dies, Tenebrael pops up. Since I can see her, she sometimes talks to me. I’ll be honest, she’s a right bitch. I can understand why you hate her. But that doesn’t mean that you can just go threaten and kill twelve year olds indiscriminately.”
“Twelve?!” Tess shouted. She started to step forward only to wince as the blade bit into her chin. “I am not twel—”
“Quiet. The adults are talking.” Alyssa gave Tess a glare before looking up to Morgan. “Why don’t you let the girl go so that we can have a nice civil conversation. You might not believe me, but I really am interested in knowing why you hate Tenebrael so much given how everyone here worships the ground she floats over. Or at least the ground they think she floats over.”
For just a moment, Alyssa thought her ploy had worked. Morgan’s fingers loosened ever so slightly from Tess’ neck. But only for a moment. Her grip doubled over, fingers burrowing into the skin as Tess finally started struggling. The girl’s hands tried to pry off Morgan’s gloved fingers. She even started stomping her foot, trying to break loose.
Morgan didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Her eyes stared hard at Alyssa. “You think I’m an idiot? I know how your artifacts work. You won’t use them while I have her between us.”
Alyssa pressed her lips together. It had almost worked. Almost. Had she said something wrong? Or was Morgan just suspicious enough that it never would have worked? Wracking her mind, Alyssa tried to figure out what to do. Should she take the chance and try shooting at what little of Morgan wasn’t behind the smaller girl? There wouldn’t be much time. Morgan was well and truly strangling Tess now.
She just about dropped her pistol in the hopes that doing so might appease Morgan, even momentarily. But before she could, she heard her own voice coming from behind the open door.
“No. But I can use them from here.”
Morgan snapped her head to the side. Immediately, she ducked, releasing her grip on Tess in the process.
Tess realized that she was free. She thrashed and kicked as she started struggling instead of putting distance between herself and the woman as was sensible. An elbow wound up right in the darkness of the ducked Morgan’s hood. A muffled grunt came from the depths that would have been almost comical under other circumstances.
Not willing to waste the opportunity, Alyssa rushed forward, using one hand to grasp Tess by the shoulder and throw her away from Morgan. Kasita stood to the side, holding a pistol out in Morgan’s direction. Not a real pistol, obviously. The mimic was many things—literally—but she couldn’t be in two places at once and Alyssa had all her pistols on her. One of which found its butt smacking into Morgan’s stomach. The woman doubled over with a cough from the force, but Alyssa didn’t care. She threw her shoulder into the woman, knocking her to the floor.
With Morgan on the ground, Alyssa stomped down on the knife still in her hand. Even knowing what she was doing, the audible snaps made Alyssa wince. Morgan’s groan through her clenched teeth didn’t help matters. “Move even the slightest and you’ll have a brand new hole in your head,” Alyssa said, leveling her pistol at Morgan’s head.
Morgan didn’t listen. Her hand that hadn’t been crushed slid ever so slightly closer to her pocket.
Alyssa turned and stomped as hard as she could on Morgan’s other hand.
“That was your one warning,” Alyssa said, ignoring the moans. “Tess, search her. She has spell cards somewhere on her. Find them and take them away.”
Kasita stepped forward, false gun vanishing into nothingness. “You should just shoot her.”
“Your monster is right,” Tess said, rubbing at her chin. “Kill her.”
“Tess,” Alyssa commanded. “Search her. She stays alive for now—if she doesn’t make too much trouble—because she can order around the shadow assassins, get them to drown themselves in the river.”
“You fool,” Morgan said with a half-laugh. “You think I would be here if I were in charge of this operation? Kill me. I have failed in my task and deserve nothing less.” The tension in her body lapsed. Her head turned to the side to stare at the boiling pot. And she sat there on the ground, unmoving save for light breaths.
“Huh. Bercilak said something similar. I’ll tell you the same thing I told him: Tenebrael will show up when you die regardless of what you believe. She will pull out your soul, shove it down her mouth, and eat you. And if I’m nearby, maybe I’ll try to convince her to torture you a little first, just for holding a kid hostage. Besides that, you are trying to start a war and kill thousands of people just because they think, wrongly, that Tenebrael is some sort of god. For that, I think I’ll hand you over to the Black Prince. He can get all the information he can out of you.”
Blinking, Alyssa flicked her eyes to where Tess was pulling a deck of cards from Morgan’s pocket. The girl tried to slip it into the pocket of her own apron-like dress, but Alyssa snatched it out of her fingers before it could disappear. “Thank you, Tess.”
The girl glared, but didn’t say anything as she scurried off to the side. Rather, it was Morgan who began speaking again, this time with a smile.
“You’re too late. The first, second, and third princes are dead. The rest will be joining them by morning.”
Darth Vader dead? Alyssa wasn’t sure she believed that. He had seemed so implacable the night of the attack… the first attack. Then again, they had been planning on using shadow assassins against him then, so maybe the creatures were his weakness. “But Irulon is still alive. She threatened to take me apart once. I’m sure she would be happy to do the same to you.
“And she’s our next destination.”