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Gaunts. Creatures… No, monsters perhaps even more horrifying than shadow assassins. Shadow assassins were merely invisible. Their debilitating scream was problematic, but now that she knew what to expect from it, Alyssa felt like she could shrug it off. Not that she wanted to test their effects again. Aside from that, they weren’t even all that strong. At least, they died through sufficient application of bullets just as easily as any human would.

According to both Kasita and the Irulons, nothing could penetrate the skin of a gaunt. No sword, no arrow, no magic. Their rubbery skin was entirely impervious. A bullet moved much faster than an arrow or a sword, so perhaps no one had tried such a thing yet, but the fact that they were apparently immune to magic as well dampened Alyssa’s spirits. They didn’t make a single sound. Despite being skeletally thin, they had the strength of thirteen minotaurs… Alyssa wasn’t entirely sure how much strength that was, but it was more than she had for sure. When feeding, they would press their face up against whatever they wanted to eat and then draw it into their body. It would split apart against the hundreds of holes on their face, ending up looking much like spaghetti. However, again according to the Irulons, a living thing wouldn’t exactly die. Not right away. She suspected that an alternate world lay beneath their skin, one in which the gaunt would appear to hunt down and properly consume their prey.

Apparently not much research had actually gone into trying to kill one. They were rare creatures that only rarely ate. Less than once a decade, presumably feeding off a single creature for a full ten years before having to find something new to consume. When they did, they tended to avoid eating humans, preferring prey that wouldn’t run away if it detected the gaunt. They did not like moving. Between feedings, a gaunt might go so still that towns had been built around them by people ignorant of their true nature, thinking that they were nothing more than ancient statues. Something that typically turned out poorly for some poor villager once the gaunt needed more food. While they wouldn’t seek out humans to eat, a whole buffet of them wandering around town square would be hard to ignore.

“What kind of people would ever want one of those things sitting in the middle of their town?” Even if it wasn’t moving around, the thing looked horrible. The face holes alone were enough to send jitters through Alyssa’s body.

“Superstitious sort,” one of the Irulons said. “Many believe ancient things possess protective qualities.”

“To be fair, they aren’t entirely wrong. There are a great many things that are protective. Even gaunts, in a roundabout manner.”

“Yes. The town of Ngranek. Situated deep within monster-infested territory, yet has never been attacked.”

“Even monsters stay away from gaunts.”

“Apparently they serve up offerings to it on a regular basis. The first time it woke up after the Ngranek’s inception, it ate a passing cow. In their ignorance, they took that to be its preference.”

“Now they serve it cows on a regular basis, even going so far as to worship it.”

“Heathens.”

“Heretics.”

Alyssa took a deep breath. She had experienced her fair share of irritating people. Tzheitza when she got worked up. A coworker of hers that couldn’t close their mouth while chewing. A classmate in high school who thought they were the class clown, but really weren’t liked by much of anyone… The list went on and on. Or it would have if she had bothered making one. But of all the people with annoying quirks, three Irulons was the worst. They didn’t exactly finish each others sentences, but it was close enough. Worse, it seemed almost like they had to vocalize every single thought they had. The real Irulon sometimes thought aloud, usually while doing the black eye thing, but even that wasn’t half as bad as these three.

“If we can subdue it by feeding it, why don’t one of you run out there and get yourself eaten?”

“Ha.” “Ha.” “Ha.”

Ugh.

“We lack substance. Even if we didn’t, this gaunt is being controlled. It will continue until the controller is finished or dead.”

“Though it would be fascinating to observe another world first-hand.”

“The rest of us wouldn’t be able to receive any observations one of us made until we discover a way of communicating between worlds.”

“Just… stop. Please. Focus on suggestions.” Another thing about the Irulons, they seemed to get distracted easily. Alyssa glanced down at the frozen Irulon on the floor and sighed again. If the real Irulon were here, things might have been resolved by now. But she wasn’t.

It was up to Alyssa to figure things out. The Irulons might be able to help, but they were too… un-Irulon-like to be completely relied upon. Kasita was still here, but she had still hardly moved. She was actually less useful than the Irulons. Tess… was still asleep. Probably for the best given how the girl had panicked over Irulon and started shouting at merely being touched.

Finding the controlling fairy would probably be the best option. As with the Brechen Overlook, it could stop the fight instantly and send any shadow assassins left to go kill themselves. Even if a gaunt couldn’t drown, it could at least be sent away. Unfortunately, Bercilak and crew at the Brechen Overlook had been controlling an army and the shadow assassins that had infiltrated the city from the overlook. A fair distance away. The fairy had control over a mile minimum, maybe even further out. It was a bit hard for Alyssa to actually measure distances, but she couldn’t assume that the controllers were inside the palace. Or even the city.

Theoretically, she could ask Tenebrael. The angel wouldn’t answer prayers almost certainly, but she would show up if people died. Octavia was chained up outside and Morgan down in the food storage room. While Alyssa might not like it, if it came down to her versus them, she knew which she would pick.

However, she didn’t want to rely on Tenebrael. It was a bad habit to get into for several reasons. It bred dependency. It inflated the angel’s already inflated ego. And the angel probably wouldn’t say anything anyway. Not if she wanted her little experiment to continue as she had stated. Ugh, things would have been so much easier if Tenebrael had just healed up Irulon like she had healed Alyssa. Why couldn’t she just do that?

Alyssa could feel her mood worsening just thinking about that angel.

Shifting focus, Alyssa considered the others who might possibly have some idea of how to get rid of a gaunt. Tzheitza, Oxart, and Brakkt. All three of whom should have received another Message from Alyssa appraising them of the change in situation and of the gaunt. Still, none of them had replied. Brakkt might be dead if Morgan was telling the truth, but the other two…

“Brakkt,” Alyssa said out loud, whispering. “His sword. It sliced through everything it touched. Could it hurt a gaunt?”

“Unknown.”

“The second keeps his secrets well guarded.”

“Any of our siblings wishing to steal the throne from the first would have to go through him. He acts as a deterrent against succession related conflicts.”

They didn’t know. Right. Of course they didn’t. They had probably been hiding away in here since Alyssa’s warning. “I hate to break it to you, but we ran into one of the people behind all this. She said that three of your brothers are dead, the oldest, the third oldest, and the Black Prince.”

The three Irulons looked at each other with knowing smiles. “They killed our brothers?” the left one said, shaking her head.

“The third, we can believe.”

“He always was the weakest of our elder siblings.”

“But the second? Haha. You shouldn’t believe the words of your enemies, Alyssa. They always have ulterior motives.”

“If he isn’t dead,” Alyssa started with a scowl, “then where is he? Why isn’t he helping us?”

“We believe he is on the upper floors, protecting the first as well as our father’s consorts.”

“That isn’t far away, is it? If we can get to him…”

Right Irulon shook her head. “He isn’t going to hand over his sword. Or leave his station guarding the first. As the seventh, we would be the least of his concerns at the moment.”

Alyssa slumped back against the wall with a huff. For a moment, she had thought she had found a solution. The Black Prince’s sword, even if she had to sneak up to get it herself, could have been just the thing she needed. But if he was alive, then Irulon would be right. He wouldn’t just hand it over. And with shadow assassins and gaunts skulking about, she was right about him likely not leaving whoever he was protecting. They would find a safe place to hold up until reinforcements arrived. Which might explain Oxart’s lack of a response. If she already knew about the situation, would she bother wasting her time sending a message to some random civilian?

It didn’t explain Tzheitza’s silence. Of everyone she had contacted, Alyssa would have expected Tzheitza to be the first to respond. The potioneer could use magic. She had seen her use Flame practically every day. What rank was Message again? It couldn’t be that high, but maybe Tzheitza couldn’t cast anything higher than Rank Zero.

Ugh. Alyssa clutched her hands to her head, trying to think up a solution. Her resources were distressingly limited. She had already flipped through Morgan’s spell cards. Nothing particularly stood out to her as useful. Mostly Death magic and Fire magic. For being called Death magic, it sure didn’t do a good job of killing everything that needed to die. Lots of it was utility spells like the soul vision, chains, and even Contract. Given that the Irulons hadn’t taken the initiative to offer up any spells, they probably didn’t have anything they thought would work against a gaunt.

But… Alyssa blinked. And considered. Magic acted strangely around her. At least, that’s what she wanted to believe. She really only had a handful of examples to go off. Or rather, only the one time she had used Desecrate Spells and when she had used Spectral Chains on an angel.

I used Spectral Chains on an angel!

Tenebrael had broken out of it immediately, of course. But it had captured Iosefael. Even if she had been weakened by the fight, there was no way that any mundane creature could stand up to an angel. If an angel hadn’t been able to break out of the chains, what hope did a puny gaunt have?

Pulling out the deck of cards again, Alyssa flipped through it. Spectral Chains. Right there. “I have a plan.”

“It’s a terrible plan.”

“You’ll get yourself killed.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together. “You haven’t even heard it yet.”

“Any plan you’ve thought of in the thirty minutes you’ve been here is a plan we have already considered and dismissed.”

Ugh,” Alyssa ground aloud. “Can I at least tell you what I’m thinking about before you shut it down—”

Kasita sprung to her feet. “Silence,” she hissed as she moved to press her ear up against the door.

She didn’t quite make it.

Thin rubbery fingers punched through the wood, sending splinters into the small space behind it.

Two of the needle-like fingers punctured straight through Kasita’s head. Not that they did any damage. Kasita stumbled back, but it was more in shock than because the claws actually hurt her. “Is there a back way out?” she shouted as a hundred holes to the abyss placed themselves in front of the gouged wood.

Alyssa felt a brush of air rushing toward the opening. Was it smelling them? Well it didn’t have eyes. It had to find them somehow. The gaunt’s face pulled away from the hole just as more of its fingers punched through the wood. Large chunks broke off, both inside and outside. All the while, Kasita scrambled as far back as she could, moving to hide behind the Irulons… who were just standing by, watching with impassive expressions.

The needly fingers pulled away from the wooden bookcase and didn’t return. For a moment, Alyssa thought it might have given up. Though it had broken much of the door, its large body couldn’t fit in and wouldn’t be able to for some time at the rate it was going.

Obviously it had a second plan in mind. The stone cracked around the backside of the bookcase as the gaunt jammed its fingers between and started prying the entire thing away. The wood clearly didn’t want to move, but it didn’t have much choice in the matter. With a resounding snap, the bookcase broke away from its rails, flying off into the laboratory as the gaunt swung it around. It crushed one of the skeleton-filled cages against a wall.

“Hey! Watch it!” Octavia shouted from her chains.

But Alyssa didn’t have a scrap of focus to spare for the girl. She watched, stomach churning as the gaunt’s shadow fell over her, blocking out light with its thin body occupying the space the bookcase had just left vacant.

It just stood there, tilting its head as it drew another breeze into its face.

Alyssa lifted up the spell card and, despite herself, said a small prayer to anything that might be listening. “Please let this work!” As soon as she spoke, she cast the spell.

Ghostly chains materialized around her wrist. The end of it lanced out, wrapping around the gaunt. Its lanky arms snapped to its sides as the links formed around its body from head to toe. Wide stance narrowing with the legs pulled together, it seemed to grow taller… only to fall forward onto its face as Alyssa gave the chains a slight tug.

Bated breath held fast, Alyssa watched it. The gaunt squirmed on the ground, clearly fighting against its chains. But it didn’t escape. The chains kept it from moving. They kept it from eating them… or whatever it did.

One of the Irulons even walked up to it, apparently unconcerned with the possibility. She leaned over and watched it. The gaunt’s visage reflected crystal clear in the mirrors she had for eyes. “This shouldn’t be.”

“This can’t be.”

“Spectral Chains don’t work on things stronger than humans.”

“Even a well trained human could break the links. Their tensile strength is abysmal.”

Chains wrapped around her left hand and pistol in her other, Alyssa ignored the bickering and shouted out again. “Kasita? Are you—”

The Irulon who had moved up to look over the gaunt jerked. Her head snapped back and twisted. It didn’t stop at ninety degrees, continuing until she was looking up at the ceiling while her body was still facing the gaunt.

Alyssa pulled the trigger, making her ears ring from the noise in the small space. But that didn’t stop her. Again and again. Three bullets whizzed out of the room as Irulon’s body fell on top of the gaunt. No splatters of black blood exploded anywhere between her and where the bullets hit the wall on the opposite side of the room.

“Higher!” One of the Irulons—No, Kasita shouted. “It’s crawling on the ceiling.”

The voice was quiet, drowned out by the echoes of the gunshots bouncing off the stone walls. But quiet was enough.

Alyssa snapped her arm up to the ceiling and fired again. And again.

The second shot found its mark. Blood splattered across the ceiling. The thing started shrieking; Alyssa could tell just by the slight pressure against her mind, but at this point, she could barely hear anything at all. Most of it was still invisible, but its invisibility didn’t cover the bloody hole floating in the air.

It gave her a target.

Alyssa unloaded into it. Three more holes appeared in the air as her bullets tore through the monster.

The assassin finally dropped to the ground, landing on top of Irulon’s body. Its invisibility melted away, revealing its sharp teeth weakly snapping at the air.

Not wanting to take the time to reload, Alyssa dropped her pistol to the floor and pulled out the one from her underarm holster. She aimed and fired one shot.

And let out a small sigh as it went still.

“Any others?”

“Not in here,” Kasita said, voice sounding like a whisper yet at a regular volume at the same time.

Alyssa grit her teeth, hoping she hadn’t just done permanent damage to her hearing. An odd thing to think about at the moment while there still could be more of those things outside… but…

She stumbled back, leaning against the wall behind her. Her legs didn’t want to hold her up anymore. Sucking in breaths of air, Alyssa clutched at her chest, trying to stop her heart from doing its best to jump out of her chest. Had it been beating this hard the whole time?

Hate. She hated this. Everything. Monsters. People. Angels. This world was insane. She had a fucking eldritch horror chained to her wrist! The room just past it was filled with corpses that a princess apparently thought of as toys! And had her sister, who thought being an assassin was a cool profession, chained up with those corpses!

That wasn’t even getting into the angels.

Argh!

Alyssa jumped as something brushed her shoulder. Her pistol was up and pointed at Kasita’s head in an instant.

The mimic didn’t even flinch at having the gun in her face. “Are you alright?”

“Fine! I am perfectly fine. Absolutely nothing is wrong. What’s next? A mass of flesh that absorbs anything it touches? An unstoppable monster that will eat anyone who sees its face? Or maybe a cute little teddy bear that is full of ears instead of stuffing? Send them all at me! See if I care! I’ll—”

“I understand,” Kasita said, moving to lean against the wall next to Alyssa. Her form twisted as she moved, turning back to her overly abundant chest and elegant clothes that she had worn at the Waterhole. She didn’t touch Alyssa more than that first brush, but she did slide just a little closer. “I don’t particularly like humans. In fact, if I were as strong as that thing there,” she pointed at the end of Alyssa’s chain where the gaunt was now lying utterly still, “I would probably spend my evenings prowling the streets and breaking them to pieces. But I also like to be around humans. Some of them are… interesting.” Her eyes met with Alyssa’s for just a moment before turning down to the gaunt. “More importantly, I know what humans are capable of. I know what they can and can’t do to me. The only ones I’ve got to watch out for are ones like that princess… or you, I suppose.

“In comparison, all monsters are roughly equal in population to humans, but there are so many varieties of them. And not all monsters are friendly just because I’m a monster too. You’re not the only one who worries about horrors from behind the stars. It’s just the world we live in.”

Alyssa had to scoff at that. The world they lived in, more like. She was just visiting. But, strangely enough, she felt much calmer. Her heart still hammered away at her ribs, but she didn’t feel like she was about to keeter over from a heart attack. And the ringing in her ears had died off. Still there, but subdued. Maybe Tenebrael could cure tinnitus like she fixed up the broken bones and burns. Alyssa wouldn’t ask for or thank her for it, but if the angel fixed it of her own volition, she wouldn’t complain. Hopefully it would go away on its own though. “Thanks,” Alyssa said after another moment, voice sounding hoarse.

“Yeah, well, had to say something. Didn’t want you losing concentration and letting that gaunt go,” Kasita said with a snarky smile.

“If you two are finished behaving irrationally, we would have you examine the laboratory for any further threats.”

“Once finished, we have a spell you can cast that we believe should secure the entrance for the time being.”

Alyssa looked up, frowning at the two remaining Irulons. Did they care that one of them was dead? Probably not. While Alyssa’s focus had been on the monsters breaking into the room, she was certain that none of them had displayed any emotion at all during the ordeal. Was that part of Irulon’s natural personality? Or something with the spell that had created them? Shaking her head, she decided that it didn’t matter. They were right. With the bookcase broken, their hiding spot wasn’t very hidden anymore. And if they could stop any more monsters from getting in, all the better.

“What about this thing?” Alyssa said, shaking the ethereal chains. “I’m not going to be too mobile dragging it around.”

“Mobility shouldn’t be needed for a cursory examination of the room.”

“If you leave your spell creation materials, we will begin drawing out several we believe will be useful.”

“Including one to lighten the load of the gaunt.”

“How long can you maintain the chains?”

Alyssa blinked. Was that a factor she had to worry about? The only other time she had used the spell had been on the angels and that had been for less than five minutes. But most spells didn’t seem to have a time limit… for her at least. Did other people have them? “Uh… until I sleep, I suppose,” she said after a moment.

“Truly?” “Truly?”

The two Irulons looked at each other, a grin growing across each of their faces.

“We always wanted something on par with the second’s draken. Imagine the surprise on our brother’s face.”

“We need to get ourself stable,” said the left one, smile faltering. “No time to experiment.”

“No need to experiment. Alyssa can cast Rank Six. We’ll have her test Fractal Lock on the gaunt. With it in stasis, we will have time to determine what to do about it.”

“Our supply of spells was contaminated with blood when the gaunt skewered ourself. There is no guarantee that a stasis will remain untainted.”

“We’ll just have to draw one out. We have the time for that.”

The left shook her head, slowly at first. “No. Fractal Lock is a complex diagram, it will take too long. We need to focus on ourself. If you and I die, it matters little, but if we lose ourself, having a gaunt in stasis for later experimentation will mean nothing.”

The right Irulon sighed. “I suppose you’re right. But we should really use this spell more often. Imagine if we hadn’t gotten ourself injured.”

Ugh, Alyssa groaned mentally. “Please don’t.”

The two turned their heads, wide smiles fixed in place. “Clear the room, Alyssa.”

“Once certain there are no monsters, watch the hall. It is the only entrance.”

“We will begin crafting the spell to seal the entrance immediately.”

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