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Alyssa let out a long sigh at seeing the laboratory entrance sealed off by a smooth mirror. It wasn’t impenetrable. The Irulons made that clear. A gaunt would probably be able to walk through unfettered due to their magic immunity. Certain types of high-rank magic would be able to take it down. Even Desecrate Spells would take it down, though it would apparently take some time. And if someone didn’t have either of those options at hand, breaking down the stone walls wouldn’t be too difficult for anyone dedicated enough.

But it was a relief to Alyssa regardless. It meant that, for the first time since Tenebrael had shown her ugly face tonight, she could sit down and not worry too much. She had found Irulon. The shadow assassins couldn’t get in and Kasita hadn’t been able to find any in the room. The Irulons didn’t think that there would be a second gaunt due to the species’ rarity. Morgan and whatever other cohorts she had couldn’t get in either; Morgan’s spell cards were in Alyssa’s possession and none of them would have been able to penetrate the mirror even if she still had them, again according to the Irulons.

Not everything was hunky-dory, of course. Irulon, the real frozen one, still had holes in her chest right around her heart and lungs. Tenebrael had showed up just long enough to take the shadow assassin’s soul, but left without a word and without healing Irulon. The palace was still under attack. And Alyssa still had this xenomorph chained to her arm. It was floating in the air now thanks to one of the many spells the Irulons had drawn out, but that was little comfort when it kept staring at her. Ugh.

“Can we please throw this thing off the tower? Its face makes my stomach churn.”

“We suggest not looking at it.”

“We are almost finished.”

“How soon is almost? You have been working on that one spell for ten minutes now. Do I need to remind you that your real body is in need of emergency medical attention?”

“We are not crafting a simple spell. New spells require far more thought than existing ones as well.”

“Our hands must remain steady. Talking and being talked at are not conducive.”

Alyssa scowled at the two as they knelt on the floor, both working in tandem to scribble out needle-fine lines across a single card face. She didn’t even want to try looking at it. They hadn’t told her what spell they were drawing out. Only that it was a new invention designed specifically for this event. For all Alyssa knew, they had gone back to their plan of drawing Fractal Lock and were going to use it on the gaunt after all. “Fractal Lock is the same spell you used on your real body, right?”

“Indeed.”

“It is a useful spell, one that severs the target’s connection with the future for a time, effectively rendering it inviolable.”

Absolutely unbelievable. A fireball was one thing. It threw a ball of fire. Nice and simple. Alyssa could not understand the more advanced magics at all. How does something just disconnect from the future? How does someone design something like that? “What are you planning on doing about the gaunt once you get yourself fixed up? Mind control this thing?”

“Mind control? How barbaric.”

“We aren’t a fairy.”

“It will serve us of its own free will.”

“Using extremely vague definitions of free.”

“More importantly…” One of the Irulons paused her drawing, lifting the pen from the card. She stood, moving a step away before brushing off her knees. When she righted herself, she had the card in hand. The fake Irulons couldn’t cast magic. Hence their reliance on Alyssa. As with every other card they had completed, the Irulon handed it over to her.

It was covered in recessed triangles like most fractal spells, but they really all looked the same to her. And they usually hurt her head if she stared too long. So she looked up to the Irulon that had walked over instead. As with all the other cards Irulon had drawn, Alyssa snapped a picture of it. Just in case she ever needed a reference. Fingers hovering over the text entry for a short caption on the spell, Alyssa glanced up and asked, “What is this?”

“A modification of Fractal Mirror. We haven’t decided what to call it yet… Don’t make that face, it is necessary.”

“The other spells you’ve given me haven’t been too bad,” Alyssa said, throwing a glance at the mirror in the doorway. That, Infinite Regress, and Empty Mirror hadn’t taken much effort at all. She barely noticed herself casting them half the time. The issue with Infinite Regress had been a bad interaction with Desecrate Spells, something that she would not be trying again. “But Fractal Mirror sat me on my ass for half an hour after casting it. I could barely think after using that spell.”

“Which is why we had to finish this card first,” the other Irulon said, picking up one of the other cards as she moved. “If something goes wrong, the mimic should be able to use this to safeguard us while you recover. It is called Loophole. A Rank Four Time magic spell that should keep the gaunt trapped for a short period of… time. Not long, but long enough for you to capture it with the chains again.”

As Irulon held the card out, Alyssa raised her eyebrows. Time magic. Tenebrael had done some time magic. That had to be what had stopped all movement when she had spoken to Alyssa in the inn. That spell probably hadn’t been so low as Rank Four, but it was interesting. Were these calmer circumstances, she might ask Irulon about something as grandiose as what Tenebrael had done. For now, she just snapped a picture of the hourglass pattern and labeled it.

Kasita looked up from where she sat on the opposite side of the room at being addressed, right near where Octavia was chained to a slab with a rag shoved into her mouth to keep her silent. As soon as they confirmed that the room was safe, Kasita had moved away from Alyssa with barely a word. It was the gaunt. The mimic really did not like being near it. To be fair, Alyssa didn’t either, but she didn’t have much choice in the matter unless she wanted to release it from its chains.

“And this will definitely work on the gaunt?” Alyssa asked. “I thought they were immune to magic?”

“Loophole will not affect the gaunt directly, but rather the area around it. The world will be a maze-like structure of warped time.”

That was one worry assuaged. There were still plenty more where that had come from. If this spell did go bad, Kasita had better be on the ball with her spell casting. At least there were still several Spectral Chains left in Morgan’s deck. Enough that she could recapture it a few times. So long as she was awake and aware, anyway.

“I’m not so sure about a spell that might make me lose control of it. Not that I don’t have confidence in Kasita’s abilities. It’s just that, why risk it?”

“And I’m not so sure about a plan that relies on me casting your human magics,” Kasita said, voice low and hostile. “I am interested in human magic, yes, but I do not know where I fall in your silly ranking system. I don’t want to fail and get eaten by a gaunt. This does not seem like the best time to be testing it.”

“Contract is Rank Three. You cast it without incident or difficulty?”

Kasita frowned. “Well, yes. But had I failed that spell, the worst that could have happened would have been that malefactor’s head exploding.”

“Hm. We doubt it would have failed in such a manner. But this is only Rank Four. We estimate your natural abilities around Rank Five. Possibly higher if the portal theory behind your shape shifting is, indeed, the correct one. This should be simple enough for you.”

“It is a risk, but a necessary one.” The… whatever Irulon she was, she looked to Alyssa. “Our new spell should allow you to find the fairy controlling this gaunt. If we let Brakkt and the city guard know, the second can take care of this attack properly. The enemy will be distracted, focusing on the direct threat to them, allowing us free rein to delve to the palace’s storerooms in search of a healing potion.”

Alyssa held up a finger, stalling the two Irulons. The biggest problem with them, she had decided, was that it was difficult to get a word in edgewise when they kept talking one after the other. “Can we not just turn invisible and go search through the storeroom?”

“Indeed. That is how we intend to go about matters.” The Irulon who had spoken smiled, perhaps showing the first emotion since Alyssa had found them. “We are glad you aren’t too foolish. However, Empty Mirror is not a simple spell to draw and will take time. Best to get the situation under control first, lessening the danger that we might be discovered while moving about the castle.”

The Irulon with Loophole walked right up to Kasita and offered her the card. “Aim it at the gaunt. Say ‘Loophole’ while thinking of locking it into a stasis similar to that of ourself. But only if the chains disappear. It will not last long enough to waste frivolously.”

“It needs to last long enough for Alyssa to recast Spectral Chains after potentially recovering from an influx of high-density information. Ten minutes at minimum. The spell will barely last twelve.”

Kasita took the card, scowling at it. “You’re trusting a mimic… a monster with your life? What if I decide to betray you.”

“Your fear of the gaunt is obvious to any with functional eyes.”

“You would not risk the gaunt getting loose.”

“Not to mention, Alyssa trusts you.”

“While we are disappointed that Alyssa did not share her real name with us, we can at least trust that she has our best interests at heart—someone who didn’t wouldn’t have wandered into the palace knowing that shadow assassins could be lurking around every corner.”

“Quite foolish of you,” the Irulon closer to Alyssa said. “Though we appreciate the sentiment at the moment.”

Alyssa blinked twice, glancing at the Irulon who had spoken to Kasita. “What? What does that mean? Alyssa is my real name.”

“You aren’t lying. But you aren’t telling the whole truth, either.”

“Which explains her confusion at a lack of response to her messages,” Irulon said, glancing to the other before looking back to Alyssa. “We realized when we were unable to Message you nearly a week ago. At the time, we believed it to be part of your human disguise and didn’t ask.”

“A clear mistake in retrospect. Had we been able to ask for more details, perhaps we wouldn’t be in our current state.”

“But Alyssa is my real name. Unless… do you need my full name? Not a single person has mentioned having a surname so I never said mine. It’s Meadows. Alyssa Meadows.”

“Irrelevant at the moment.”

“We have no need to Message someone in our presence.”

“When you send out Messages to my brother and the city guard after discovering the location of the fairy, perhaps include your full name so that you may receive responses if they so choose to send them.”

“Speaking of…”

The Irulon closer to Alyssa tapped the edge of the card. “Use this. That you can cast spells without an activation keyword has removed much of the effort in designing the spell. Like Fractal Mirror, you will see things. However, you won’t see yourself… for the most part. You will see your target. The gaunt, in this case. Rather than see its future, you will see everything it has interacted with in the past several hours. Find the fairy. Touch its shard. The spell then should show you its current location.”

“What do you mean, ‘should’ show me?” Alyssa said using her fingers for air quotes. “It isn’t going to go wrong and teleport me to the middle of the attackers’ base, is it?”

“The spell contains no warp matrices.”

“Yeah, well, were there ‘warp matrices’ in Infinite Regress? Because that spell moved me from one location to another. So did Fractal Mirror for that matter, which this spell is apparently based off.”

The Irulon closest to Alyssa hesitated, frowning as she glanced to the other who quickly picked up the slack. “Our theory is sound. There is always a risk in testing new spells, but this is hardly the first spell we have created. We know what we are doing.”

Alyssa shook her wrist, rattling the chains of the gaunt. They really didn’t rattle so much. Being all ghostly and transparent, they barely made the sound that they should have. Still, she had a point to make and felt the emphasis added to her argument. “Did you take into account that magic doesn’t always work as expected when I am involved?”

“What if I cast that spell?” Kasita said, standing and approaching Alyssa. At least, she started to approach. Eying the gaunt, she paused and stayed back by the wall. “If I cast it and it whisks me away, then I can just hide. And then we don’t have to worry about the gaunt getting loose and sucking us all up.”

The Irulons turned as one to face the mimic. “A possibility we considered, of course.”

“We considered every possibility.”

“Can your mind handle an infinite amount of information being thrust inside it regardless of your will?”

“Alyssa’s mind can. There is empirical evidence. We observed her cast Fractal Mirror to little detriment to herself. With no preparations.”

“Even we had to take great pains in expanding the limits of our mind before attempting much in the way of highly ranked Fractal magic lest our mind explode.”

“We dismissed you as a possible candidate for our new spell for precisely that reason. Should you perish, there would be nothing to cast the Loophole spell on the gaunt in the event that Alyssa fails to maintain her grip on the chains when we inevitably had to cast the spell again.”

“If you have information proving otherwise that we are not privy to, please enlighten us at your earliest convenience.”

“Otherwise, it must be Alyssa, for we are the only other capable of such a feat in this room.”

“And we cannot cast spells. Pulling ourself from stasis to cast it without a means to cure the wounds will only lead to our deaths.”

“We have no other resources at hand. Save for the eighth. She will not cooperate.”

The room fell silent for the moment. Mostly. At being referenced, Octavia started struggling against her chains once again. Hers actually made noise, being iron. But she couldn’t do much more than that. Even speaking wasn’t possible with that rag shoved down her throat.

Kasita, however, looked the most upset. One fist was clenched tight. The other held on to the Loophole spell card. It was good that she had the presence of mind not to crush it considering how long it had taken two Irulons working in tandem to complete it. But Alyssa could understand her anger.

Something Alyssa had noticed about the mimic was that she didn’t like feeling useless. Kasita hadn’t explicitly stated so, but it was just the impression Alyssa had. Maybe Tzheitza was right and it was all part of an act to get Alyssa to lower her guard or whatever, but she didn’t believe that. Since meeting her, Kasita had frequently commented on how she was too weak to accomplish much of anything. It wasn’t whining so much as it was reminding.

At the same time, Kasita jumped at any opportunity to do something. Whether that be marching into the Taker’s cellar or just wandering around town looking for people dying. She jumped at any task offered like she was born to do it. Honestly speaking, it actually unnerved Alyssa a little. If Alyssa had never appeared, what would have happened to her? Would she had found someone else to latch on to like this? Or did she have her own desires that she wanted to accomplish with her life?

Or was helping out Alyssa somehow a desire of hers?

“It’s fine, Kasita,” Alyssa said with a sigh. She had her own complaints about all this. Namely that the spell might melt her brain. Irulon’s admission that Fractal Mirror could have killed her, while unsettling, wasn’t exactly new news. She had mentioned something similar immediately after the fact back then, though she had left out the preparations bit. Still, that didn’t mean that Alyssa wanted to expose herself to more brain-melting magic if she could help it.

But the Irulons’ logic was sound. Alyssa didn’t think she could help it. Even if someone else were here who could cast spells, they probably wouldn’t be able to cast Rank Six spells. Kasita might be able to, but the Irulons might be right. Based on what had happened during Fractal Mirror, Alyssa didn’t believe that her brain possibly exploding was an exaggeration in the slightest.

Alyssa met Kasita’s eyes. “I need you to keep a close eye on the gaunt. If its chains look like they’re fading even a little, cast Loophole. Or else we’ll all die.”

“So you’re going to throw yourself away instead?”

“I’ve got zero intentions of dying. I will not die until I’ve ensured that I’m not going to be eaten by a certain angel.”

“You’re taking an awfully big chance.”

“I’ve survived this spell before. Or something like it.” Alyssa looked down at the card in her hands. It wasn’t quite the same spell. It had a lot of the same mind-numbing elements to its shapes and designs. Namely the triangles that seemed to collapse in on themselves endlessly. But there were a lot more circles involved in this particular card than what she remembered on Fractal Mirror. “How about Fractal Vision? For a name.”

Irulon stared, corners of her lips turning to a frown. “You are naming our spell?”

“I’m the one taking the risk here.” Alyssa took a deep breath, butterflies fluttering about her stomach. She really did not want to cast the spell. But someone had to. Before she could have any second thoughts, she took the card between her fingertips and thought about the shards of glass swirling around her once again.

The spell took effect instantly. As with Fractal Mirror, the card in her hand broke apart and multiplied until the glass completely surrounded her. Alyssa paid careful attention to the chains wrapped around her wrist. They didn’t break, thankfully. The glass flowed right around them. Over them. Fractal Vision made a small tunnel that Alyssa couldn’t quite see through from her angle. Did it wrap around the gaunt? Was that intentional? Whatever the case, the chains were there and unbroken. Which meant that the gaunt was still chained up. Confident that the gaunt wasn’t going to get loose and attack her before Kasita could trap it in whatever Loophole actually did, Alyssa turned her attention to the shards themselves.

Each facet displayed a different image. When the Irulons had said that the spell would show everything it had interacted with, she hadn’t been exaggerating. Ninety percent of the infinite shards were absolutely useless. Blocks of stone, wooden doors, iron bars, and several other inanimate objects. Alyssa dismissed them entirely, blocking them out of her mind as she focused on the shards with living beings inside them. Many were of herself, Irulon, Kasita, and even Octavia. Plenty of those undead toys as well.

Oddly enough, Alyssa felt far calmer with the glass swirling around her than she had back when she had tried Fractal Mirror. Perhaps it was knowing what to expect. Maybe it was that these weren’t her future. In fact, the objects and people in the shards were barely animate. Obviously the inanimate objects didn’t move, but even the people were more like pictures than movies. No scenes played out. She considered tapping one of them, herself or Kasita for instance, just to test out what would happen. But if that ended the spell and she hadn’t learned anything useful, the Irulons would likely be upset with her. And more time would waste away while they drew out another one.

A shard flicked by that caught Alyssa’s attention. A hooded figure with golden eyes. Morgan? Alyssa almost touched it, but hesitated. Morgan had said that she wasn’t the ringleader this time. Just another minion. While it was true that she could have been lying, Alyssa believed her. It was hard to be the mastermind behind everything while simultaneously running around chasing after interlopers. And if she was still locked up in the food storage room, touching her shard probably wouldn’t give any useful information.

So Alyssa held out, watching and waiting for something more useful.

Several other hooded figures passed by. Alyssa could hardly tell one from another, though she was almost positive that one of them had been Bercilak. He had almost certainly been freed during all the chaos. Perhaps even by this very gaunt with how he was linked to it. But he was also probably not the ringleader of this operation. Not unless the palace dungeons had some very strange ideas on security and prisoner freedom.

Thinking about it, his capture might have been the whole reason all this had happened. Back on Brechen Overlook, he had said to Morgan that they couldn’t be captured. That if they couldn’t get away, they should kill themselves. If he had vital information on his group’s activities, the group might have attacked solely to get him out… or to silence him permanently. Though with how well their apparent invasion was going, they probably would have freed him instead.

In the middle of thinking about Bercilak, Alyssa spotted it. A tiny being reflected in one of the shards of glass. Pointed ears. Heart-shaped face. Big round eyes. A tuft of black hair. Insect-like wings. A fairy. A female this time. The shard slowed its revolutions around her, coming to a stop just in front of Alyssa’s face as if she had called it to her.

Stretching a finger out, Alyssa hesitated again, pausing just before touching the smooth bit of glass. This time, it wasn’t because she wasn’t sure if this was the right shard or not. During Fractal Mirror, the moment she touched one of the shards of glass, every other piece had moved in and started crushing her. The next thing she knew, she had wound up teleported onto a desk. The Irulons had said that nothing similar would happen. But one of them had also hesitated, looking unsure.

Moving her hands downward, Alyssa checked her guns. She had reloaded her empty pistol before searching over the room with Kasita, so she knew that it was loaded. But it was one thing to know it and another thing entirely to double check that she knew it. Both guns were loaded and ready.

Alyssa kept one gun in her hand. She reached out and touched the shard of glass with the hand holding the chains.

The effect was instant. All the other shards blanked, plunging her into a bubble of pure darkness.

Dim lights started popping up. Three candles against a wooden wall, barely lighting the small room Alyssa found herself within.

A cold sweat beaded on Alyssa’s skin as she looked around, worried that she had been teleported away from the palace. But no. She could still see the edges of the shards of glass around her. They weren’t moving anymore. Just hanging in the air. And this room was just what they were displaying. A small dank room with a dirt floor and wooden walls that looked like they had seen better days.

Something sat right in the middle. Something she couldn’t quite see in the dim light. Despite herself, Alyssa pressed herself up against the shards of glass in an attempt to see better.

Only to find herself pushing straight through the glass shards. They parted with barely any resistance.

And when they parted, they did not reveal Irulon’s laboratory. The glass shards were transparent!

With the curtain broken, they started disappearing one by one, leaving Alyssa inside the darkened room.

The chains were still around her wrist. They led off not far away to another spot in the room where more glass disappeared from the air, revealing the still-bound gaunt.

Teeth grinding together, Alyssa clenched her fists. Forget Tenebrael. I am going to kill Irulon and torture her soul myself.

The moment the thought crossed her mind. She heard something. It was just a tiny little… squeaky voice. Except it wasn’t a voice at all. Nothing in the air, but rather, something pressed in against her own thoughts.

~Who’s there? Stay back!~

Eyes adjusting to the darkness, Alyssa spotted it. Right in the center of the room, a cage sat on the floor, looking like a beat-up birdcage. Inside, a tiny little girl stared out, grasping at the bars with even tinier fingers.

“The fairy,” Alyssa whispered.

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