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“Perhaps you had better hide. You know, to avoid a repeat of what happened back at the potion shop.”

~Did you have to run the whole way here? Oh my head aches.~

“It was a light jog. But yes. I did. Irulon needs medical treatment and I didn’t want to get caught by Oz.”

The fairy in Alyssa’s satchel had long since given up trying to peek out over the top of the bag. She was hunkered down behind a notebook, trying to use it as a shield from the loose bullets that were bouncing around anytime the bag moved. Technically, she was hidden at the moment. Alyssa just didn’t want her poking her head out of the flap, startling everyone who had gathered around the palace.

Everyone being a contingent of the city guard along with several of those more knightly types that had been marching with the Black Prince the other week. The latter group was stationed around the palace walls and gate, blocking off access to the interior itself. Which had Alyssa scowling. She needed to get back inside. With the possibility that fate would try to automatically correct itself to be in line with Tenebrael’s little black book, she couldn’t take the chance and give up the healing potion to the army in the hopes that one of the soldiers would heal Irulon. With her luck, she would hand it over to the one knight with a grudge against Irulon, resulting in the princess’ death.

The shadow assassin Alyssa had killed was no longer lying where she had shot it. Rather, there was a whole stack of them piled up near a pair of guards. Probably five or six in total, though it was a bit difficult to tell with the way their tattooed bodies blended into each other.

Far more humans were laid out on the opposite side of the street. They wore a variety of outfits, from soldiers’ uniforms to servant attire and even some with higher class dress that might be nobles or part of the royal family. Unlike the shadow assassins, which had been dumped in a pile without care, the humans were lined up in neat rows with their arms across their chests.

“You did make the monsters under your control stop attacking people, right?” Alyssa asked, turning away from the bodies to focus on the still living guards. She felt disgusted that she wasn’t more disgusted at the sight of two dozen dead humans. Looking over them, she didn’t feel much of anything that she might have felt a few weeks ago. Rather, she was just angry that it had happened in the first place.

Tenebrael had been correct. Joining up with the Society of the Burning Shadow, even if they had a surefire way to kill angels, wasn’t in the cards.

~Every nonhuman I have memorized is near the building we escaped from, searching for the woman who fled.~

“Good. Good. Stay hidden, don’t make a sound, try not to move. I’m going to try talking to these people.”

~Do you have to? I don’t want to be near more humans than absolutely necessary.~

“Well, I considered heading over to the window Kasita and I used, but I figure they have this place surrounded. It would be better to approach them and try to explain my way in rather than to get caught and try to explain my way out of whatever cell they would try to place me in. Assuming they didn’t attack me, that is.” If only she had an Empty Mirror spell handy. When she got Irulon cured and everything went back to normal, she would kindly ask to have a dozen of those spells written out for her use as thanks for saving the princess’ life. Turning invisible was far too useful and, better, she knew exactly what they did.

“Just stay in the bag and don’t let yourself get seen, alright?” Alyssa said as she started walking toward the largest group of soldiers. Against her better judgment, she holstered her pistol and even pocketed her spell cards. Anything to lessen the chance that they view her as an enemy.

After the first guard noticed her, it took less than five seconds for him to alert his comrades. Fifteen seconds after that, they had her surrounded.

“Stop right there!” one of the guardsmen barked out.

These people were not messing around tonight. It was something of a shock considering how easily she had walked into the Northgate Guardhouse and even the wall reconstruction area. She suddenly regretted not stashing the fairy in some bush back away from the guards. If they searched her satchel… well, she would have to hope that none of them would be able to resist the fairy’s mental charms. For now, despite the sweat running down her spine, Alyssa tried to remain cool. She held up her hands so that everyone could see that she had no weapons pointed at them.

“Um… Hello. Could I speak with whoever is in charge? I have important information. If you could just—”

“Slaver?”

Alyssa’s head snapped to the side to find the guard who had spoken. As soon as she spotted the scruffy chin behind the grated face mask, she smiled. “Guardsman Ipo? Is that you? Boy am I glad to see a familiar face.”

“Ipo, you know this woman?” the guard to his side asked.

He didn’t respond right away, staring for a moment before slowly nodding his head. “She’s a monster slaver who warned us about the troll army in advance of them marching on the city.”

Opening her mouth to complain about being called a slaver, Alyssa hesitated and changed topics. It really wasn’t worth arguing over right now. At least he wasn’t calling her a monster. “Right. And I have more information tonight. Good news rather than bad this time. Is Oxart here? I’m sure she would be pleased to hear what I have to say.” Though they had only met three times, Alyssa felt that she had something of a rapport with the captain of the guard. If Oxart had received her Message warnings about tonight’s events, then that rapport was probably stronger now. And if she had heeded those warnings, she was probably here. Even if their rapport was all in Alyssa’s head, it would still be better to meet with someone she knew over some random knight who was likely to dismiss anything she had to say.

Thankfully, Ipo nodded his head. “She was asking about you earlier today. Then rallied the guards without warning. You’re the one who told her about this incident, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I’m friendly with the Princess Irulon and was here to meet her when all this started, putting me in a perfect position to warn others. Which I promptly did after killing one of those things,” Alyssa said, waving a hand toward the pile of shadow assassin corpses. “The one I killed died of several small holes in its body.”

Ipo turned away, looking to the guardsman who had first spoken. A superior officer, perhaps, though Alyssa didn’t notice much difference in their uniforms. They both wore heavy armor with a beige surcoat over top. None of the presumably more elite knights with darker armor had approached her as they were the ones protecting the palace, standing guard around the perimeter to prevent further entry.

“We were wondering about that one,” the central guard said. “That was you?”

“It was. My weapons can replicate those holes on another corpse, if you need proof.”

“We’ll let the captain determine that,” he said, finally lowering his sword. That seemed to be the signal for the others to lower their weapons as well. Except in the case of the two who wielded pikes. They raised theirs, letting the butt of the weapon rest against the ground. “Come with me.”

Alyssa let her arms drop to her sides. That had been less painful than she had been expecting. Ipo’s presence might have contributed to that, but this world seemed fairly lax in security anyway. Had this been a modern Earth military incident, say something gone wrong at the White House, she probably would have been shot by snipers well in advance of getting this close to the building. At the very least, someone would have searched her bags. Not that Alyssa was complaining.

Though, she couldn’t help but notice that the men didn’t completely lower their guard. They gave her space while keeping close enough to attack if needed. Alyssa would do her best to not give them reason to act. Hopefully the fairy would remain hidden as well.

Oxart, along with two others wearing identical dark trench coat-like uniforms, stood around a central table that had been hastily set up with a detailed map of the city. Alyssa itched to take a photo of it, but now was probably not the time. Not with how Oxart was glaring at her. The moment the captain looked up from the table and spotter her, Oxart’s lips curled into a distinct frown.

“You have a habit of finding trouble, Alyssa.”

“I assure you, the trouble finds me. It’s not like I wanted to have my evening ruined by monsters and mayhem.”

Letting out a weary sigh, Oxart said, “Agreed.” With a shake of her head, she waved a hand to the man on her left and the woman on her right. “These are Decorous and Kalne. Captain of the Eastgate Guard and acting captain of the Central Garrison respectively.” She paused for a moment before gesturing toward Alyssa. “This woman calls herself Alyssa, an apparent monster slaver, potion deliverer, medical expert, or lumber hauler who first came to my attention during the incident a week ago and has cropped up on occasion, generally bringing trouble with her. She is the reason I sent riders to each of you.”

Alyssa nodded at both of them, though only Decorous returned her nod. The woman looked far too bewildered, tired, and maybe a little confused about everything. Her expression hadn’t changed much between when Alyssa first caught sight of her and now, so it could have been her default expression. Or it could have something to do with the acting part of her title. It made Alyssa wonder what had happened to the actual captain.

“Though I believe your last Message had you within the palace itself,” Oxart continued, now addressing Alyssa directly. “Yet you come walking up from the opposite direction?”

Alyssa opened her mouth, but the guard who had led her here began speaking first. “She says she has information for you, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Donovan, you are dismissed,” Oxart said, voice terse.

The overeager guardsman saluted with a hand across his chest before backing away. He couldn’t step out of the room as there was no room to step out of—the table had been erected in the middle of the street with no tent around it unlike what had been the case at the wall reconstruction site. But he gave them enough privacy.

Alyssa waited as a few other guards backed away. Ipo remained the closest to the table. It didn’t really matter how many people stayed nearby, not so long as the fairy remained hidden. Alyssa wasn’t about to damn herself by saying anything she shouldn’t. “I was in the palace and my current goal is to regain entry without being skewered by the guards, but I do have information as well that might help. Irulon created a spell that she thought would help with the situation. I suppose it did, but not in the way she had intended. It resulted in me being teleported out of the palace and right in the middle of a group of people. A Society of the Burning Shadow. Does that sound familiar?”

All three of the captains tensed, though Decorous nodded his head. “Not entirely unexpected given the events a week ago. Disturbing that they would attack twice in such quick succession. We are already going to experience difficulties in food this year with the damage to the fields. More attacks might cripple us to the point where their army might actually be effective this year.”

“This attack might have crippled us enough,” Oxart shot back, turning her gaze up to the palace. “With the pharaoh at Pandora, the nobles will tear apart the royal family here for every scrap of power they can get.”

“Assuming they’re still alive.”

Alyssa frowned. “You don’t know?” she asked, looking between the three captains. Turning her gaze around the entire pavilion, her frown deepened. A battalion of soldiers stood around, most quietly talking with one another. They were antsy for sure, but… “Why are you all just standing about? Shouldn’t you be in the palace? Assisting wounded and clearing out hostiles?”

The three glanced at each other. Or rather, Oxart and Decorous turned to face the other. Kalne looked over to them, but neither looked back at her. Eventually, Oxart spoke. “We had been planning on it. But the Palace Guard have assured us that our assistance will be called for if necessary.”

“Presumably because most of our number are owned by the nobles,” Decorous said, vaguely gesturing around him. “We cleared out the nobles’ homes here, but most were unoccupied save for caretakers and servants. Since then, we’ve been standing around feeling awfully useless.”

Glancing over to the dark armor of the palace guardsmen, Alyssa looked them over. She had spotted them once already, marching with the Black Prince on their way through the city the other night. They presented an impressive look. The black with gold trim really gave them an elite flair. Almost too much so, however. Their armor looked like it had been designed for ceremonial matters rather than combat. Given that they had been heading into battle with it the other night, it clearly wasn’t ceremonial. Or perhaps it served a dual role. In any case, they shouldn’t be dismissed even if it was ceremonial. After all, the Queen’s Guard in England wore bright red and big fuzzy hats yet carried fully operational weapons and were highly trained.

But Alyssa could count at least two dozen standing around the palace. Most centered around the main entrance, but more were dotted along the walls. Presumably, they wrapped around the entire palace or it would be pointless guarding one entrance.

Where had they been earlier? Shouldn’t the palace guard have been guarding the palace, keeping Alyssa and Kasita from sneaking in?

“Can they secure the palace on their own?” Alyssa eventually asked.

“They are skilled. But they are few in numbers comparatively.”

“Even fewer if what we suspect is true.”

Alyssa looked back to Decorous, expectantly waiting for him to continue.

He didn’t get a chance.

“They’re all dead,” Kalne blurted out, earning a glare from the other two captains.

“Possibly,” Oxart clarified, pinching the bridge of her nose. “There were no guards around the palace when we first arrived. It wasn’t until I sent a few men into the palace’s barracks that these knights came out. I believe that these men were off-duty at the time of the attack. Those on-duty…”

“Either way, fully securing the palace will take some time for them even if only a handful perished.”

“That is…” Alyssa clenched her fists and grit her teeth. “That is unacceptable.” Pulling out her phone, she checked Irulon’s timer. Six and a halfish hours. “The palace is too large. There could be people in there who need assistance. There are people who need assistance.” Irulon being one of them. “If they are sweeping through it with only a dozen people, it could be days before the palace is fully secure.”

“At least someone understands the gravity of the situation,” Decorous said. “If only the palace guard could be so easily convinced.”

“They will not budge for us.”

And if they wouldn’t allow the city guard entrance, they sure weren’t going to let Alyssa meander in. Once again, Alyssa found herself wishing she had Empty Mirror. She had never really considered invisibility to be the best or strongest super power. With all the super hero movies that had been coming out for the past decade or two, what kind of power one wanted often became a water cooler topic at work or a mealtime discussion. For instance, her brother had always thought that control over time was the ultimate power, granting several other powers almost by its very nature. However, it was such a rare power that Alyssa had trouble thinking up a single character that possessed time control.

For Alyssa, she had always thought that flying would be a fun power to have despite her mild fear of heights. If she could fly, she could catch herself if she fell, presumably nullifying the fear. Presumably because she had never actually tried it. Even shooting laser beams out of her eyes seemed like a better power than invisibility.

But being able to turn invisible at will would have solved pretty much every problem she had experienced in the past month. People breaking into her home? Turn invisible, let them steal whatever, call the police later. Worried about entering a city causing uncomfortable questions? Turn invisible and walk right past the guards. Realize that purple cloaks were indicative of nobility? Turn invisible and take it off; she never would have met Cid and Bacco. Of course, invisibility hadn’t helped all that much during her encounter with the Taker, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

Moping about what could have been wasn’t going to get her anywhere now. Alyssa shook her head and focused.

“Wh-What about the Burning Shadow?” Kalne asked. “Can we take them out? If we can prove we were useful maybe the palace guard…” Her words descended into unintelligible mumbling, but the other two didn’t look as if they disagreed.

All three looked to Alyssa, who merely shrugged. “I don’t know what more there is to do about them. The teleportation accident dropped me right next to a fairy in a cage. And before you freak out, no, I didn’t get myself mind controlled. As Oxart kindly mentioned while introducing me, I know my way around monsters.” A complete and total lie, but one that worked to her advantage. Just mentioning the fairy sent a variety of expressions across their faces. Mostly suspicion. Ipo, who she caught moving in the corner of her vision, actually shifted to put his hand on his sword. Almost unconsciously, Alyssa moved her hand to her satchel just to ensure that the fairy didn’t pop out at being mentioned. “If you are quite finished… The fairy had been captured against her will by the Society. They had been using her to control the monsters. Given the chance she would have turned against her captors in an instant. So I gave her an opportunity. She used the gaunt I had captured and—”

Decorous held up a hand. “Wait… hold on. A gaunt?”

“I believe I mentioned that in my most recent Message to Oxart.”

“You said one was attacking the palace. But capturing one? There is a limit to your credibility, Alyssa.”

“I know my way around monsters. Two of your men saw it, if you need confirmation, though I left them behind at the Waterhole. Anyway, the gaunt ate one of the Society members. I shot and killed a second, wounded a third—which I left in the care of the two guardsmen who saw me—a fourth escaped. The building they were hiding in was the Waters Street Waterhole.”

Oxart swore under her breath while Decorous’ face went entirely passive. “If true,” she said, “they’ve crossed the line this time. I’d like to see the nobles protect them from this.”

“It is true. You can confirm with the two guardsmen. I didn’t stop to chat though. Adequately explaining the presence of the gaunt would have taken far too long, so I had it drop the wounded Society member while I headed straight here, though the woman was extremely wounded. She might be dead by now.”

Decorous shook his head. “You still haven’t explained the presence of the gaunt adequately.”

Alyssa sighed. The only reason she had brought it up was because Oxart would surely find out about it later. But maybe she should have just kept silent and dealt with it when it came up. For now, Alyssa just shrugged. “I don’t really know what more you want.”

“Start with where it is now,” Oxart said, lips tight.

“Gaunts, as you might be aware, are extremely slow. So I left it behind. Presumably, it is following the fairy’s orders to seek out the one Society member who ran away, alongside whatever other monsters they brought in to the city.”

“Y-You left the fairy alive?” Kalne hissed, voice barely more than a breath of air.

“It wanted revenge against its captors. I wanted monsters to stop attacking the palace. Our goals were not mutually exclusive. If killed, the monsters in the city would have been set loose, potentially going on a rampage around the city and causing more destruction. Using a Contract spell, I ensured that it would do no more knowing harm to the city’s inhabitants. On pain of death, the only ones it can attack are the Society of the Burning Shadow.”

This was one of those things. One lie leads to a bigger lie which rapidly spirals out of control into bigger and bigger lies. Alyssa pressed her lips together. The best way to not tell larger lies was to simply tell them nothing more at all. If they had a problem with what she had told them, she would simply shrug and say that the lie was simply the way things were.

“That does explain why the assassins suddenly stopped moving,” Oxart grumbled, glancing to the pile of corpses. “But I cannot approve of leaving a fairy alive within the city. It could do more harm than the Tenebrael-damned gaunt.”

“What are the termination conditions on the Contract?”

Alyssa hesitated. That wasn’t a question she could simply shrug her shoulders at. Biting back a frown, she said, “The exact words were: Do no harm to the inhabitants of this city while hunting the remaining members of the Society of the Burning Shadow within Lyria.”

Decorous took only a second to process the words. “Which means that she can harm anyone after getting her fingers on the Society’s throat—metaphorically.” He clicked his tongue in annoyance. “We need to find one and keep them safe until the fairy can be dealt with.”

“Kalne,” Oxart said, turning. “Take your men to Waters Street. See if you can’t find and eliminate this fairy. Ascertain the truth of Alyssa’s words as well, if possible. Should you come across this wounded Society member left in the care of my men, protect them at all costs. Send a Message with your results. Can you handle that?”

The woman’s eyebrows furrowed. “I-I’m not an invalid, Captain.”

“Good. Then you should have no trouble. Eliminate any monsters you come across. They cannot harm you so long as the Contract remains in effect. Best to clean them up now.”

“What about the g-g-gaunt?”

Oxart pressed her lips together, giving Decorous time to answer first.

“Ignore it. According to testimony, it just fed. Released from the fairy’s control, it will go into dormancy. We can locate and move it at a later date.” Decorous clasped his hands together behind his back. “Well? What are you waiting for, Acting Captain?”

“Right. Yes sir.” Kalne gave a slight salute before turning and moving to someone standing a short distance away from the captains’ table. “Adjutant, gather the central garrison soldiers. We are moving.”

Both Oxart and Decorous watched for a moment until the acting captain had moved far enough away. Only then did they turn to one another and share a sigh.

“Shame about Captain Snopkin.”

“Indeed. Though she has potential. I can understand her nerves however. Snopkin’s body… not the most pleasant of corpses.”

“Are any?”

“You have a point, Oxart. But we have work to do.”

Oxart turned back to Alyssa. “We need to locate at least one member of the Society of the Burning Shadow.”

“I don’t know how much I can help with that. The one disappeared well before I even realized that they were using the Waterhole for their base of operations. The Black Prince captured one last week, but I imagine he was freed early tonight. The only other one I know about… Morgan. A woman I captured. Last I saw her, she was high up in the palace, just a few floors below the top. A food storage room. It hasn’t been too long, though she might have escaped.”

“For which we would need to gain entry to the palace,” Oxart said with a scowl.

“I need to get in regardless. Irulon needs assistance.” Alyssa smiled as a thought occurred to her. “These palace guards… they would listen to someone from the royal family, would they not? That’s their job, right?”

“Your point?”

“All we have to do is get a noble to tell them that we are allowed access. Brakkt wasn’t answering my Messages earlier. And I was actually told that he had died along with the First and Third princes, but Irulon doesn’t believe that to be the case… Still…” Alyssa pulled a deck of cards from her pocket. She wasn’t sure if it was Morgan’s deck or the woman who Alyssa had shot, but either way, it should have what she needed. “Message,” she said, holding up a card. “Kasita. Sorry for not messaging you earlier. I am alright and just outside the palace. But I am being barred entrance by the palace guards. It would be helpful if Irulon could come down here and tell them to let me in.”

Nothing happened. But nothing had happened any of the other times Alyssa had messaged someone. Yet both Irulon and Oxart had clearly received her messages. So hopefully this message had gone through properly.

Decorous nodded his head, clearly pleased with potentially being allowed access to the palace. Oxart, on the other hand, put on a deep scowl.

“I thought you said that Irulon was injured.”

Alyssa suppressed a grimace. Right. She had sent out messages after reaching Irulon. That was how Oxart had known about the gaunt. What had she said then… had she mentioned the stasis? She didn’t think so. “That is why I need to get in to the palace. And why I Messaged Kasita. She can help Irulon get down here.”

“Your sister.”

Ugh. The hospital. That stupid mimic and her stupid stunt. If she changed forms at all anywhere near Oxart, she would surely be found out. If Alyssa slipped up and called the ‘wrong person’ Kasita, she would be found out. If Irulon showed up at the front entrance of the palace perfectly whole and started ordering around the guards while she was supposed to be fatally injured, Oxart was smart enough to be suspicious, at the very least.

“She’s a smart girl. She’ll figure something out.” I hope. “We’ll just have to trust her. Unless you two want to storm the gates and fight off the palace guards to get in.”

“We’d be drawn and quartered for treason before dawn.”

“Then let’s give Kasita ten minutes. If she hasn’t figured out a way to get us access by then, she probably won’t ever and we’ll have to find other solutions.”

Oxart narrowed her eyes, making Alyssa swallow a mouthful of saliva. Decorous came to her rescue.

“Our only other option is searching the entirety of the city for one… possibly two people that might have already escaped. Even if we mobilized every guardsman in the city, the task could be impossible. Waiting is agreeable.”

Alyssa let out a small sigh as Oxart nodded her head. Now, all she had to do was wait and hope that Kasita didn’t screw everything up.

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