Dragging an uncooperative person up a set of stairs was, as it turned out, unpleasant. Possible. But Alyssa had nearly fallen down more than once just trying to pick her up. After searching her for any extra weapons or cards on her person, Alyssa had tied Morgan up using ropes from the food storage room, which was just below the kitchens. She wasn’t all that well versed in keeping people immobile. However, the internet kept quite extensive notes on the art of bondage. Once certain that Morgan couldn’t move, rather than risk falling down the stairs and breaking her neck because of a squirming captive, Alyssa had thrown her into the storage room and locked the door with a key Tess had.
Hopefully that would keep her.
“You should have killed her.”
“Hmph. I agree with the monster.”
“She could have valuable information in stopping these kinds of attacks. We’ll leave it up to Irulon. If she wants to throw her off the tower, fine. But I’ve got her spells and her two knives. She’ll be harmless in there for the time being.”
“Until an assassin slips in and frees her.”
“Yes, I am aware that it isn’t a perfect plan. What else was I supposed to do?”
“Slit her throat.”
“Break her neck.”
“Slice open her stomach.”
“Alright! Enough already.” Alyssa stomped up the stairs. A new set of stairs, one that led up to Irulon’s floor.
Her floor. She had a whole floor to herself. While the palace was pyramidal in shape and got narrower up at the top, the whole floor was still probably bigger than two side-by-side copies of Alyssa’s home. Yard included. And they had to find her somewhere on the floor. Monsters would presumably be running around, having broken onto the actual floor. Maybe what she had done already would be enough to prevent Irulon’s death—maybe Morgan was the one to have killed Irulon in Tenebrael’s books—but Alyssa wasn’t going to take chances until this whole crisis was well over with. Given that Irulon would have died without Alyssa’s present or future actions, it could be assumed that the monsters would be able to harm her.
Which might mean that she was in hiding. Probably in some safe room that would be nearly impossible to find thanks to magic or elven engineering.
On the Brechen Overlook, Bercilak had mentioned their targets. Administrator Devo, the Black Prince, and some priest who had been dismissed as a target as soon as things started going wrong. Given that Devo, Irulon, and the pharaoh were the highest ranked arcanists in the city, Irulon would presumably be given quite a high priority. Her and…
“Where is the pharaoh?” Alyssa said with a glance toward Tess. “We should probably make sure he is safe too.”
“Ha! You think something like this would have ever happened had he been around?” Tess shook her head. “No. Last time, he snapped his fingers and every heretic in the city fell over dead. But he’s been gone for a month now. Inspecting the Fortress of Pandora.”
“Last time? Are these attacks common?”
“Once a year. The Juno Federation sends an army to attack the city. Assassinations and rioting are common beforehand. Though I don’t think they’ve ever used monsters before.”
“You don’t think so? Don’t you know?”
Tess pressed her lips together before slipping up past Alyssa. “Oh look! The door. Why don’t I just open this up for us. I can sense my princess. She is definitely still on her floor.”
“Wait.” Alyssa started to grab at her wrist, but hesitated, not wanting the girl to freak out again.
But the girl didn’t heed her words, opening the door and…
Staggered back, hand over her mouth. “O-Oh Tenebrael… What—”
Pistol in hand, Alyssa stepped up in front of her and right next to Kasita, ready to shoot at whatever had startled Tess.
Only to cover her own mouth, stifling a gag.
The door opened up to a hallway. Several lights had been knocked from their holders along the walls. Enough were left unbroken that Alyssa could see everything, as much as she didn’t want to. Blood had been smeared over much of the polished floor, walls, and even the ceiling. Some blood was streaked or splattered. Other spots looked more like hand prints. Or claw prints, given the elongated fingers. A statue, of Irulon no less, had toppled onto the floor in the center of the hallway, landing right on top of… meat.
Meat. Alyssa didn’t know how else to describe it. At one point in time, it might have been a person, but the now broken marble statue had landed on it hard enough to send pieces scattering around in a circle. Like a little meaty explosion. It wasn’t Irulon. Alyssa could tell that easily enough for its head had managed to escape the statue, if only barely. The head wasn’t attached anymore, sitting upside-down just to the side of the statue, staring down the hall with milky-white eyes.
“No. One of Princess Irulon’s toys.”
“She has a habit of collecting bodies. I’ve told her time and time again that it isn’t a very princessly thing to do,” Tess said, sounding like a concerned mother, “but she doesn’t listen… It was probably trying to protect her.”
“Wait. A dead body was trying to protect her?”
Tess glanced up, shrugged, and nodded her head. As if there was nothing wrong with that sentence. “I hope they recognize me. If any are still alive. Otherwise we might be fighting off them and whatever killed this one.”
Kasita moved a step forward, form shimmering. “It doesn’t matter if they recognize you, so long as they recognize me.” As she spoke, her voice went from Alyssa’s relatively deep voice to a much more neutral if slightly more feminine sound. Jewelry sprouted on her fingers and arms while her irises turned from brown to violet. She turned around to face Alyssa with a wide smile on her face just as a tattoo sprouted around her eye.
“Good thinking,” Alyssa said with a nod of her head. The less problems in their path, the better. Monsters, fanatics, gangs, and angels were bad enough. She didn’t need zombies added to that list.
“You…” Tess said, voice stiff. Her gloved hands shook at her sides as she ground her teeth. “You monster. How dare you sully Irulon’s beauty with that horrid expression. Take that face off right now!”
Alyssa really didn’t know what Tess was talking about. The resemblance was… perfect. The appearance was expected of a mimic, but managing that smile. It wasn’t the fake one that Irulon wore around the Observatorium where other students might see. It was the far more sadistic one Alyssa had seen on occasion. Usually when something was going Irulon’s way. Surely Tess had seen that side of Irulon at least once or twice.
But Tess’ words didn’t matter. With a giggle that did not fit Irulon, Kasita walked into the hallway. “I’ll change when I feel like it. And right now, I feel like not fighting your master’s toys.”
“I agree. Stick next to me, Kasita. Point out anything that moves. And you,” Alyssa said with a glance to Tess. The girl glared, but Alyssa ignored it. She couldn’t wait until they found Irulon. The princess could deal with twelve year olds all she wanted. Alyssa really did not like kids that much. “Where is Irulon most likely to be hiding?”
Tess opened her mouth. Even before a single sound came out, it was obvious that she wasn’t going to answer. Her fists were still shaking and her eye didn’t even glance in Alyssa’s direction. All of her anger was solely leveled at Kasita.
So Alyssa interrupted her. “Think of it this way, the sooner we find Irulon, the sooner Kasita can go back to normal.”
“Ufu~ Don’t be too sure. I could get used to having the body of a princess.”
“Isn’t it all an illusion? What does it ma—” Alyssa took a breath and closed her eyes. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Let’s go. We’ve wasted enough time talking as is.”
Eyes wide and searching for anything, Alyssa moved into the hall. Without even being asked, Kasita moved right up next to her, putting one hand on her outstretched arm just in case something popped up that needed to be shot. Several of the doors had been broken down. All from the hallway side. They came across another four of the toys, all unmoving. Three of them had been pulled to pieces while the fourth had simply had its head torn off.
“That’s Irulon’s main sleeping chamber,” Tess said as they passed another of the shattered doors. It opened up into a large room with an oversized bed, a desk, books, and a balcony. Probably more that Alyssa couldn’t see from the hallway. Just seeing the balcony sent a quiver through Alyssa’s toes. Having climbed only one flight of stairs, she didn’t feel that high up… but this was definitely near the top of the palace. That balcony would be… high. Much higher than the Brechen Overlook.
Tess was just behind Alyssa, still looking furious. Honestly, now that they had found Irulon’s floor, they probably didn’t need her anymore. If it weren’t for the fact that leaving a twelve year old to fend off the monsters on her own would be absolutely reprehensible, Alyssa would have tried to find another of those hidden peephole closets to shove her inside.
But, since she was around, she could at least answer a few questions.
“Will she be inside her room?” Alyssa asked, desperately hoping that the answer wouldn’t bring her closer to that balcony.
“No. Her laboratory. I can feel her up ahead. She and I are connected enough to sense that much,” Tess said with a certain amount of pride.
“Of course Irulon has a lab,” she said without hiding her relief. “Where is it?”
“End of the hall. Big doors. It occupies most of the floor.”
“Big doors? You mean that big hole?”
“Hole!” Tess leaned around Alyssa and Kasita. As soon as she saw the two heavy wooden doors lying on the floor, she rushed forward, no longer whispering. “Princess! Princess?” Alyssa tried to grab her shoulder, not even caring that she might flip out, but the girl was too quick.
And Kasita stopped her from chasing after with two simple words. “Behind us.”
Alyssa pivoted, aiming her pistol. Kasita shifted her aim slightly to the door they had just passed. Irulon’s room. Alyssa almost fired, assuming there to be something invisible standing there.
A hand reached out, grasping the door’s frame before Alyssa could act. A hand with needle-like fingers long enough to grab Alyssa around the torso and still have room to spare. The shiny black fingers, which were sharpened to a point at their tips, looked like latex in how they moved. Stone cracked in its grip as it pulled the rest of its body out into the hall.
It was skeletally thin, covered in that black latex from its three long toes to the tip of its curved horns. If given more time, Alyssa could have counted its ribs. Even without the time, she could tell it had too many. It was humanoid, but too long at every point. Like someone had taken a person and stretched out their legs just enough to make it unnatural, then stretched out its arms, then its body. Were it standing up straight, the tips of its horns would have scraped along the ceiling. But it wasn’t, it was hunched over just enough so that its unnaturally long arms barely kept off the floor as it walked.
The worst was its face. The rest of it might have been creepy enough half-shadowed as if ripped from a horror movie… but its head was plainly visible in the full light, making Alyssa want to turn and run. Maybe even jump from the balcony to get away from it. The otherwise unbroken smooth latex that covered its entire body did not remain the same on its head.
A hundred thousand holes covered the oblong dome of its head. All were different sizes and even different shapes, pressed together so tightly that only a thin string of latex kept the tiny holes from becoming larger.
The holes were bad enough. But the holes didn’t end. They had no backs. Even with a light right in front of the creature’s face, Alyssa could see no end to the depths of its head.
Alyssa tried to speak but her throat had gone dry. “What is it?” she managed after swallowing. Her finger was on the trigger, pressing down but not enough to actually fire her pistol. Something in the back of her mind warned her off shooting. Perhaps a fear that, if she shot, it might open up another hole to that endless abyss.
She didn’t get a response. Not a verbal one, anyway. The mimic broke contact with her arm, moving backward.
It took a moment to process what had just happened.
Kasita took a step back.
Kasita took a step back! The mimic that laughed off getting a knife through her forehead took a step back.
What little moisture Alyssa had managed to gather in her mouth evaporated instantly as the thing tilted its head in her direction. A distinct unease settled in Alyssa’s gut, like it was looking through her just as much as she could see through its face. It lifted one of its lithe legs, slow and sluggish. Almost like it didn’t want to chase after anyone. But it placed the foot down, dragging itself forward ever so slightly.
“We need to leave. Now!”
Not one to argue with sound advice, Alyssa turned. Together with Kasita, she ran down the remainder of the hall to Irulon’s laboratory. “How do we stop it?!” Alyssa shouted. Being quiet didn’t seem like it would do much good anymore. Looking back over her shoulder, it was definitely aware of them and chasing them. Though it still moved slow and sluggish, it didn’t make even the slightest noise. Even with that lethargic speed, it could easily have sneaked up behind her without her ever knowing until it was too late.
Kasita didn’t respond. She stepped over the fallen doors to the lab and started looking around.
When she had heard about a laboratory, Alyssa hadn’t been sure what to expect. To her, the word meant clean white tiles, white lab coats, bottles and beakers of colored chemicals, and lots of expensive equipment. Even Hollywood renditions of fantasy science merely replaced the tile floors with rich wood and the modern equipment with more antiquated brass and steam.
Stepping into the room, Alyssa was sure that Tess had misspoken. The place was clearly a dungeon. Chains and cages hung from the ceiling. Some of which were occupied. A man without a head hung from his legs in one corner of the room. Another unfortunate person was little more than a skeleton, suspended inside a circular cage near the entrance. Alyssa didn’t have the time to glance around at every single one with that monster behind her, but there were several. Only one was still alive. A certain violet eyed blond struggled against manacles keeping her attached to a flat plank of wood.
“Hey, hey! It’s you!” she shouted, tugging against her chains. “Come to rescue my idiot sister? You won’t fool anyone with that fake. You’re too late! And my friends will free me soon enough!”
Ugh. Octavia clearly hadn’t learned a thing. Aside from that, the monster had to have been here for a while and hadn’t broken her chains. It probably wasn’t too friendly. But that was her problem. Alyssa had her own troubles to worry about at the moment.
Kasita headed in the opposite direction from Octavia, toward where Tess was pounding furiously against a blank section of wall. Since she could sense the princess, Irulon must have been behind the wall, but Alyssa couldn’t see any doors on that side of the room. Throwing one last look over her shoulder at the monster dragging its feet across the floor, Alyssa chased after the mimic. Kasita didn’t go all the way up to the wall. She paused at a tall bookcase. The only one in the room. After staring at it for only a moment, she reached up and pulled on one of the many books with both hands.
Just like a movie, the bookcase clicked and the entire thing slid to the side.
“Inside quickly,” Kasita whispered as the case opened up to a darkened passage. “Do not make a sound if you do not wish to die.” She ducked inside without waiting to see if anyone would follow her.
Alyssa grabbed Tess from where she was banging on the wall and shouting for Irulon, clamping a hand around her mouth in the process. It was a good thing she was a twelve year old girl or dragging her inside would have been troublesome. The second they crossed the threshold, Kasita threw her whole weight against a large lever. The room went perfectly dark as the bookcase slid back in front of the opening.
Tess still struggled, trying to escape from Alyssa’s grip. Alyssa had half a mind to slam her skull into the wall in the hopes that it would knock her out. But she also didn’t want to brain the poor girl if at all possible. She was worried about her princess. Perfectly understandable. At the same time, Alyssa really didn’t want that thing to find them. They were lucky enough that it wasn’t fast enough to have seen them enter the passage. Octavia being out there was bad enough. Alyssa had to hope that the monster wouldn’t be able to understand anything she said.
Thankfully, Kasita took the problem out of her hands. “Your princess is in here,” she hissed. “But if you don’t stop immediately, you will kill her by drawing the gaunt to us.”
The girl immediately stopped struggling. Alyssa couldn’t see her face in the darkness, but she let out a small sigh of relief.
“Hm. Another of us?” A familiar voice spoke from somewhere in the shadows of the room.
“Of course we are. Tess?”
“Sleep.” “Sleep.” “Sleep.”
Tess went entirely slack. She made absolutely no effort to keep herself upright as she sank out of Alyssa’s grip and hit the floor with a mild thud. For a moment, Alyssa worried that she might make even more noise now that her mouth was uncovered, but she didn’t. She just lay on the floor, half on Alyssa’s shoes, quiet and unmoving.
“But it isn’t another of us.” The voices in the darkness were barely audible. Even just swallowing drowned out the soft noises.
“No. We would have known.”
“The mimic.” “The mimic.” “The mimic.”
Scowling, Alyssa pulled out her phone and activated its flashlight.
Three Irulons winced at the same time, shielding their eyes with their hands in perfectly identical manners. But they weren’t quite right. It was like looking at herself in Kasita, except backwards. Their tattoo was around the wrong eye. The snake armband that Irulon wore was usually around her left arm, now it was around her right. The part in their dark hair was on the wrong side. And all of them reached up with their left hands to cover their eyes from the light.
Irulon was right handed.
Slowly, they started to lower their hands, hesitantly at first as if letting their eyes get used to the sudden light.
Alyssa recoiled back at seeing them.
They didn’t have eyes. It wasn’t like the bottomless abyss of that monster outside. More like flat planes of glass that reflected all they looked at. Right now, they reflected the bright light of Alyssa’s flashlight, with a silhouette of herself standing near it.
Another Fractal spell. It had to be.
“Well, she’s here,” one of them whispered.
“That’s nice. I’m sure we would like some company while we die.”
“What if she can help us?”
The leftmost Irulon smiled and shook her head. “What can she possibly do that we haven’t already tried.”
“She’s from another world. It wouldn’t be wise to underestimate her.”
“And she knows the potion maker. A rejuvenation potion would likely cure our wounds before we died from them.”
“Enough,” Alyssa hissed. “I don’t even want to know what you’ve done to yourself. Just tell me what that thing out there is and how to kill it before it finds its way in here.”
Kasita was the one to answer first. “It’s a gaunt. A gaunt!” Her voice came out as barely more than a whisper, but it still carried the intensity of someone frightened for their life. “You can’t just kill gaunts. It’s going to suck us in and… and… I don’t know what after that. Probably death.”
“The mimic is correct.”
“We know of no way to destroy a gaunt.”
“It is a puzzle that we’ve been trying to solve for two hours now.”
“One puzzle. The other…”
“Do we tell her? It will damage her opinion of us.”
“If we die, her opinion will be worse.”
“But if we solve it ourselves—”
“Have we thought of a new plan?” The middle Irulon said, crossing her arms. Neither of the others said anything. Nodding her head, she looked directly at Alyssa. “We received your warning in time to begin preparing countermeasures. Unfortunately, the gaunt managed to sneak up behind us without us knowing. We were… distracted by a shadow assassin pounding on the door. Our countermeasures saved us.”
“For the moment.”
“We are injured.”
The center Irulon pointed down toward the floor. For a moment, it looked like nothing more than her legs and the stone of the floor. A crack ran through it like an eggshell. Shimmering shards of glass parted to reveal a fourth Irulon, lying perfectly still on the floor. This one had her tattoo on the right side of her face. A haze of grey hung over her, making her look even more like Tenebrael. The only color on her body was the six red streaks on the left side of her chest. Her clothes were torn… as was her skin. Alyssa couldn’t tell how deep they were. At least, she couldn’t until one of the mirror-eyed Irulons turned the greyscale copy onto her back.
The six claw marks ran all the way through her body.
“A precarious situation.”
“We are in stasis.”
“We put ourselves into stasis.”
“It saved us from the gaunt.”
“Once the stasis wears off, we will have an exceedingly limited amount of time to fix ourself.”
Alyssa stared down at the real Irulon. Her mouth was open and frozen in a pained grimace. Her eyes were wide with shock. And she was utterly still. “How long will the stasis hold for?”
“Eight hours, fifty-two minutes.”
“Assuming no actions taken, we estimate that our body will survive for twelve minutes after the stasis ends.”
Alyssa pressed her lips together, glancing at the numbers on her phone. “I have good news for you. Relatively. You’ll actually die seventeen minutes after the stasis ends.”
“How do you know?”
“You can tell from such a small glance?”
“Your analytical skills cannot supersede ours.”
“Ah. The trinket.”
“She got it back.”
“It can analyze the health of a human.”
“We would love to examine it.”
“We would love to survive.”
“The two are not mutually exclusive.”
Alyssa held up a hand. “Stop. Please. And when we save you… never ever use this spell again. Please.” She glanced to Kasita, hoping for some support. The mimic had been uncharastically silent. Surely the situation warranted a few ufu~s. The mimic, still in Irulon’s guise, hadn’t moved a muscle since blurting out about the gaunt. She stood perfectly still save, perhaps, for minor trembling in her arms. Is the gaunt that scary? Alyssa didn’t want to be anywhere near it, true. But she also didn’t want to be near a shadow assassin. For Kasita to be acting as she was… it gave Alyssa some unpleasant vibes. “Alright,” Alyssa said, kneeling down to the real Irulon. “How do I help fix you up?”
To start with, she tried moving away the scraps of clothing to get a better look at the wound. She didn’t know what to actually do with the wound itself, but getting the normally golden clothing out of the way would be a great start.
Except she couldn’t. Pulling on a shred of cloth didn’t budge it. Even grasping it with both hands only succeeded in lifting up Irulon’s entire body.
“This particular stasis spell locks the future of our body in place.”
Alyssa frowned. “And her clothes, I see.”
“For the purposes of the spell, our clothes and body are one and the same.”
“We would explain further.”
“Fractal magic is difficult to grasp even for geniuses.”
“We would hate to drive you insane.”
Alyssa rolled her eyes.
“Our recommendation: Deal with the gaunt.”
That stopped Alyssa short. “The gaunt? While you’re looking like this?”
“It is necessary,” Left Irulon said. “It is the more pressing issue at the moment, more so than our wounds. Stasis will hold for hours, that bookcase will not.”
“We believe access to our laboratory will significantly increase our chance of survival,” the right said.
Alyssa felt like she was getting whiplash glancing between them over and over again. “But what if someone casts Desecrate Spells or Suppress Magic while you’re like that?”
“A risk, it is true.”
“A risk we must take.”
“Remaining within this store room merely waiting for the spell to run out will get us nowhere.”
“With you here, there is a chance of a certain spell working.”
“But we would prefer to save this body, if at all possible.”
“It is a spell we will only test if no solutions present themselves after we gain access to our laboratory.”
“We cannot cast spells as we are.”
“Hence your requirement.”
“A rejuvenation potion may heal our wounds, but they are rare. Only one exists within the palace.”
“Leaving to acquire it while the gaunt is out there will prove difficult.”
Alyssa took a deep breath now that the three princesses had stopped talking. Deal with the gaunt. A gaunt that apparently cannot be killed. Ugh, why couldn’t Tenebrael just show up and fix everything. “Alright. Tell me everything about gaunts.”