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Alyssa hoped she would run into the Taker on her way out. Seeing his face when she walked into a room with a gaunt at her side would be worth everything that had happened tonight… Or maybe it wouldn’t. While capable of small bursts of speed that had Alyssa keeping her distance from the monster, the sad fact was that the gaunt moved too slow to be a threat to someone like the Taker. He would either dance around it or simply keep his distance and use his knives, probably killing both Alyssa and the fairy as he did so. So maybe she actually hoped that she wouldn’t encounter him.

Unless, of course, he was still injured. Kasita’s description of him had not been a healthy one. If he hadn’t been able to get his hands on anything that could heal him, he might even be dead right now. Given what she had seen at the hospital, Alyssa had a feeling that even mild injuries would be lethal without magical intervention. In that case, whether she hoped to meet him or avoid him was an entirely conditional hope based on his current health.

A rash and irrational part of Alyssa wanted to go searching for him. A more logical part of her wanted to get out as soon as possible. Looking down the long hall that led to Svotty’s former office, Alyssa had to go with the logical side. There were too many doors. Too many unknowns. What was this Society of the Burning Shadow doing here? Were they allied with Waters Street? In charge of them? This could very well be what Octavia had been talking about when she implied that there would be a coup against the rest of her family.

If this was truly a coup, there had to be more than just the half-dozen Society members Alyssa had encountered so far. Even if they planned on using Waters Street for a bulk of their activities, they had to have more backup waiting in the wings. Where those wings were, Alyssa couldn’t say. She didn’t want to stick around in case they were inside the Waterhole. Not even for a quick jaunt down to the office to plunder another bag of money.

The gaunt kept a step ahead of her as they headed toward the stairs leading out of the basement, ready to use its implacable body to shield Alyssa and the fairy if necessary. The woman it carried might be a casualty of that, but Alyssa found herself struggling to care. At least the woman had ceased her struggles. The fairy mesmered her into wanting to be carried away, so she wasn’t trying to scream or escape.

When Alyssa had first left the room, a full dozen people had been obstructing the hallway, possibly alerted by the Society member who had run away. A spell had flown past her as she ducked back into the room, some kind of violet-hued butterfly that caused the ground space behind it to momentarily warp and twist. But as soon as Alyssa had sent the gaunt out, the men scattered, fleeing back up the hall with nothing more than a few token spells in its direction. The woman hadn’t been hit by any of them thanks to the gaunt catching a fireball and a violet orb on its outstretched hand.

Alyssa was perfectly satisfied with the people having run away. The less she had to fight, the better. Still, she kept her eyes on the many doors to the sides of the hall. With her fair distance to the gaunt, someone could easily try to ambush her. And if they were even half as good as the Taker, they might succeed in injuring or killing her before she could do anything.

“Can’t the gaunt move any faster?” The hall shouldn’t have taken longer than a minute to walk through from end to end, and that was assuming a snail’s pace. Able-bodied humans shouldn’t take longer than thirty seconds. And yet, it felt like they had been walking for five minutes now.

~I’ve made it want to move as fast as it can, so I assume not. But I don’t know if it is really listening to me.~

“Great. That doesn’t make me nervous in the slightest,” Alyssa said, shaking her head. “I—”

Alyssa’s breath hitched as she heard the hinges of a door squeak open behind her. She turned, raised her pistol, and grit her teeth. A man poked his head out. Gruff, bearded, and muscular. No one Alyssa recognized.

She fired without hesitation. A wooden plank above the door split apart, raining splinters down on the man. He flinched back at the noise, but didn’t retreat into the room until after he looked down the hall at her. Or at the gaunt. Either way, the door slammed shut a second later.

~Why the ceiling?~

Letting out a slight sigh, Alyssa started back down the hall, turning every few seconds to make sure no one else popped out of a door.

~Human? Why spare the other human? You didn’t try to aim at him.~

“This is the Waterhole, run by Waters Street, a gang I’ve tangled with before. One of them figured out the weakness of my weapons. If any of them have a specific spell on, I’ll wind up killing myself instead of them. It’s a question of whether or not they realize what they need to do. Of whether or not the Taker told them my weakness. I don’t want to take that chance.”

~You killed the other humans with that weapon.~

“That was before I realized where we are.” Though it might have been a foolish move anyway. It had worked out, true, but if one of them had Projectile Reflection active, Alyssa would have been dead before she knew what had gone wrong. At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before everyone started walking around with Projectile Reflection permanently active. She should really avoid killing humans with her pistols if at all possible. Monsters like the shadow assassins were fair game, unless a human put Projectile Reflection on them. Maybe I should just find the local equivalent of Avada Kedavra.

Ugh, or maybe I should stop getting myself into situations where I have to kill people, Alyssa thought with an internal scoff. Was this how actual medieval society lived? With people constantly trying to kill each other? Alyssa honestly didn’t know how much was Tenebrael’s fault, because monsters existed, because magic existed, or a combination of the three. Though it really made her wonder how humanity had managed to survive to the modern era if this was even a shadow of a reflection of Earth’s past.

The gaunt started up the stairs. Alyssa moved just a little closer to it to keep from getting too separated. The gaunt itself was almost a void of sound, as if it were sucking in the vibrations in the air. The utter silence was enough to make Alyssa hear every thump of her own heart. Not knowing what might be up on the main floor was making her nervous. Worse, she knew that at least one person was behind her. The Society member who had fled away surely wouldn’t just let her walk out. She had to be gathering resources or support. Maybe something that could give the gaunt pause in some form or another.

There wasn’t time to decide on a proper course of action. The gaunt reached the top of the stairs. It went right through the closed door at the top. It didn’t open the door. Without a single change in the gait it had used to march down the hallway, it walked into the door, breaking apart the sturdy wood as if it were made of paper.

A brief moment of silence passed before the screams started up.

Alyssa jumped, fearing a room full of enemies. But… it wasn’t. Apparently, the Waterhole had resumed normal operations. Even with the Society of the Burning Shadow lurking in their basement, they were acting again as a brothel and drug den.

People fled in droves before the gaunt, leaving Alyssa confused about why they were there in the first place; had those who had been in the basement not fled through this room? The bouncer at the door tried to keep order, insisting that people couldn’t all leave at once or they would attract too much attention. That only lasted until the gaunt turned the holes in its head to face him. He was the first out after that, shoving some poor girl to the side to flee faster. By the time the gaunt made it a quarter of the way across the main floor, it was entirely vacant. Only Alyssa, the fairy, the gaunt, and the quasi-conscious woman that the gaunt carried remained.

The empty room had Alyssa scowling. “I don’t suppose you can detect invisible people and creatures?” she asked of the fairy, wishing that Kasita was with her.

~I can sense minds, but only if they’re near me unless I’ve seen them before.~

An arcanist wouldn’t need to be nearby to do harm. The one who escaped could be on the opposite side of the room beneath a shroud of invisibility, readying a spell. And Alyssa wouldn’t know until she shouted out what that spell was. That would give her a moment to react, but that might not mean much. Any kind of area-effecting spell couldn’t be dodged by throwing herself to the ground. If there was something like Napalm Strike, the whole building would go up in sticky tar-like flames.

But nothing happened. Alyssa and the gaunt made it to the door without a single spell slung toward her. That only served to fuel her paranoia.

“Where did the last one go?” she mumbled, looking out on Waters Street—the actual street, not the gang. There were a few people lingering around, though that didn’t stay the same once they realized that the gaunt had followed them out. A few ran off in silence, but more ran while screaming for guards about monsters inside the walls.

~I don’t know.~ The fairy had apparently taken her rhetorical question as one directed toward her. ~I tried to get into their heads, but every time I tried, they used that smoke. It made me cough, and dizzy, and sick, and was just bad. It made me want to listen to them.~

“Couldn’t you have done it while they weren’t in the room?”

The fairy shook her tiny head. ~My magic only works if they’re right next to me. Eye contact helps.~

“But you’ve been controlling monsters all over the city.”

~Once I know the shape of their minds, sending another command is simple. I can make them want to do things from here to the walls of your city. It’s just the actual mesmering that requires them to be close.~

Alyssa nodded. It made enough sense for her. Alyssa opened her mouth to ask how many monsters the fairy had under her control and to maybe send them off in search of the missing Society member. A shout coming from down the street made her hesitate.

Two armored men, both wearing the beige surcoat of the Lyria city guard, had frozen upon rounding the corner of the winding street. The gaunt turned its head and took one step toward them.

“No! Not them. Not the city guard.”

The gaunt hesitated, turning still as a statue. It made Alyssa sigh in relief that the fairy was actually going along with what she said. Or maybe the gaunt was acting on its own initiative, given what the fairy had said earlier about it not really listening to her direction. Either way, Alyssa did not want an incident with the guards.

Under other circumstances, Alyssa might have gone up to them to try to explain what was going on. But they were almost certainly part of the Northgate Guard given the Waterhole’s proximity. Oxart should have told them what was happening. They would be on the lookout for monsters. Walking up to them with a gaunt at her side and a fairy in her pocket would not only be suspicious, but it would take a great deal of explaining. That was assuming that they didn’t just flee before the gaunt.

Rather than run up to them, Alyssa turned and ran away. She knew exactly where she was and exactly where she wanted to go. Waiting for the gaunt would be far too slow. It would take three days to get back to the palace at its pace. Someone must have magicked it into the city—or it had already been here—before this attack. Either that or this attack had been in planning for potentially years.

“Have the gaunt set down the woman,” Alyssa said as she ran. She tried to hold on to the bag to keep it from jolting the fairy around too much, but it wasn’t that easy with her hands full of cards and guns. Well, one gun. Many cards though. It might have been wise to sheathe her pistol at the very least, but Alyssa wasn’t going to take the chance that nothing would need shooting anytime soon. Later, when things calmed down, she would have to remember to apologize to the poor fairy. For now… “If possible, have it scratch words into the ground. Enemy, traitor, or something like that. Also, if you can, have the woman want to confess to the guards.”

Alyssa wanted to interrogate the woman on what she saw of Tenebrael, but the gaunt was just too slow. If the woman surrendered herself, it might be possible to seek out Oxart later and ask to see the prisoner. Or maybe get Irulon to allow her access if Oxart wouldn’t do it on her own. For the latter plan, Irulon had to survive.

The fairy didn’t acknowledge in any way. Her tiny little fingers clutched tightly to the open edge of the bag as she tried her best not to be thrown from the satchel. It was probably a good thing that she didn’t speak. She would have bitten her tongue right off.

Or wait, no she wouldn’t have. She had been speaking telepathically. No tongue required.

Ah well. Alyssa didn’t stop running. She sprinted down the winding Waters Street, down an alley, past a cross-street, and didn’t stop until she reached Tzheitza’s potion shop. The large glass windows and colorful carboys were a welcome sight. The main shop floor was empty, but, after entering, Alyssa heard voices coming from the half-closed door to the back room. An unfamiliar low baritone had Alyssa pausing with her breath hitching in her throat.

“Hold friends, someone just entered the shop.”

“Please tell me you didn’t invite more rabble to join us,” a woman said with a scoff, voice aristocratic and haughty. She had only spoken a single sentence and Alyssa already expected her to have ten butlers waiting on her every whim at all hours of the day. Not even Irulon sounded like that.

Alyssa took a step back, regretting having barged into the potion shop under the assumption that it would be safe. A man stepped into view, opening the door fully. He was bald with a large nose and a bushy mustache, though Alyssa’s attention only lingered on his face for a moment. The weapon in his hands was a long metal shaft topped with a ball covered in spikes. The tips caught the light at odd angles, making them look like they were glowing a whole rainbow of shifting colors. Or maybe they actually were glowing in a similar manner to the Black Prince’s sword. He held it in armored gauntlets, a part of his plate armor.

He took a step forward, weight thumping against the ground as he did so.

Which only made Alyssa take another step back. “I uh… think I got the wrong place. Sorry for disturbing you.” Turning, she just about sprinted back out of the potion shop when a familiar voice made her pause and glance back.

“Alyssa? Is that you?” Oz peeked his red-maned head around the frame of the door. Upon confirming the answer to his question, he smiled. “It is! Is Tzhei with you?”

Breathing out a small sigh, Alyssa shook her head. “Is this… a friend of yours?” she said, eying the armored man. Or, more specifically, she eyed the sharp points of his mace. If that thing came anywhere near her, she would probably die. Especially because the more she looked at it, the less it seemed the glowing points were just a trick of the light. This weapon had to be something similar to the Black Prince’s sword. Enchanted, or whatever they might call it in this world.

“Ah, yeah. Catal is an old friend of mine from the guild. Lumen is as well.” Oz partially turned to look into the back room.

“Friend?” the haughty woman spoke again with a scoff. “Don’t flatter yourself. You’ve—”

“She’s got a fairy with her,” Catal said in alarm, narrowing his eyes as his fingers tightened on his mace.

Alyssa, wide-eyed, glanced down to her satchel. The little fairy looked green in the face and not entirely stable as she clutched at the side of the bag. She must have fallen back into it during the run over and only now clambered her way into visibility.

“Wait! I can explain!” Alyssa said, taking a step back again. One more step would have her back to the door. Honestly, she had half a mind to run away—if only she didn’t need a healing potion. There was one somewhere in the palace, according to Irulon, but Alyssa knew where one was here and now. Best to take the known potion rather than risk that someone in the palace hadn’t used or stolen that one.

Catal looked positively murderous and even Oz didn’t look too friendly at the moment. A third person, presumably this Lumen, stepped into view behind Oz. She wore an elegant green outfit that literally glowed along the hems and seams. Six spell cards floated in the air, rotating around her raised hand.

“She’s under its thrall. We need to kill it. Lumen?”

“Bad angle. I could kill it, but she might not survive with a missing leg.”

Oz put a hand on Catal’s shoulder and drew him back. “Might have to try,” he said, voice hard. “If we get close, it’ll enslave us. There are potions here that can help with injuries.”

The rotating cards stopped with one card pointed directly at her. It had a circle-square-circle-square pattern that Alyssa had never seen before. She didn’t want to find out what it did with it aimed at her either. Opening her mouth, Lumen started to speak.

But Alyssa was faster. She didn’t need to bog herself down with words. The second the thought crossed her mind, her spells cast.

Spectral Chains wrapped around all three of the people in the room. Oz fell flat on his face when the chains pulled his legs together, but Catal managed to keep his stance wide enough to remain stable. Lumen’s arms pressed tight against her body, but the cards remained floating in the air as she fell on top of Oz.

Alyssa’s eyes widened. She twisted to the side just as Lumen finished vocalizing her spell.

“All Shall Burn!”

Alyssa cried out in pain. A beam of fiery light pierced the spot where she had just been standing. It didn’t actually touch her, but it didn’t need to. The heat radiating off it scalded her skin. The beam itself struck the wooden door, turning a fist-sized chunk to ash while setting the rest aflame.

The cards hovering in the air didn’t stop after that one. They spun around again until one faced her with three circles touching one another and several more circles and squares within each. “Disintegration Ray!”

Before Lumen opened her mouth, Alyssa had started sprinting around the room. A purplish-black beam chased her as she moved, slicing through anything it touched as if everything were made from butter. Carboys shattered, spilling their contents. The window fell to pieces. The door and walls didn’t hold up for a second. The beam only stopped when Alyssa put the rotating cards between herself and Catal’s armored body.

“Will you stop!” Alyssa shouted, hoping that the insane woman wasn’t about to kill one of her own companions in an attempt at getting the fairy. “I’m not being mind controlled!”

“I actually agree with her,” Oz said, voice slightly squeaky.

“Oh lovely,” Lumen snarled. “It has him too.”

“No. I just don’t want Tzhei to kill me when she sees her shop.”

“Rather be dead at her hands than a slave to that monster,” Catal grumbled. He purposefully threw himself forward, falling to the floor. The four remaining cards ceased their rotation once again, aiming another spell in Alyssa’s direction.

Alyssa didn’t bother trying to identify the spell. It had a number of circles, but more importantly, it had a fireball flying straight toward it from her own deck of cards. The moment she had seen Catal start to fall, she had cast the spell. All four of the cards in the air turned to dust as the fireball flew through them, entirely unhindered by their presence. It hit the wooden ceiling, setting fire to it, but the fire didn’t stay for long. It quickly diminished and shrank until it was entirely extinguished. Only a small scorch mark remained as evidence.

Which made sense. This was a potion brewery. It would be surprising if there weren’t some fire protections in place. A quick glance at the door showed that its fire had also vanished, though the hole remained behind.

“Lovely,” Lumen said, glaring at Alyssa from her spot on top of Oz. She struggled against her chains, but made no headway. “I should have just tried to kill her instead of playing nice. Any other bright ideas?”

That was playing nice? Alyssa turned back to the three with a scowl. She wasn’t worried about them getting loose in the slightest. If that gaunt couldn’t do it, what hope did they have. “I don’t want to hurt you but if I see one corner of a spell card aimed in my direction, I will defend myself far more lethally than I have just done. Ask Oz. He knows what my weapons are capable of.” She was far more worried about more floating cards.

“She turned a goblin’s head into minced meat in half a second without using a spell. And… I don’t know about you two, but I didn’t hear her cast these chains.”

“She cast three Spectral Chains at the exact same time. What kind of monster have you been consorting with, Oz?”

“I’m not a monster! Ugh, why does everyone keep saying that!” Alyssa shook her head. “And I’m not being mind controlled. And if you,” she paused to glare down at the fairy, “try to mind control them, we are going to have a problem. Do you understand me?”

The little fairy glared, but nodded her tiny head.

“Good.”

“Alyssa,” Oz said. His voice was slightly muffled with how one side of his face was smashed against the floor. With Lumen on top of him, he couldn’t even try to shift around to a more comfortable position. “If you really aren’t its thrall, you should kill it. That thing isn’t like your mimic. It plants insidious little thoughts in your mind that make you want to do things. That make you think—”

“That I came up with the ideas myself? Yeah. I know. She tried and failed to work her magic on me. If I was being mind controlled, I doubt we would be here. She would force me to take her out of the city. Which I told her I would help with, but not until after I save Irulon. Speaking of which, you three remain right where you are and don’t move a muscle.”

Alyssa strode across the potion shop, returning the glare at Lumen. She had half a mind to take the woman’s deck of cards—they seemed like far better spells than Irulon’s esoteric nonsense or the relatively low level cards that the Society of the Burning Shadow used—but decided against it. Not only would she not know what any of the cards did, but she didn’t want to take the risk that Lumen could activate them remotely as she had done with the ones floating in the air. Suddenly finding her hips blasted off because of a card in her pocket sounded like a bad way to go.

By that logic, she also shouldn’t pick up any other decks of cards, but she hadn’t known such a thing was possible before just now. Given that she hadn’t had any problems so far, she wasn’t too inclined to discard the deck she had stolen. Especially not with how useful Spectral Chains was turning out to be.

All three of the people on the floor tensed as Alyssa neared, but nothing happened as far as she could tell. Not even as she stepped over their bodies and into the back room.

“So, Catal. I’ve never been mesmered before. How do we know if that fairy put a spell on us?”

“You won’t. You’ll just suddenly want to start doing things. The worst is when those are things you already want to do. It helps to cement its hold over us.” Alyssa did not miss the way his head jerked in her direction. “For example, did you ask me that of your own free will? Or because the fairy wanted you to ask it?”

“Ah. Well, I still want to kill the fairy. Would the fairy want that?”

“It knows you can’t right now, so possibly.”

~I didn’t do anything to them.~

Alyssa rolled her eyes. There was being paranoid, then there was being absurd. While under the fairy’s spell, she recalled a distinct feeling of overwhelming happiness associated with pretty much anything that she did. Just getting angry had been a chore. These people were definitely not under some spell.

Knowing where Tzheitza kept the completed products meant that it only took her a few moments to rummage through them and find the blue healing potion. She double-checked that it had a screw-on cap and wasn’t cold to the touch before nodding her head. Though, looking around as she slipped it into the satchel behind the fairy, Alyssa couldn’t help but frown.

“Where did Tzheitza go?”

Oz, at least, answered her. He tried to turn his head so that he could look into the back room, but it didn’t quite work. All three of them were still facing the shop’s entrance. “Don’t know. Haven’t seen her all night.”

“I hope she’s alright,” Alyssa said as she stepped back over them. “Last time I saw her was this afternoon. She was running off to deal with a potential plague containment failure.”

“Plague?” Lumen said, a bit of panic entered her haughty tone.

“Over in the shopping district on the east side of the palace. Near the Observatorium.” Stopping at the half of a door that was still standing—the upper half had fallen outside the building because of the various laser beams—Alyssa turned to face the three hoping that the building wasn’t going to collapse. It hadn’t so far, but wasn’t one of these wood pillars load bearing? They had been sliced clean through. Even the ground outside had a long gash in it from that purple laser.

“Anyway, I’m going to leave you people here. When the chains disappear, don’t chase after me please, I won’t appreciate it. Palace is under attack and Irulon is injured. No time to explain or fight you again.” Slipping her phone out of her pocket, she checked Irulon’s countdown. Still more than seven hours left. Plenty of time, even if she both explained and leisurely walked to the palace. But she didn’t want to risk anything. The sooner Irulon was back on her feet, the better. Everything could be explained then.

Besides, if she canceled the Spectral Chains, she would probably just end up fighting again. These people did not like fairies. Understandable, given the fairy’s ability to take their free will if they couldn’t resist as Alyssa had, but still tedious when trying to be marginally allied with the fairy.

So she left and started running—eliciting a few complaints from the fairy, but Alyssa ignored her. The Spectral Chains were extensible, but they had their limits. Said limits were roughly two buildings away. Not far at all. She could have chosen to drag Oz and his friends along behind her, but had a feeling that wouldn’t be pleasant for her or for them. Not without another levitation spell. So she let the chains disappear.

As soon as they did, Alyssa turned down the nearest alley and hoped that none of the three had spotted her before she disappeared.

Next stop: The Royal Palace.

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