The gaunt lumbered forward, unhindered by any spells coming its way, but using none of the speed it had used when grabbing the first guy. If Alyssa was one of those hooded people, she would have run away by now. Gaunts were apparently not dangerous at all if they didn’t get close. Which meant that the biggest worry with them was surprise, an aspect helped by their utter silence in their movements.
And what is with all the hoods anyway? Every single member of that organization wore a hood. Bercilak, Morgan, that other goon that had been blasted off the overlook, the guy who wound up eaten, and all three of the people in the room the gaunt was marching into. Was it some uniform? Did it increase their magical powers? It all just seemed inconvenient to Alyssa with how it blocked peripheral vision.
Something Alyssa was hoping to exploit. The gaunt was far enough into the room now that the spells weren’t coming directly at the door anymore. It gave Alyssa another chance to lean around the frame and check the room. She had learned her lesson with the Taker. No standing in doorways staring out. Just a quick peek then back to cover.
Still three people. None were trying to hide, just standing out in the open behind a table shouting spell after spell, firing all manner of effects at the gaunt. Or… two of them were firing spells. One had pressed up against the side wall and was slowly inching his way over, using the other two to distract the gaunt. There was only one exit to the larger room. It was set directly behind the two arcanists, so the third person wasn’t trying to escape.
And he had a familiar canister in his hands. One leaking a trail of misty smoke from its nozzle.
~What are you waiting for! Just go!~
Alyssa glanced down at the reason the hooded people weren’t running away. The little fairy struggled against the bars as if she would be able to get loose now when she hadn’t been able to on her own. If that smoke got near her, she might lose control of the gaunt. Worse, depending on just how that smoke worked, she might start listening to their orders and ignoring Alyssa.
“One second,” Alyssa said in a whisper, setting the cage down on the ground.
~Don’t leave me here!~
Ignoring the fairy rattling the bars of her cage, Alyssa gripped her pistol with both hands. Fighting off a sudden sick sensation in her stomach, she pivoted around the door’s frame and raised the gun. She squeezed the trigger three times. Three copper-coated lead slugs struck the man square in the chest. He staggered, wobbling. The smoke canister fell from his fingertips as his back hit the wall. He slid to the side, leaving three distinct red streaks as he collapsed to the floor.
All spell casting stopped. The loud cracks from the pistol silenced the two others. Though the silence lasted only a moment.
A wave of fiery orange light lashed out from one of the casters’ fingertips. It rippled through the gaunt, aiming straight for Alyssa.
She tried to throw herself out of the way, but the light struck her in the gut, being too wide a wave to dodge. Alyssa’s knees slammed into the ground. Some invisible force against her back pressed her forward. She used her hands to catch herself, but it didn’t help. She bent further and further until her face pressed against the ground. Only then did it stop. Lifting her head only resulted in that force slamming her back against the ground, keeping her locked into her bow.
The shadow of the gaunt moved across the floor, standing directly between Alyssa and her attackers. Head forced to the ground, she could only barely see its long fingers grab at a chair. The chair vanished from her sight. Half a second later, the sound of something heavy hit a wall and one of the casters shouted out in pain.
Alyssa could move again.
She wasted no time grabbing her pistol as she stood. She fired at the first human she saw.
A woman screamed as two of the three slugs hit her around the stomach area.
This time, Alyssa didn’t wait around watching to see what happened to the woman, she ducked back into the fairy’s room.
Something slammed into the wall just as she made it in, buckling the wood and sending splinters exploding around her head. She hadn’t even heard someone cast a spell. Not wanting to be on the receiving end of anything that could pierce the wood, Alyssa grabbed the fairy’s cage and backed away from the opening, moving closer to the side wall.
“One down, but not dead yet.” Tenebrael hadn’t poofed into the room, but she probably would before long. “I hit another one, don’t know what her status is.”
~The spells have stopped.~
Alyssa listened for a moment to find that the fairy was right. No one was shouting anything and no whooshes of fireballs or anything else hit the walls. Biting her lip, she moved back to the doorway and peeked around as fast as she could.
The man she had first shot was lying on the ground, not moving. The door on the other side of the room, which had been closed, was open now. One of the arcanists was missing. The other was sitting on the floor against the wall, hunched forward with the gaunt standing over her. Its long, needle-like fingers kept her pressed down while it slowly lowered its face toward hers. The woman had her hood off, revealing straight black hair and crying eyes. Her breaths came short and sharp, each barely the start of a gasp as she stared up at the gaunt.
“Stop the gaunt!” Alyssa shouted. “Don’t let it eat her!”
“Stop it! Quickly!” Dropping the cage, Alyssa moved just barely into the room. When that spell had hit her, she had wound up dropping all the cards, including the Spectral Chains. She fumbled around with the mess on the floor until she finally found it. Grasping the card in her hands, Alyssa stood and aimed it right at the gaunt.
And sighed in relief. It had stopped. Mere inches from the shaking woman, but it was stopped nonetheless. The woman’s eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped forward, held up only thanks to the gaunt’s fingers pressing her against the wall. But even with her head tipping forward, the gaunt didn’t close the short distance to touch her. It stayed dead still.
“Fairy, move the gaunt to the doorway and have it ready to attack anyone coming toward us,” Alyssa said. She quickly added on a simple, “Please.” The word cost her nothing and would hopefully differentiate her from the fairy’s captors. As soon as the gaunt started toward the door and not toward Alyssa, something she had been mildly worried about, Alyssa offered the fairy a quick, “Thanks.”
~Why did you stop it? Because it is a human?~ the fairy spat. Which was a weird way of thinking about her voice. She hadn’t actually opened her mouth this entire time. Her voice came through inside Alyssa’s head, resounding between her ears. It wasn’t unpleasant, but Alyssa still didn’t like it. Her head was her own and no one else’s. And she liked it that way.
But no time to complain about that now. Alyssa ran over to the woman and started rifling through the robe’s sleeves. Everyone else pulled their cards from their sleeves and she was pleased to note that this person followed tradition. She also took the dagger from the woman’s waist. Less because she wanted to keep it and more because she didn’t want the woman to have any weapons should she wake up. Though Alyssa wasn’t sure how likely that was. The woman was breathing still, but she had two holes in her chest, one upper right side and another near her stomach area.
Alyssa turned to relieve the man of his weapons and spell cards only to pause.
Black feathers fluttered through the air. A flurry of them exploded outward to reveal everyone else’s favorite angel.
Tenebrael quickly brushed her wings over the corpse and ate his soul before turning to Alyssa with a wide smile. One that Alyssa inversely mirrored. “And how is my little reaper doing tonight? Decent offering, I’ll grant you that. Though the task I’ve given you is still ticking away while you’re out here killing for me? I hope you aren’t ignoring it.”
“Oh, not ignoring it at all!” Alyssa shouted at the angel. “In fact, I’m seriously considering killing her myself! ‘Oh no Alyssa, nothing can go wrong with my spell. I made it myself. I’m such an infallible genius.’ What a load of bull. I knew this would happen. Oh, I’m going to have the biggest ‘I told you so’ for her when I get back.”
“Not talking to you, fairy,” Alyssa snapped, not breaking eye contact with Tenebrael. The angel tended to disappear when Alyssa wasn’t looking.
But she didn’t make any move to disappear, she just closed her lips and hummed, still smiling. “Aw, Irulon just wants to impress you with her extensive magical knowledge. It isn’t her fault that you are you.”
“Ha!” Alyssa put as much sarcasm as possible into that single syllable. “What she wants is a good kick in the pants.”
“I see you’re as motivated as ever. I’ll just leave you to it th—”
“Don’t you dare disappear on me. Irulon isn’t the only one I’ve got a bone to pick with.”
“Now Alyssa, I already told you that I wouldn’t be helping you to save the princess. Begging is unbecoming.”
Scowling, Alyssa ground her teeth together. Despite her words, she didn’t actually want Irulon to die. The woman was insufferable, yes, but she was also kind, in a twisted sort of way. She had helped Alyssa out more than once. Though she had probably caused just as many problems as she had helped solve, that was more because of Alyssa’s odd interactions with magic than any intentional deceit on the princess’ part.
But she had holes in her chest. Some had to have gone through her lungs. Maybe even her heart as well. The only thing that Alyssa could even imagine saving her would be Tzheitza’s blue potion. Though maybe she didn’t need Tenebrael’s help with that. Depending on where she had ended up, it might be possible to run to the potion shop and dig one orb out of storage. In that respect, ending up out here might have actually worked to Irulon’s benefit.
The thought of which just had Alyssa scowling harder. If she found out that the Irulons had done this intentionally, she just might actually kill her.
“What’s with these people?” Alyssa asked instead, gesturing to the unconscious woman. She might as well learn something out of all this. “Why do they hate you enough to constantly attack your worshipers?”
“Them?” Tenebrael raised an eyebrow, sending the tattoos on her face out of alignment. “When I first became a Dominion, I followed the plan. Willingly, I suppose I should add. Because of that, there has been some paraphernalia related to the Throne strewn about. When I decided to actively try to subvert the plan, the Juno Federation—as I believe they call themselves now—got it into their heads that I was some kind of demon. Haha. If you can believe that.”
Tenebrael frowned. But shrugged it off. “Anyway, they are a collection of city-states under a theocracy, bound together by their vows to vanquish me, or some such nonsense. These specific people are part of a government group known as the Society of the Burning Shadow. A recent initiative, most of whom are ostracized because of their ability to use magic and interactions with monsters. Quite effective by the looks of things as well. Their one weakness seems to be a little girl, lost in a world not her own.”
“This little girl seems to find herself set against them an awful lot. Both times were your doing. Something you want to tell me, Tenebrael? Feel a little threatened, are you? Using your plan-ignoring pawn to take care of dirty business that you can’t handle on your own? Maybe I should go join them.”
Despite the barbs in Alyssa’s tone of voice, Tenebrael laughed. A raucous, boisterous laughter. “Oh, you are a fun one, Alyssa. You cannot imagine the doldrums I went through before you arrived. I was so apathetic. Nothing felt like it mattered at all. Now I can interact with the world in a way I never could have done before. This man, for example,” Tenebrael’s wings brushed against the man’s body, though no milky white soul poured from him this time. “He wasn’t supposed to die tonight. He was supposed to live on to a ripe old age of sixty-three, killing no less than one hundred and seven people over the course of his life. Which is also why you won’t join them. You don’t have the heart for it, Alyssa. Evil is subjective—they all think they are in the right, and maybe they are in a wrong sort of way—but their ruthlessness is quite objective.”
Alyssa glared, but Tenebrael was right. These people started wars with the city for no good reason. That wasn’t something Alyssa wanted to be a part of. Which Alyssa had known before, but she had just been feeling spiteful. She was still ticked off at just about everything. Irulon, this society, the fairy, the city guard, the Black Prince, monsters in general, shadow assassins and gaunts specifically. Plenty more as well. Tenebrael currently ranked highest on that list even if she wasn’t technically the cause for any of the evening’s events; she was a perfect target for Alyssa’s ire.
The angel looked over to the wall, staring at it for a moment before sighing. “Someone just perished. The soul curdles like rotten milk if left in a dead body for too long, so I’m going to cut our conversation short here.” Her glowing white eyes returned to Alyssa, looking over her for a moment. “Your agency is your most valuable trait, Alyssa. If you want to join the Burning Shadow, I will not stop you.”
Alyssa covered her eyes with her arm, shielding herself from the torrent of feathers that swirled around Tenebrael. It only lasted a moment. Naturally, the room was void of angels when Alyssa put her arm down.
“Bitch,” she mumbled, spitting out a feather. How does that angel have any left on her wings when she molts that much? Magic, presumably. Alyssa brushed herself off, taking a quick stock of the room as she did so. The fairy was still in her cage, staring outside with wide eyes, the gaunt stood unmoving outside the door, and the woman had woken up again, also staring with wide eyes. With a snort, Alyssa picked up one of the feathers littering the floor around her. Most in the room had vanished, but per her tests with Bacco and Tzheitza, other people could see the ones that she had touched and they didn’t disappear either. “Do you know who this feather belongs to? I’ll give you a hint,” Alyssa said, kneeling while spinning the feather in her fingers. “You know her well. She just came to collect the soul of your companion over there.”
“I— I— I—” The woman hiccuped between each attempt at speaking. Not actual hiccups, but her breathing was clipped and broken. Considering the bullets in her body, it was a wonder she was even conscious at all. “I saw her!” she blurted out. “God, she came for him. That monster… I— I— I—”
Alyssa froze as the woman started hyperventilating. She had been planning on interrogating the woman. Finding out what their organization was planning, how many others there were involved in the city tonight, and other such things. But now… “Did you see her? Tenebrael?”
“I— I feel… I don’t want…”
Incoherent. Absolutely incoherent. She probably was dying. But Tenebrael had said that she was cutting off the conversation. If this woman was going to die soon, that angel would probably have said that she would be back.
Or probably not. Alyssa’s momentary shock at finding someone else who had seen Tenebrael died away. What did it matter, anyway? The Society of the Burning Shadow didn’t deny Tenebrael’s existence, they just loathed it. Still, she considered making an attempt at saving the woman. The gaunt could carry her to the potion shop where Alyssa could find the blue healing potion. As long as they moved quick enough, it would be possible…
The real question: Did she want to save her? This woman was not a good person. Tenebrael had called their organization’s actions objective. Alyssa wasn’t sure she believed that, but the evidence was damning. They had marched a mind-controlled monster army onto the city just a week and a half ago. Now they were trying to assassinate the top level government? Alyssa highly doubted that Lyria was wholly innocent, but she had yet to see them do anything to provoke anyone.
How many people had this woman killed? Directly or indirectly? Probably more than Alyssa had, which was a somewhat disturbing metric to use. At least Alyssa had only killed in self-defense, something this woman could hardly say about herself. Alyssa hadn’t had a choice! It had been them or her!
But now… She had a choice.
Alyssa stared at the woman, mind reeling. Tears ran freely from the woman’s eyes. She was still having trouble breathing. One of the bullets must have hit a lung. There was no blood on the wall as there had been with the other man. No exit wound. The bullets were still inside her, which might be the thing keeping her alive. Contrary to Hollywood’s belief that removing a bullet instantly cured someone of all their ailments, tons of people walked around with bullets lodged in their bodies simply because it could do more damage pulling them out. After a fresh wound, such as this woman’s, bullets inside the body helped staunch blood flow, preventing death from blood loss. And possibly drowning, if it was keeping blood out of her lungs.
“Fairy,” Alyssa said, not taking her eyes off the woman. “It is past time we leave. Can you please have the gaunt pick up this woman? Without harming her. No eating her either. If we get into a fight, the gaunt should be free to throw her away without care.” They could make a token effort to save her life. Perhaps give her to Oxart’s fake-hospital. Make her suffer under the menders that her victims had to endure. If it became inconvenient… if it came down to her life versus the woman’s, Alyssa knew who she would pick without hesitation. Even Irulon’s life versus the woman, Alyssa would go for the former.
The fairy, still in her cage sitting on the floor next to the door, walked up to the bars and glared. ~Have I traded one human master for another?~
Alyssa whirled to face the diminutive creature. The fairy’s large eyes went wide with fear as Alyssa approached, sending her back in her cage. Bending, Alyssa gripped the cage and tore open the little door, barely pausing to unlock it.
“You’re free to go.” Alyssa waited a moment, watching as the fairy stared at her open cage. After crawling forward, she ducked under the bars and stepped out of the contraption, looking around like she couldn’t believe that she was actually outside. “But I would appreciate your help in getting out of here. I don’t care if you flee the city after that. Though please take all the shadow assassins and whatever else with you when you go.”
The fairy’s transparent wings stretched out behind her. While more intact than those of the fairy on the Brechen Overlook, they had been roughed up enough that when this fairy started trying to fly, she couldn’t get her feet off the ground. A deep despair came over her face upon realizing that fact. ~I can’t… I’ll be trampled to death. You humans won’t just let me walk out. You’re trying to trick me. This isn’t freedom at all.~
Alyssa rolled her eyes. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel some empathy for the fairy. She did. But how stupid could the fairy actually be? They had a gaunt standing guard over their room. All she had to do was sit on its shoulders and have it march out of the city. Assuming she couldn’t find a random human to mind control. But Alyssa didn’t speak a word of that. Having the fairy with her would make things easier, probably. More than that, there had been two separate fairy-controlled attacks on the city in just the short time since Alyssa had been here. Oz’s mission would probably jump in priority by morning. It was a good thing that he was planning on leaving tomorrow.
“I have things to take care of in the city. But if you help me, I will help you get out of the city. There is a small chance that I can get you all the way back to your village. But that won’t be for a while yet. So help me help you. Pick up that woman and let’s go.”
~Why should I believe you?~ the fairy said, putting her hands on her hips. ~You’re just tricking me like they did. None of you humans hold up your promises.~
“I really don’t have time to convince you.” Theoretically, Irulon still had plenty of time before her stasis failed. Practically, Alyssa wanted to give herself as much time as she possibly could. “Help me or escape on your own, those are your options.”
The fairy glared. Her glare turned to a sigh.
The gaunt turned, making Alyssa tense as she caught it in the corner of her eye. She raised her Spectral Chains card, but it didn’t end up approaching her, stopping at the woman. Who started squirming. The gaunt didn’t seem to care at all. Its long fingers and arms curled around the woman, holding her tight to its chest, slightly muffling her sudden screams.
“If you want to stay out of Tenebrael’s stomach,” Alyssa said, “be silent.”
It didn’t help at all. The woman was absolutely hysterical. What did help was the simple fact that she couldn’t scream for long. She started coughing, spitting up a bit of blood.
Alyssa hoped that the movement hadn’t aggravated her wounds. If it had, there wouldn’t be much Alyssa could do about it besides shrug and say that she had tried. Turning away to face the fairy, Alyssa frowned. “Do you need to be carried?”
The fairy’s face turned green as she pushed her lips into a pout. The green was of a pale plant-like color. Alyssa thought she had gotten sick for a moment before realizing that the fairy was blushing. Once the fairy nodded her head, Alyssa knelt down and opened the flap of her satchel. There were some spare bullets in there, a fully loaded magazine and an empty one, a flash light, matches… a few other things. Nothing that the fairy could seriously harm if she decided to. But it was the perfect size for her.
Fuming, the fairy did so without a word.
Well, tough for her. As soon as she was in, Alyssa swapped her current pistol’s magazine with the fully loaded one and readied both it and the Spectral Chains card. “Hold on tight, I’m probably going to be running a bit. Keep the gaunt following us as fast as it will possibly move.”
Following Taker protocol, Alyssa crossed and peeked out of the room as quickly as she could, staying with her head out just long enough to get a glimpse of the exterior.
And what she saw had her scowling.
“I recognize this place… It’s the damn Waterhole.”