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“The fairy,” Alyssa whispered.

As soon as the words left her mouth, she felt it. A pressure on her mind again.

It didn’t stop with merely words. It slammed into her, making her physically stagger back. But that was it. The pressure stopped. Alyssa shook her head, eyes taking a second to refocus. She was still in that dark room with a few candles, the little cage, and the chained up gaunt.

And she couldn’t be more pleased!

What had she even been worried about in the first place? Kill Irulon? Never. When she next saw Irulon, Alyssa would give her a great big hug <3! As thanks for sending her here! If it weren’t for Irulon, she would still be stuck in that dreary laboratory. What a drag. Being in here was so much better! It was enough to make her want to sing and dance in joy!

Hurk

Right. No singing or dancing. It was late. The neighbors were trying to sleep. Singing and making noise would be unfathomably inconsiderate. In fact, anything more than a whisper would be incredibly rude. But just because she couldn’t express it didn’t mean that Alyssa wasn’t happy as could be. In fact, this was probably the first time she had truly been happy since coming to this world, even if it was an unnatural happiness. Thinking about it, Alyssa couldn’t recall laughing even once. Not out of joy anyway. Relief, yes. Relief at having survived that encounter with the Taker. But a real laugh? Surely she must have.

Alyssa was drawing up a blank.

Well, no time like the present! Alyssa couldn’t raise her voice too loud, but she did allow herself a little giggle. Best of all, she wasn’t forcing herself to laugh. There was plenty to be happy about. She was here with the funny gaunt and her best friend ever, _̵̷̢̀͝_̧͜͜͞_̷̢͘͜_̴͘͢͞͝_̵̸! Somehow, _͜_̴̢͠_̶́̕͢_̴͟͜_ wound up in a cage. Again. That silly fairy. Always needing rescuing. Really, _̶̛͠_̷̷͜͏_͞_̡͜͡_̵̴͡ needed to learn how to free herself from situations like this if she was going to keep getting into trouble.

Better not leave her in there for too long. _̷͞_̸͠_̡́͢_̶̀͢_͟ didn’t like enclosed spaces. She had always been a little claustrophobic. Alyssa wanted to free her. Reaching down to the cage, Alyssa hesitated. “Oh,” she said, wanting to clarify a point. “I hope you don’t think I was laughing at you a second ago. There is obviously nothing funny about your situation.”

Point clarified. Now that she had gotten that out of the way, Alyssa really wanted to free _̷̧͘_̴̢͜͡_̸̷͜_̷̧͟_̴̢ as soon as possible.

“Except…” Alyssa hesitated again, not wanting to free the fairy before she was certain. “Have I really said enough? I just want you to know that I wasn’t laughing at you. It’s just this situation. I was so happy to have found you that I couldn’t contain myself. I just—”

Hurk

Alyssa clenched her teeth together as a mild pain prickled at her mind. It only lasted an instant, leaving behind a vacancy relief and joy rushed to fill. Nothing would make her happier than freeing her best friend ever, _͞_̴́_̡͞_̷̀͞, from the cage. But Alyssa didn’t reach forward again. “Why won’t you let me finish?” she said, growing angry. “I just want to clear the air between us so we don’t hate each other.” Her teeth clenched together harder as the pain returned with more pressure.

But that only served to make her more upset. Why was _̧̢̛͘͝_̛͟͜͝_̸̀͞_̸͜͟_̷̨͏͝ hurting her like this? It didn’t make any sense. They were best friends. The absolute best of friends didn’t hurt each other. They helped each other. They freed each other from their confinement. Friends would never force each other to remain trapped longer than absolutely necessary.

They would free me the second I ordered them to without question.

Alyssa reached out and grasped the small cage with her unchained hand. Her fingers never neared the lock. She picked up the entire metal birdcage and swung it without letting go. The fairy within slammed into one side of the cage until the sudden stop made her fly into the opposite side.

The effect was instant. Any happiness Alyssa might have felt at anything drained out of her, replaced with pure and utter anger. It was as if a pastel hue covering the world had been wiped away, leaving nothing but grime behind. Alyssa swung the cage again, this time vertically, sending the fairy into the domed roof of the cage then flat against the floor.

“Try something like that again and I will shove your cage into the gaunt’s face,” Alyssa growled. “Understand me?”

The fairy, trying to pick itself off the bottom of the cage, used the bars to set herself back onto her feet. Her movements weren’t steady, feet wobbling against the rough metal surface. Part of that might have been how much Alyssa’s hand was shaking as she gripped the cage tight enough to start warping the metal, but only part. The fairy ran her tiny fingers through her messy black hair, rubbing at her head. After a moment, she finally looked up. Luminescent green eyes locked on to Alyssa.

It struck Alyssa just how tiny this creature was. Her eyes, large relative to her face, were like the heads of a thumbtack. Her arms were so tiny that Alyssa could have snapped them entirely on accident just brushing a finger over them. Even her whole body would break in two at the slightest force like a dry, brittle twig. She was so pathetic. So fragile. Alyssa actually felt a little bad about shaking her around so much.

Alyssa grit her teeth together the moment the thought crossed her mind. She swung the cage side to side and up then down, entirely unsure if the thought had been her own or another invasion. Each was perfectly likely. She could definitely see herself thinking that the tiny creature deserved pity. At the same time, thinking it deserved pity was something that benefited the fairy, making the very idea suspect. She couldn’t take the chance.

“I said do you understand me? Answer me or I will feed you to the gaunt.”

~Stop! Please. I’m sorry.~

The cage stilled as Alyssa let up, but still wasn’t sure that the thought to do so was her own. She could definitely understand Tzheitza’s desire to kill the fairy from the Overlook rather than try to rescue it. In its presence, how could she ever be certain that it wasn’t controlling her in some way. The answer was that she couldn’t. Even outside its presence, she could probably slip thoughts into her mind. She had to control all the shadow assassins and the gaunt somehow.

However, the fact that Alyssa was even considering killing the fairy probably meant that the monster wasn’t controlling her thoughts at this particular moment. Not unless the fairy was far more insidious than she looked.

Right now, she looked pathetic, curled up as far back in its cage as it could get with her arms and wings wrapped around her knees. She just kept rocking back and forth, repeating the same thing over and over again.

~I’m sorry. I’m sorry.~

Ugh. “I’m not here to hurt you,” Alyssa said. “Not unless you try to get into my head again.”

~I’m sorry.~ the fairy said, not looking up from her knees.

“Stop being sorry and tell me where we are.”

She looked up, face streaked with tiny tears. The water clung to her eyes a whole lot worse than it did regular humans, making them look even larger than they were. ~I don’t know. Those humans come in here with that smoke. It makes my head all fuzzy and I can’t think and… and I just want to go home.~

Alyssa forced down the urge to make a scathing comment about the poor fairy getting forced to do another’s bidding. While it might make her feel better about the situation, it wouldn’t help much. Instead, she tried to focus on more productive notions. “How many people are there who were trying to control you?”

~I don’t know. I’ve only seen two.~

Two didn’t sound so bad. There had been three at the Overlook. If one of those two was Morgan, then she probably wasn’t around unless this room was somewhere inside the palace. Of course, the fairy had only seen two. There could be more around. And Alyssa hadn’t forgotten that the only reason she had survived at the Brechen Overlook had been thanks to Kasita freeing her and Tzheitza distracting two of them. Alyssa had only actually fought the one guy she had blasted with a fireball.

On the plus side, they probably weren’t using Projectile Reflection. If the Taker hadn’t known about her guns, he probably wouldn’t have been using it that night. These people wouldn’t be expecting her inside this room and therefore wouldn’t be expecting her guns.

Unless… “Can they see inside this room?”

~They have a scrying pool. They use it to find targets for me to direct assassins to.~

Alyssa glanced to the gaunt. Aside from a few struggles when it had first been chained, it hadn’t moved a muscle. Even being teleported across the city hadn’t changed that. If what she had learned was true, it was probably perfectly happy to act like a statue, since that was apparently what they did in their spare time.

“Is that what you’re doing right now? Making monsters attack people?”

~N-No! I promise! Things weren’t going the way the humans wanted. I think they’re trying to decide what to do next.~

“Are there any other fairies controlling monsters in the city?”

~No.~

Good. That was one less thing to worry about. “We’re going to get out of here. If you don’t try to mind control me, I will try to protect you. Both from these people who have captured you and any other humans we might find.”

~Really?~ The fairy got off her butt and grabbed the bars of the cage closest to Alyssa, looking up with tears still clinging to her face from pure surface tension. ~You’ll free me?~

“I’ll let you out of the cage if I feel I can trust you. If I feel like you’re influencing me, I’ll stomp on this cage with you inside it.”

~I won’t. I won’t! By Tenebrael, I won’t!~

“Good. That’s what I like to hear.” Well, not the Tenebrael part. At this point, Alyssa didn’t find it surprising in the slightest that she would swear by Tenebrael. Everyone else did, why not the fairy? “Now, are there monsters currently hunting for people in the palace? Or anywhere else, for that matter? And have any monsters found a bound up woman who is one of the people behind all this?”

~I don’t know. I assume so for the first one and one of the humans asked me to have an assassin look for a woman in a food room, but I don’t know what has happened since then. They only tell me what to have the monsters do, not what the monsters have done.~

“You don’t know?”

~I don’t see what they’re doing. I only make suggestions. Make them want to search food closets for people or make them want to hide instead of attack. The humans tell me what to do. I tell the monsters.~

Limited, but not wholly useless. Alyssa wouldn’t be able to get the monsters to do anything too specific, but she could probably ask the fairy to get rid of the shadow assassins. Brakkt had the other fairy drown them in the river, so that was an option.

But the moment she did so, it was highly likely that this scrying pool would show something wrong. Someone would run in here immediately to try to correct the problem. Someone could come in the room anyway simply relaying new orders to the fairy. So far, Alyssa had been in here for maybe five minutes. It could be ten seconds, it could be ten minutes, but someone would come in here sooner rather than later.

Alyssa had her pistol out and ready if someone opened the door. For just a second, she considered telling the fairy to do something with the shadow assassins that would alert the Juno Federation goons so that she might shoot the first one that walked in the door.

But her eyes flicked to the side, following the length of chain as it ran from her wrist to the rubbery gaunt.

Alyssa’s scowl turned to a vicious grin as a better idea popped into her head. “This thing is under your sway, right?”

~Uh… yes?~

“So if we were to take it off its chains, you could make it want to escort us out?”

~Is that… is that a good idea?~

“It’s basically indestructible, isn’t it? I don’t particularly care if it eats anyone that gets in our way. I am beyond pissed off at the moment and these people don’t seem like they deserve much pity what with their capturing you and attacking the people of this city.”

~You are correct… but I’d rather it not be near me if at all possible.~

“Why? You have it all mind controlled, don’t you?”

~Yeah.~ Her eyes turned dark. Just for a moment. Alyssa felt a chill run up her spine. ~But you broke out. So quickly too.~

It took a moment for Alyssa to respond. The fairy looked pathetic once again, but she didn’t look particularly happy that someone had broken out. Still… “Point.” Alyssa had to give her that one. If a random human who had never been exposed to mind-altering magics could shrug them off after only a few minutes, who was to say that a gaunt couldn’t do the same? Of course, with them not moving for years at a time, maybe it was just too lazy to try to break free of the fairy’s mental pressure.

At the same time, Alyssa really liked the idea of not fighting herself if she could help it. And she still had a few Spectral Chains left. So she walked the gaunt just in front of the door before moving to press her back against the opposite wall. The fun thing about Spectral Chains was that they weren’t physical chains. More links would sprout out of nowhere if she wanted more distance between herself and the target. And with this, she wanted as much space as she could possibly get.

“I’m going to let it go. You’re going to make it want revenge on anyone it finds on the other side of this door.” Alyssa readied a second card as well as her pistol, just in case the people weren’t as distracted with the gaunt as they should be. If only Irulon had drawn up another Empty Mirror spell… she could have just slipped away while the gaunt rampaged around. Sadly, that was not to be. She was well aware of the fact that the fairy could turn the gaunt around on her, but was counting on its relatively sluggish movements to give her some opportunity to cast the chains again. Unfortunately, there would be no way to actually prove that the fairy had done it, especially with her setting up the whole ‘you broke out of my control so it could too’ angle.

Alyssa was just hoping that the fairy’s hatred of her captors exceeded any hatred she might feel toward Alyssa for shaking around the cage. An entirely justified action, in Alyssa’s unbiased opinion.

The fairy gave a hesitant little nod, sending her ruffled black hair bobbing around her head.

That seemed as good a response as she would get, so Alyssa released the spells. Both the chains and the levitation.

The gaunt landed on the floor with a far louder thud than she had expected. Of course it made a noise. Even if the creature could move in absolute silence, the gaunt, despite being barely thicker than a skeleton, was heavy.

Someone shouted something from the other side of the door.

Alyssa raised her pistol, safety off and finger on the trigger. The fairy’s cage rattled as the tiny woman threw herself back as far as she could possibly go.

The door swung wide open to reveal a hooded man. “What in—” was as far as he got.

The gaunt had been picking itself up off the floor. It rose to its full height in front of the man.

Who abruptly staggered back, trying to shout something. But he didn’t make it far. Faster than Alyssa thought possible, the gaunt jerked forward, wrapping its elongated arms around the man in a backbreaking hug. The man screamed, struggling against the arms. But he might as well have been struggling against a hydraulic press.

The gaunt leaned forward, moving its head closer and closer to the man’s face.

They touched. The moment the gaunt’s rubbery skin made contact with the hooded man, the latter went utterly still.

Alyssa, hands full, clamped her arms over her ears, trying to block out the suction noise. It was… absolutely horrible. The man’s completely limp body just rose upward, drawn into the gaunt’s face. What was actually happening was obscured with her at the gaunt’s back, but it was skinny enough to see everything but the face. Just that… Alyssa shuddered. Thankful as she was that she couldn’t see the gaunt’s face, she still felt like she was going to throw up.

It lasted an agonizingly long time. It felt like hours, but it couldn’t have been. People in the other room were shouting things. Spells flew off at the gaunt. Several fireballs. A blade of wind that actually chopped off the man’s limp arm. Some kind of piercing light that bored a hole through the man’s leg. The gaunt didn’t care about any of it. Most of the magic didn’t affect it at all. Even the light, which left a small mark on the otherwise unblemished latex, went completely ignored.

The man’s legs finally disappeared. They were the final parts to go. Except the severed arm, of course. The gaunt went utterly still, blocking off most of the doorway.

Another fireball struck its face. This one didn’t just splash off. The flames folded inward, pulled into the gaunt’s head as it looked into the room beyond. It didn’t stop with just the fireball. Alyssa’s hair drifted forward on a sudden breeze that ended at the holes in the monster’s head.

It took a step forward.

Another round of shouting started up. More spells flew at the gaunt, all ineffectual.

It moved forward again.

~What are you doing? Carry me out or release me at once!~

“Ugh. I think I’m going to be sick,” Alyssa said, stifling a gag. But the fairy was right. If the gaunt caught and ate someone else, it would likely freeze in place again. That would give her enemies far too much time to take action. Several could rush in here, trying to regain control of the fairy. They would have to enter the room one-by-one, meaning that she could probably shoot them as they came, but she couldn’t risk that the second person wouldn’t figure out that Projectile Reflection worked against her bullets. Better to escape now rather than have to deal with them.

She had angled herself so that she wasn’t in a direct line of sight from the door, meaning that spells that missed the gaunt also missed her. But she had to move forward eventually to get out of this place. There would be no better time to do it than when everyone was distracted. If anyone so much as looked at her, she would shoot them. Zero hesitation. These people weren’t fooling around with their spell usage. Everything they had tried would have been lethal. Well, almost everything. Someone tried Spectral Chains. Maybe they had been watching when Alyssa had used them.

If the gaunt noticed the chains forming around it, it sure didn’t act like it. The ghostly links had barely formed when its movements broke them.

Pistol in one hand and cage in the other, Alyssa took a deep breath and stepped forward.

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