Alyssa had never ridden a horse before. She hadn’t ridden a motorcycle. It went without saying that she had never ridden a draken before either. The closest thing she could think of that she had ridden was a bicycle, and that wasn’t close at all. For one, the draken were a lot faster. She imagined it would be like if she rode down a steep hill on her bike—her hometown having been relatively flat, she had never actually tried such a thing. But a bike at least had handles.
Draken did not. They had raised razor sharp scales, none of which were in much of a position for holding on to. Worse, the draken moved on their own. At least with a bike, Alyssa knew that she was in full control. Alyssa had only a moment of warning about the sharp turn she would soon be taking thanks to Irulon and Musca taking that same turn just ahead of her. She clamped her hands on the sides of Izsha’s neck where the scales were flattest and leaned forward. Not too much forward. She didn’t want to wind up a pincushion for the scales on Izsha’s back. Izsha’s sides were significantly less prickly. It wasn’t the best grip, but it was a grip.
Pinching her eyes shut, she held on as tight as she dared, trying to not fall from the turn.
Her efforts were for naught. As soon as the turn started, she felt herself being thrown to the side. Like a roller coaster without a harness. But Izsha shifted part of the way into the turn, catching her, only to slow down a moment after.
As the turn down the new street completed, Alyssa opened her eyes momentarily. “Thank—” Alyssa’s eyes widened, realizing what the slight slowdown meant.
Izsha sprung forward, flying straight over Irulon. Alyssa felt herself falling backward. Having learned from the three other times this had happened, she squeezed her legs around the draken’s body as much as she could, barely holding herself in place. As soon as Izsha’s claws touched the ground again, it powered off, sprinting even faster than before. Amazingly enough, there was hardly a bump when transitioning from the air to the ground. It was the one good thing about draken; the raptors were smooth.
At least in motions, if not in body contours.
“It’s not a race,” Alyssa hissed as soon as she managed to find her voice. Despite how smooth the monster was, she kept her mouth mostly closed while talking, not wanting to bite off her own tongue. “Do you even know where we are going?”
Using its long neck, Izsha turned its head just enough for one yellow eye to look at Alyssa. It was only for a moment, but that look was enough.
“Left two streets down,” Alyssa said with a sigh. Or as much of a sigh as she could muster while moving at probably forty miles an hour. “Then an immediate right until you reach the shop with the big glass windows.”
Before Alyssa had even finished speaking, the draken leaped again. Slightly more ready for it, Alyssa didn’t feel like she would be falling off right away. That didn’t help the sudden feeling of her stomach dropping out from under her again. Izsha took the turn far sharper than it had the previous one, even placing one of its talons up on the wall of the corner building, using it as a springboard.
Alyssa pinched her eyes shut, hoping that, if she did get brained on some protruding brick, it would at least be quick. Also hoping that Tenebrael wouldn’t be able to eat her soul because she didn’t have one. A topic which Alyssa still didn’t know what to think about. Or rather, she had been deliberately trying to avoid thinking about her soul. There really wasn’t a point anyway. It wasn’t like knowing one way or another would suddenly change anything.
The rush of wind blowing Alyssa’s hair back slowed to a stop. Opening her eyes just enough to find out what was in front of her, she found herself staring at a reflection of herself riding the draken. A ruined reflection. The glass was broken, cut clean in two. It looked like someone had tried to clean up the mess the broken carboys had made, but it was a halfhearted effort. Tzheitza’s shop was dark inside, though there was light leaking from the slightly ajar backroom door. The familiar and unmoving sight made Alyssa sigh in relief. She immediately looked about in an attempt to figure out how to get off Izsha without breaking a leg, only to hesitate as she realized something.
“Where’s Irulon?” Izsha was the only draken in the area. There were still just over four hours left on the timer. While everything seemed well with Irulon, something could change easily in the time that remained. “Where’s Irulon?” she said again, turning in the saddle to try to see around her. Izsha helpfully complied, turning in the street just in time for Irulon to pop out from between two buildings, riding on the back of Musca.
The princess had a smile on, her fake smile that she wore around the Observatorium. From the spell tome chained to her hip, she retrieved one spell and pulled it out. The distance was too far to hear what the spell was, but the card vanished. A moment after, Irulon spoke with an unnatural volume. “This is the seventh princess, Irulon. Please don’t be alarmed and return to your routines, there is nothing worth noting occurring today.”
Alyssa glanced around again, startled. There were people about. Not many, but every single one of them was staring either at her or at the princess. And they didn’t look particularly happy either.
That’s right, I forgot.
The general public really did not like the draken. When Brakkt had been marching through the streets the night of the troll attack, the people had been far more upset with the draken in their city than whatever had mobilized the army. Would they try to attack? With the speed the draken could move at, she doubted that any human would be able to catch up to them if they ran for it. Especially because she doubted that what she had seen so far was their top sprinting speed. However, she had been just about ready to jump off and run inside the shop, leaving the draken out in the open streets. What would the draken do if attacked while left alone?
Probably cause a lot of problems.
Irulon and Musca moved forward in a prideful strut, Irulon wearing her smiling mask. She waved a hand like the Queen of England at the people who were still staring despite her proclamation. Though that smile slipped as she neared Alyssa. Her eyes flicked black momentarily before returning to their usual violet.
“Your heart rate is elevated and you’re sweating.”
Alyssa closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and stared at Irulon. “First of all, don’t leave my sight for at least half a day.”
“Ah yes, your trinket,” Irulon said, coming up closer. Musca snapped at Izsha, which the latter moved to avoid before returning a small gnashing of its teeth. The whole motion almost sent Alyssa to the ground, but Irulon continued speaking without even noticing. “I still wish to investigate it and its abilities, but that can wait for us to be in transit. We will have plenty of time to speak then.”
Ugh. Alyssa didn’t believe that for a minute. If the short journey from the palace to Tzheitza’s shop had been any indication, she would be far too busy holding on to talk. Not to mention the fear of biting off her own tongue.
Apparently reading her mind, Irulon gave what she likely thought was a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. Draken won’t be able to maintain that pace for extended periods of time.”
Alyssa just shook her head. “Secondly, are we in danger?” She gave a vague gesture to the nearest of the groups of people. An old man standing with someone who was likely his son, just staring with an angry look on their faces. The man looked to be missing a hand from the wrist down. A victim of a monster attack? That would explain why he looked angrier than anyone else around.
Irulon smiled and waved at the two, an action that had them scurrying inside what might have been their home. Turning to Alyssa, her smile turned to a frown. “They can’t hurt us. Even without using magic, I am certain that I am more than a force to be reckoned with for any human on this street. Civilians. None of them are trained in anything dangerous.”
“What happens when we go inside? The draken can’t follow through the door. Are they going to be alright out here?” Are the humans going to be alright with the draken out here?
“Everyone in the city knows that the draken are pets belonging to my brother,” Irulon said with clear sarcastic emphasis on them being pets. “If anyone tries anything, well, you’ll just get an early lunch, won’t you?” She rubbed a hand down Musca’s neck, apparently to the pleasure of the monster.
Not quite sure if Irulon was being serious or not, Alyssa pressed her lips together. “Why don’t we take them around back near the storage room door. At least they’ll be mostly out of sight.”
“I suppose it would be wise to avoid an incident that might delay us,” Irulon said in a matter of fact tone of voice. Swinging a leg over the side of Musca, she dismounted with all the grace of an Olympic gymnast and started walking to the back with the draken in tow.
Alyssa looked down. Despite Izsha not moving in the slightest, she felt her stomach drop yet again. All of a sudden, she felt like she was a lot higher off the ground than a few feet. Just how had Irulon gotten to the ground? She had swung her right leg over, then—
Left foot still in the stirrup, sliding down didn’t work so well. Alyssa let out a slight yelp as her back hit the ground. Groaning, she quickly became aware of intermittent blasts of hot breath hitting her in the face. Falling hadn’t hurt as much as it should have. There must have been some hidden padding in the thin clothing. But Izsha laughing at her? That was laughing, right? Not some sniffing to decide how tasty she might be. No. It was laughter. It had to be.
“It’s not funny,” Alyssa said, carefully pushing Izsha’s head away. “I could have broken my foot.” Keeping her hands away from those sharp teeth while doing so wasn’t easy, but the draken didn’t bite or even snap at her fingers the way Musca had done to Irulon. Why the princess wanted such a poorly tempered monster for a mount was anyone’s guess. Though she had also wanted the gaunt for a pet and had a dragon crammed into her head, so perhaps she just liked that sort of thing. And that wasn’t even taking into consideration her undead toys.
Kicking her foot out of the stirrup, glad it hadn’t snapped clean in two, Alyssa got to her feet and brushed herself off. Most of the dust and dirt didn’t even try sticking to the scales, but just enough did that it looked as if someone had speckled paint all over the black clothes. She hadn’t even left the city yet and she was already making a mess of things. Yet another reason that she really shouldn’t be running off.
Speaking of running off… Alyssa just realized that Irulon had, once again, disappeared from view. These next few hours were going to be an absolute nightmare if Irulon kept doing that. Before she could head around the building to follow, Irulon popped back around the front. The princess’ eyes flicked up and down Alyssa’s body, not even needing to turn black and white to tell what happened. But aside from a small smirk, she didn’t say anything about it.
“Musca found a rat to torture. Make sure she doesn’t run too far away, okay Izsha?”
The draken gave a surprisingly recognizable nod of its head before sauntering off to join its… sister? Brother? Fellow monster.
As soon as Izsha disappeared around the corner, Alyssa looked to Irulon. “I’ve never ridden a draken. Or a horse.”
Irulon didn’t even look back as she opened up the potion shop door. “I didn’t say anything at all.”
The moment they stepped into the shop, the back door flung open. Alyssa found herself struck with a strange sensation of déjà vu as Oz appeared in the door frame. Several expressions crossed his face in the span of only a few seconds. First, a mild excitement or maybe anticipation. He quickly narrowed his eyes upon seeing Alyssa, clearly not having wanted to see her at the moment. As soon as he caught sight of Irulon, those narrowed eyes went wide with shock.
“P-Princess?” he stuttered, looking like he was ready to throw himself to his knees. Perhaps remembering what had happened last time stalled him, because he managed to remain standing long enough for his companions to wander into view.
Déjà vu again.
“Oh. It’s the fairy girl.” Lumen popped into view with cards floating around her raised hand. She had already replaced the ones destroyed by the fireball. Or maybe she had just pulled more out of her own deck of cards. Whatever the case, Alyssa eyed them warily.
“No fairy this time,” Alyssa said as fast as she could, opening the satchel wide to show off the contents. “Please don’t try to laser me again.”
“Your spells… they look similar to spells we had back at home.”
“Hmph. Well. I reserve the right to destroy anything I perceive as a threat.”
And anything in the way, Alyssa thought with as neutral a look as she could manage, but she did not actually voice her complaint. The way Lumen hadn’t cared in the slightest about taking off her legs in her attempt to get to the fairy definitely left a sour taste behind. Maybe she had tried a little given how Alyssa had managed to avoid lasers, but it hadn’t been nearly satisfactory enough to the one whose legs had been in jeopardy.
Oz, apparently recovering from his shock at seeing Irulon, looked to Alyssa. “So what happened to it?”
“Well… it might have… mind controlled a captain of the guard and run off.”
“What was that? You were getting a bit quiet toward the end.”
“You were right, alright? I should have just crushed that little traitor’s head when I had the chance.” That might have been a bit much, but ugh. It hadn’t bothered her quite so much at the time, probably because of her worry over Irulon’s condition. Now that she was face to face with Oz and having to admit that he had been right about the fairy… Alyssa clenched her fists. It stung. Aside from a delay, and apparently a meal, the little monster would have been getting everything she had wanted from her deal with Alyssa.
The big issue came down to trust. Alyssa had trusted the fairy. The reverse had not been true. But even looking back, Alyssa hadn’t a clue how she could have changed her actions to have earned the fairy’s trust. One of the last few words the fairy had spoken to her had been about how she would never trust something that she couldn’t control. So perhaps Alyssa had been destined to fail from the beginning.
Oz’s hard face softened a little, glancing to the side with a small sigh. “Well, try not to worry yourself too much. Now you know not to get too close to a fairy. At least you escaped from its grasp.”
“I wasn’t being contr—”
“Maybe now you’ll listen to me about that mimic too and get rid of it before something unpleasant happens.”
“I’m not ‘getting rid’ of Kasita. I don’t even know where she is.” Which, while technically true, was somewhat misleading. Since Kasita had disappeared right after Alyssa had mounted Izsha, Alyssa assumed that Kasita was somewhere on her. Until Kasita showed herself, however, she could just as easily have stayed behind with Brakkt for some reason.
“Don’t blame me when you… get… Are… Are you wearing dragon hide?” Jaw going slack, he glanced over to Irulon. After gaping at her for a moment, he leaned over to Lumen. “Talk about friends in high places.”
The arcanist slammed her elbow into his stomach, for which Irulon nodded her head. “Thank you, Lumen.”
“Princess,” Lumen greeted with a far more respectful almost bow. “It is… good to see you again.”
They know each other? After getting over her reflexive surprise, Alyssa decided that them knowing each other made sense. Lumen didn’t look that old. Maybe aged somewhere between Irulon, who Alyssa pegged around eighteen to twenty, and Alyssa. So they probably knew each other from the Observatorium and, with their close ages, they might have even talked once. Probably not more than once given Irulon’s treatment of her peers, but that once was enough.
“If I may ask,” Lumen said, looking to Irulon, “what are you doing here? And with… She’s some kind of monster, you know. She cast several spells at once without speaking a word.”
“I’m not a… ugh. You people. All of you. Just… ugh.”
Irulon spoke with far more decorum than Alyssa had managed. “I am aware of what she is. Both she and her mimic,” she paused with a look to Oz, “saved my life last night.”
“Don’t say it like that,” Alyssa snapped. “You’ll cause misunderstandings. I am human.”
“Regardless,” Irulon said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “You are the team who accepted my brother’s guild request to investigate the fairy commune used in attacks against Lyria?”
Lumen and Oz glanced at each other before Oz turned back to Irulon, nodding his head slowly. “Yeah. That’s us. Well, us and Catal. He stepped out for a moment. Something wrong?”
“A fairy entered the city last night.” Both sets of eyes turned to Alyssa as Irulon spoke. “Brought in by the Society of the Burning Shadow, I’m sure you’ve heard of them. What you may not be aware of is the attack on the palace last night. Naturally, the royal family cannot allow an attack against us to go unpunished. As such, I will be attaching myself to your party to ensure completion of this quest.”
“Uh. I don’t mean to be rude—”
“You will still be receiving full pay. The details of your mission have not changed. I will not need protection as I am more than capable of defending myself—” except from a gaunt, Alyssa mentally interjected “—and Alyssa will be handling my defense for anything else.”
Alyssa snapped her head over to the side. “I’ll be what?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Irulon said as an aside. “Are you all prepared to depart?”
“Our gear is packed and our horses are ready at the stables. We were just waiting on Catal to return.”
“You were looking for Tzheitza when I was here a few hours ago,” Alyssa said. “Did she ever show up?”
“Hearing that there could be plague on the loose, Catal went back to the guild hall to let some people know.”
Irulon looked between Alyssa and Oz. “Plague?”
“Next to Madame Webb’s shop. The building adjacent to the shop had a metal grate boarding it up, though it was broken. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but Tzheitza ran off after I mentioned it to her. It’s been almost a full day since then. I hope she’s alright.”
And, Alyssa realized, nearly a full day since I last slept. All the excitement and adrenaline had been keeping her going. Now that she was calmly standing about, she could feel that ache in the back of her mind. Would she be traveling all day long? Longer? Staying awake for twenty-four hours wasn’t that big a deal—in fact, she was almost used to it. She could probably continue as she was for another hour or two. But longer than that? Soon enough, her coordination would take a sharp dive. Her speech would slur worse than if she was drunk. That was assuming she didn’t simply collapse.
“I have some things to pack in my room before we leave,” Alyssa said. A little quieter, she added to Irulon, “And, if possible, I wouldn’t mind a brief rest before we head out.”
Irulon looked her over, from foot to the top of her head. After a moment, she nodded. “We won’t be traveling all day. The desert gets too hot while the sun is out. You can last for another four to six hours.”
“Maybe. But as long as we’re waiting, I wouldn’t mind closing my eyes.”
“It is easier to remain awake than it is to wake from an interrupted sleep.”
The princess might have the right of it there. Power naps were nice, but they typically happened between regular sleep cycles. If she tried to nap now, waking up would leave her with a nasty headache and likely quite groggy. “Point conceded. I still need to grab the rest of my ammo, sunglasses, a first-aid kit… a bunch of stuff. Just shout for me when Catal comes back. Or if Tzheitza returns. If I don’t respond, sorry, fell asleep anyway. You’ll have to wake me up.”
“If you insist. I will remain here and attempt to determine whether Lumen’s skills have risen with her time in the guild or if they have fallen to the level of her companion.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Alyssa said, trying to suppress a yawn as she moved toward Oz and Lumen. She wasn’t so sleepy that she didn’t notice them tense at her approach, but they didn’t try to attack her so she tried to ignore it. It wasn’t like they were wholly unjustified in their caution given that Alyssa had just paraded about a mind controlling monster. And had technically attacked them earlier even if she hadn’t hurt them.
Alyssa actually jumped as Oz ran his hand from her shoulder to her elbow. She whirled and glared.
“Sorry,” he said, pulling his hands to himself. “It’s just… dragon scales. Never thought I’d touch them.”
Frowning, Alyssa glanced down at her outfit, brushing her bare fingers over the scales while trying to be subtle and casual about it. Were they really that special? They didn’t feel like it, but she had an exceedingly poor grasp on what was valuable and what wasn’t in this world. “Just tell me before you reach out and grab me next time, alright?”
“Sure thing,” he said, smiling. Though his smile wasn’t quite all there. Perhaps he was still upset about getting waylaid along with his team.
Really, she wasn’t going to apologize for defending herself. But… “Sorry about the fairy thing.”
Not wanting to get drawn into a long conversation with him or Lumen at the moment, Alyssa headed to her room before either of them could respond.
The second she sat down on her bed, Kasita popped out of the woodwork, looking like a sister Alyssa had never had. “So, you’re going to kill all the fairies?”
“I don’t know about that. But the humans need to stop using them like they are. Oxart needs rescuing. And they eat people? I don’t like that. Especially when they mind control those same people. And you, for that matter.”
Kasita lost her mild smile, even going so far as to frown. “I don’t know how you managed to ignore the fairy. Like, I wanted to attack you, but at the same time, I didn’t want to attack you. It was… strange.”
“Yeah. I got a dose of it when I first bumped into the fairy. Sorry about using Desecrate Spells near you again.”
“Not a problem. Better than being its slave. No permanent harm done.”
“Back to what we were talking about: If the fairies were sitting in their village and weren’t being used, I doubt I would have much problem with them. So if we rescue Oxart and stop the Society of the Burning Shadow from using them, I won’t care much if they sit around in their village forever. The problem is a question of how to stop an organization from using a resource, especially one that has proved useful in their attacks on this city. Also, I doubt Irulon or the others will just walk away from the village like nothing is wrong. Irulon in particular is acting… strange. I obviously don’t know her that well, but I think nearly getting killed might have scared her a bit more than she is showing.”
“Well, I can’t comment on that.”
“How about on the fairies? What would you do?”
Kasita leaned back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. The brief silence wasn’t particularly uncomfortable. Rather, Alyssa had come to enjoy Kasita’s company. Most of the time, anyway. It was a little weird how she had decided to stick with a face so similar to Alyssa’s, but not enough to warrant complaining about it. Eventually, Kasita looked back down. “I hold no love for things that take away my sense of self. I am who I am. At the same time, I suppose I would be disappointed if they were to die. If only out of some misplaced kinship toward my fellow monsters.”
That seemed reasonable enough. Though… “You didn’t have much problem shooting the shadow assassins. And you sure ran quick from the gaunt.”
Kasita shrugged. “There are monsters, then there are monsters. The distinction is important to make. I’ve truly never interacted with fairies much before meeting you. Then again, I’ve never interacted with shadow assassins either. Having a normal face makes fairies seem more personable, but maybe I should reevaluate who gets placed where.”
“Well, whatever happens, I don’t know that we can make much of a decision at the moment. Ask me again when we have a better grasp of the situation.”
For now, I need to pack.