As it turned out, Irulon had more than just fancy dresses and elegant clothes in her wardrobe. She had plenty of articles seemingly designed for nothing more than showing off her opulence. Things that looked as if they had actual gold woven into the threads. Even combining the coins she had stolen from Svotty with every penny she had earned over her entire life back on Earth, she was quite certain that she wasn’t rich enough to be in the same room as even one of the more elegant dresses.
Irulon didn’t seem to care for their cost in the slightest as she tossed them to the floor in search of something more suitable to traveling and adventuring. Something that she eventually found.
“Dragon hide,” she said, holding out a pair of… they looked almost like men’s suits. Maybe more like tailcoats with tails in the front as well as the back. A series of buckles ran up the front to hold the two halves closed and a short collar protected the throat. “Made from the same dragon you likely saw while observing my… our souls. Nearly impenetrable, resists magic, and breathes like the finest linens. I had several articles of clothing made from the dragon. Boots, gloves, tunics. My brother has some, but these are mine to lend freely.”
Irulon tossed one of the suits to Alyssa before stripping out of her robe to don the other one. Alyssa stared down at it. The blackish-green scales flexed under her fingers, moving with far less resilience than she had expected for something supposedly impenetrable. She had expected something more like plates of steel than… whatever this was. How flexible were normal scales? Such as snake or alligator scales. She had held a snake before—her elementary school had kept a huge terrarium with a gigantic reticulated python. But that had been a long time ago.
“So,” Alyssa said as she double-checked that there weren’t any older brothers marching into the room. “You killed a dragon, shoved its soul into your head, and turned the rest of it into clothes?”
“No, yes if you are overly simplifying, and no. Killing a dragon? Don’t make me laugh. My brother found it dying of some disease. He has a… fascination with scaled creatures. Knowing of my skill with Death magic, he asked if it would be possible to save it. The answer to that question was sort of,” she said, tapping the side of her head. “As for turning the rest of it into clothes, of course not. Only the scales. Most of it went to a variety of potion laboratories around. Though I did consume some of the meat.”
Alyssa’s head snapped up. “You ate it? What did it think about that?”
“I was curious. I had never had dragon steak before,” Irulon said, shrugging on her own dragon suit. “It was an interesting flavor. A little bit sweet for meat, but not bad. As for the dragon, it didn’t think much of anything. It observes the world only when I allow it to. Thinking about culinary subjects, however, has me curious as to what fascinating dishes the… people on your world have created.”
Other than a mild groan, Alyssa didn’t bother protesting Irulon’s insinuations. Maybe one day, the princess would discover something that convinced her that they were both humans. Until then, there wasn’t much point in arguing. It was clear that words weren’t going to work. Instead, she focused on the dragon hide suit. “I might have a melted candy bar in my bag if you remind me later. But… this is a bit tight, isn’t it?”
“You are larger than I am. And I had this made when I was younger. I designed it with growth in mind, but not your growth. You look fine though.”
The buckles had a slight ability to adjust built in. Loosening it enough to fit into made a slight gap from her neck all the way down to her stomach. She could tighten it to be closed entirely, but she could hardly breathe with it like that. The breeches were made from scales as well and actually fit well on her, though they looked a little loose on Irulon. By design, not because the princess was too small to fit into them. “Is there any thin strip of armor that I can attach to this?” It was one thing to wander around completely naked. Showing off a little cleavage didn’t bother her at all. What did bother her was the thought that someone like the Taker might try to skewer her with a blade. The dragon hide might protect most of her, but a weapon could easily slip and pierce her unprotected sternum.
“You should never allow someone close enough to you to strike,” Irulon said as if she were a mind reader. “You are strong, but you aren’t trained in fighting. Use spells to kill enemies from afar. Besides, if someone gets near enough to you that you have to worry over blades piercing the gap in your chest, your head is a far more enticing target.”
That was both a good point and not reassuring in the slightest. A throwing knife would work far better on her head than on her sternum. “I don’t suppose you have helmets for us?”
“No,” Irulon said, slipping on scale gloves that went all the way up to her elbows and a pair of matching boots. She hadn’t offered either to Alyssa. Given Alyssa’s protest about her boots being incinerated, she probably wouldn’t offer anything more. “Even made from dragon scales, headgear wouldn’t provide sufficient protection. You would need a full helmet like what my brother wears.” Picking up a rucksack she had prepared earlier, Irulon stood. “Speaking of my brother, we should go meet with him before he changes his mind about the draken.”
Standing there in her sleek, dark dragon hide armor, Irulon cut quite the imposing presence. Gone were all the bright gold and purple colors. Her hair, a dark brown normally left long and flowing, was pulled back into a tight ponytail. Even her face had changed. She had applied some sort of eyeshadow that blackened the skin around her eyes. It obscured some of her tattoos, but only served to make her eyes look more dangerous. She looked like a super hero… or maybe a super villain.
In contrast, despite wearing an identical outfit with the same makeup around her eyes, Alyssa didn’t feel like she was pulling the look off at all. She felt awkward and gangling. The clothes didn’t fit quite right and the makeup around her eyes did something that made everything look a shade darker. Apparently it was supposed to help protect from the sun in the desert, but Alyssa had sunglasses back at Tzheitza’s potion shop if she really needed.
Which, if she was going to travel through a desert, she did need. Alyssa made a mental note to pack up everything that might possibly come in useful before leaving the city.
“Are you ready to leave?”
Alyssa sighed, gabbing her satchel. “I suppose.”
The second they made it out of Irulon’s bedroom, Alyssa heard a familiar giggle.
“Ufu~ Matching clothes?”
Turning, Alyssa found Kasita standing just to the side of the door. Except she didn’t look or sound like Kasita at the moment. She was wearing Alyssa’s face. Not exactly. It was the sister disguise. Her facial structure, skin tone, hair, nose, and eyes were close enough that the family resemblance would be impossible to miss, but just different enough that other people could tell them apart. And, as she stood there, her clothes sprouted greenish-black dragon scales from neck to foot.
Even the mimic looked better in the clothes than Alyssa did.
“I see your mimic is feeling better. Will it be joining us?”
“She isn’t mine. I don’t own her,” Alyssa said, though her words felt weak. Complaining just didn’t change Irulon’s mind enough to be worth putting effort into what she was saying. “She can decide for herself.”
“I go where Alyssa goes,” Kasita said with a smile.
“Try not to be an inconvenience,” Irulon said before turning and walking to the stairs.
Stairs which, after walking down them for only a minute, brought Alyssa to a part of the palace she had never been to before despite them being the same stairs she had taken up with Oxart and Kasita. She tried hard not to think about the geometry of the building and how lost she would find herself if she ever had to navigate it on her own. It clearly had something magical about it. Luckily, she didn’t have to put much effort into distracting herself.
The rows of sharp teeth in her face did that for her.
Alyssa stumbled back, almost knocking Kasita to the ground. She hadn’t even realized they were entering the stables. There were no guards in the room. None of the dozen draken were chained, leashed, or otherwise contained. Three of them were tearing apart the carcass of some large beast. Exactly what species of beast was no longer possible to determine without modern medical tests on the remains. Even its bones were scattered about the room.
One of the draken was right up in her face. One moment, she had been walking down the stairs. The next, she found herself almost bumping into it. A wave of hot breath washed over her as it exhaled, smelling pungent like a slaughterhouse. Alyssa locked up. She wanted to stumble back, to hide behind Irulon. But its stare froze her in place. Its yellow eye with that slit for a pupil must have had some magic behind it.
“Izsha,” a deep tone rumbled through the room.
The draken turned away from Alyssa, onyx scales glimmering in the light of the potion jars as it moved toward the sole other human in the room. Brakkt. The Black Prince stood just near the carcass, completely unconcerned with the snapping of the sharp teeth all around him. Holding out a hand—a bare hand, devoid of his gauntlets—the draken moved right up to him and… started nuzzling his open palm?
Alyssa shook her head, finally breaking out of her stupor. What had she been afraid of anyway? She hadn’t batted an eye when confronted with a harpy, a bee monster, elves, Kasita, a salamander, or a fairy. And the fairy had been, at the very least… Alyssa didn’t like to use the word evil, but its values clearly conflicted with her own. Seeing the draken walk up to Brakkt the way a cat might to its owner had Alyssa feeling a little silly about being so scared.
Though they did have extremely large mouths with very sharp teeth.
It was easy to see how those kids in the Jurassic Park movies had been so frightened of the raptors. At the same time, if the draken had replaced the raptors, the kids probably would have died rather quickly. There was just an intelligence to the draken’s eyes that hadn’t come across in the movie raptors. Which might have had something to do with the fact that the raptors weren’t real, being puppets or computer generated imagery, but still. If a raptor had to fight a draken, Alyssa had to put her bets on the draken based on appearance alone. The way their scales were lifted into sharp blades protruding from their backs really helped sell the danger factor.
Absorbed in her thoughts about movie monsters, Alyssa barely noticed as Irulon skipped across the room to pause in front of one of the draken. This one with an orange and black stripe pattern on its scales and less of the spikes. That didn’t make it look any less deadly. If anything, it just emphasized its claws and talons, which seemed to be larger than most others relative to its somewhat smaller size.
“Hello, Musca,” Irulon cooed. She reached out toward its face as if to rub its scales… only to jerk her hand back as the draken snapped at her fingers.
And suddenly, all thoughts of these raptors being nothing more than large kitty cats fled from Alyssa’s mind.
Not that Irulon seemed to care, apparently trusting in her own faster-than-lightning instincts to avoid the draken’s faster-than-lightning movements. She giggled an odd sort of giggle that Alyssa hadn’t heard coming from her before. “Oh yes. You are a vicious one, aren’t you. But my mean old brother has you all locked up down here. How would you like to stretch your legs and chase down some real prey?”
Once again, Irulon stretched out her hand. This time, it didn’t try to bite off her hand, allowing her to rub its scales from its nose to the crest on its head. It didn’t lean into her as Izsha did to Brakkt, but a simple glare was a marked improvement over snapping at her.
“Are we going to stand here all day or should we go in too?”
Kasita’s voice made Alyssa jump, but she felt almost relieved to hear it. With Irulon having clearly gone insane, the dozen human-eating-murder-machines lounging about the large room, and Brakkt casually chatting with one of aforementioned murder-machines, a little bit of familiarity was welcome. Though she wasn’t so sure about going further into the room.
“Come on,” Kasita said, taking hold of Alyssa’s hand, which had the added benefit of reassuring the latter girl. At least, it did until Kasita leaned in close for a whisper. “They smell your fear. Act strong.”
“Easy for you to say,” Alyssa hissed back. “You wouldn’t even feel it if they bit your head off.”
“To be fair, I don’t think you would feel much either.”
Alyssa pressed her lips together, glaring at her nearly identical sister. “You know what I mean.”
“Ufufu~” Other than her giggle, she didn’t say anything else, choosing instead to drag Alyssa further into the room. Not that Kasita could have dragged anyone anywhere if they didn’t want to be dragged, but Alyssa allowed it.
Taking a deep breath, Alyssa schooled her features. They smelled fear. She had heard that phrase in reference to several species of Earth animals. None specifically that she could remember off the top of her head. Here, though, she had to take into consideration that magic existed. Especially among monsters. Kasita could have been entirely literal, meaning that the draken truly smelled something from frightened people.
Either way, the cure was simply to not be afraid of them.
Alyssa jumped as one of the larger ones turned away from its meal to eye her. It didn’t do anything else, but the bloody teeth were enough to send shivers up her spine. Soon enough, it turned back to tear off another strip of flesh, but not before snorting in her direction, reminding her of the one she had encountered on the Brechen Overlook. In fact, it might even be the same one. With the darkness, her own panic at the time, its sudden appearance, and the Black Prince’s imposing presence, she hadn’t really gotten a good look. At the time, she had thought it was laughing at her. Maybe it still was.
What is wrong with me? She hadn’t been this afraid of charging into a palace filled with invisible monsters waiting in the shadows for her to walk by. Of course, they had been invisible. That, paradoxically, made them less scary than the creatures that she could see gnashing their nasty sharp pointy teeth. The few times when she had been shooting at shadow assassins, she had been far too concerned with shooting and surviving to be scared. Adrenaline probably played a large part in that as well.
Avoiding Irulon and her now more docile draken, Alyssa edged toward Brakkt. They were his pets according to Oz, so he probably wouldn’t let them eat her. Though she probably shouldn’t say that aloud. It would be hypocritical considering how much she complained about Irulon saying the same thing about Kasita. He was in the middle of tightening saddle belts around Izsha’s middle.
Alyssa’s stomach dropped into a pit. A saddle. Of course. Brakkt used the draken as mounts. Irulon clearly wanted them for that reason—she was already putting a smaller saddle on Musca’s back. Some part of Alyssa knew that before coming down here, but seeing that saddle in person… Alyssa opened her mouth, about to ask if she could ride a horse instead, only to snap her mouth shut. Would the draken take offense at being passed over for a horse? They were intelligent, or at least, Oz had claimed that the primary difference between monsters and animals was intelligence. If Alyssa were in their place, she would probably prefer not to be used as a mule. At the same time, the snappy Musca had turned almost friendly the moment Irulon mentioned taking her out for a walk.
“Are you alright?” Kasita whispered.
Alyssa blinked, staring at her almost mirror. “What am I even doing?”
It was a rhetorical question, but one that warranted consideration nonetheless. What the hell am I doing? Oxart. And the fairies. Alyssa felt bad about Oxart, especially her role in what happened, but now what was she doing, running off to save her? To stop a warring nation from using monsters as shock troopers and assassins? That was insane. Alyssa was just a normal girl from a normal town in a normal country on a normal world. The only reason she had survived this sanitarium was thanks to a combination of guns and befriending several relatively powerful people. She had fought against monsters, secret societies, gangs, assassins, and who knew what else. And here she was, charging off to go fight more?
It seemed so long ago that she had arrived in this world in the first place. She had been a little scared and a little confused, walking into Lazhar and Yzhemal’s village. But, in retrospect, it had been somewhat fun. Of course, that had been back when she thought she would be getting home in a reasonable amount of time. It had been a month now—though it felt much longer—and she really hadn’t made any progress at all in getting home, mostly because of problems like this that kept popping up. Maybe that wasn’t entirely true. Irulon could easily be her best bet for actually getting back to Earth given her research’s goal of proving the existence of alternate worlds. It really wasn’t thanks to any action Alyssa had taken, but when thought about like that, she might be closer to one of her goals than she had thought before.
Of course, at the moment, Irulon was about to run off on an adventure too.
Couldn’t they just ask the guild to do it for them? Wasn’t that their job? Their whole purpose for existing as an organization?
“What about your research?” Alyssa asked, turning away from Kasita to face Irulon.
The princess had just finished tightening the belts on her own saddle when she looked over. “You are being vague again.”
“I mean, the other day, you—” threw a fit “—didn’t want to check up on Kasita yourself because it would interrupt your research. Now we’re running off to the desert?”
“In retrospect, your momentary interruption scarcely seems worth the effort of denying. These fairies and their masters almost killed me, which would have put a rather large damper on my research in a far more permanent fashion. I am not going to let that stand.” Her smile shifted. Not quite genuine, but it wasn’t vicious either. She had so many smiles that it was tough to keep track of them all. “Besides, you are coming with me. There will be plenty of time for research on the way,” she said, patting the rucksack she had attached to her saddle. “I am not leaving completely empty handed.”
Alyssa slumped. So much for convincing her to let Oz handle it.
“I have prepared supplies for you as well, sister.” The Black Prince stepped around Izsha, whose saddle had a rather bulky bag attached to it, carrying a similar leather bag. “Provisions that, if rationed properly, should last you three weeks.”
“Three weeks?” Alyssa blurted out. “We’re going to be gone for three weeks?”
“Always carry more than you need,” he said, looking over his shoulder for a moment before attaching the bag to Musca’s saddle. “Preliminary scrying estimates the fairy commune to be only a few days away. Less if you’re riding at full speed. I trust you’ve read the interrogation reports, Seventh?”
“Of course I have, Second,” she said with a small sneer. “I know where we’re going. And, unless I am about to be extremely disappointed in the mercenaries who have accepted your job, we will be joining up with several others who should all have read the report as well.”
Brakkt just sighed, watching as Irulon slipped a boot into a low-hanging hoop hanging off the side of Musca’s saddle. She swung a leg up and over, coming to rest right in the seat.
“Make sure the draken stay safe, sister. And… do try to come back alive. I have enough bodies to explain to father as it is.”
“You have nothing to worry about. I’ll not be caught unprepared by a gaunt of all things again.” Without a motion from Irulon, Musca started toward the large stable doors. Though she paused when she reached Alyssa. “You are coming,” she said in a voice that allowed for no arguments. “Don’t worry, Izsha won’t hurt you.”
Alyssa turned to the onyx draken, meeting one of its yellow eyes as it stared at her. Her gaze shifted to the saddle. She wasn’t worried about it eating her. Well, not at this particular moment. Having just watched Irulon get into the saddle, she had a relatively good idea how to do it. She put her foot in the hoop, swung her leg over, and just about fell off the opposite side. A firm hand clasped around her shoulder, steadying her on the back of Izsha before letting go. “Thanks,” she said, looking at Brakkt.
He looked back, raising one eyebrow before turning to Irulon. “Is this a good idea?”
“I asked for Izsha for a reason, being well aware of Alyssa’s ignorance to contemporary matters.”
Trying not to roll her eyes, Alyssa glanced around, ready to offer Kasita a hand with getting on Izsha’s back. But the mimic was nowhere to be seen. She didn’t have a chance to call out for her.
The draken shook back and forth. The saddle was tight on its back, but Alyssa was not. Despite Brakkt not reaching out to help steady her, she didn’t fall. Izsha stepped to the side and caught Alyssa properly. Rather than try to toss her out, it was more like she was now seated firmly in the saddle. Had that been intentional? Probably. “Uh… thanks?”
“Good. Keep Tess safe while I’m gone, brother, and I’ll ensure your lizards get back to you. Hold on Alyssa.” Musca turned to the doorway, took two steps, coiled her muscles, and leaped out.
“Hold on?” She looked down at the spiked neck of Izsha. There were no reins or handles. “Hold on to what?”
No one answered before Izsha turned to the open door and jumped.