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Alyssa blinked her eyes open at the sound of shuffling feet, finding herself staring at the white walls of the hemp tent. It wasn’t her tent, Oz had assured her that several guests would be able to fit within the tent he was bringing, and he had been right. The draken could have fit in with little difficulty. Not that anyone wanted them inside. Even Izsha, who had been quite kind in how it treated her and her inexperience, still unnerved Alyssa just enough that sleeping with it would have resulted in exceedingly little sleep actually had. Not that the thin woven walls would stop much of anything that wanted to tear through them. Still, it was the degree of separation that mattered.

Though they wouldn’t have bothered with a tent at all had they not been concerned about rain, something that apparently happened in the desert on occasion much to Alyssa’s surprise. The clouds in the distance had Catal worried, hence the tent. It wasn’t a happy sort of moistening rain though, instead frequently causing flash floods and other hazards, which was the main reason they had picked out a bit of elevated terrain. Rain also explained the swimming-pool-sized-waterhole that sat in the shadow of the rock formation they had made camp under. Alyssa really hadn’t taken the time to look around her surroundings all that much. The second the tent was setup, she had unrolled her sleeping bag and decided to take just a quick rest. She was fairly certain that the others had made some sort of meal for themselves and likely had set up people to take watch while the others slept, but her quick rest…

Well, she was waking up now. She would apologize and offer to take first watch next time.

Sitting up, she wiped the gunk from her eyes as she blearily glanced around. Irulon slept a few paces off on her own, wrapped up in a blanket made of some kind of fur. Animal hide, probably. Maybe monster hide? It looked soft and far too warm for the desert heat that easily penetrated the tent’s walls.

Lumen and Catal slept a short distance to Alyssa’s side. Both were lying on some bit of hide, but neither had blankets as Irulon did. Oz was nowhere to be seen, but Alyssa heard it again. A sound of footsteps dashing back and forth outside the tent. He must be the one on watch, but what was with the sound? Maybe it was one of the draken or the horses. Or… could he be in trouble.

Alyssa grabbed her pistols from where they lay just to the side of her sleeping bag—as tired as she had been, she did have the presence of mind to remove them before sleeping; accidentally shooting herself in her sleep would be a tragic way to go after surviving something like the Taker. Both hands on her gun and finger on the safety, Alyssa carefully stepped over Lumen’s sleeping form and moved the tent’s flap aside.

Ten paces from the tent, Oz swung his sword left, then right, then thrust it forward. Droplets of sweat flew through the air as he threw himself to one side before sweeping his sword toward Alyssa’s direction—

A burning tore its way across her stomach, freeing her innards. Red jelly slopped to the floor.

Alyssa clamped her hand over her mouth, fighting back a sudden wave of nausea. She couldn’t throw up. Not here, not now. Oz was nowhere near her. Even after that dash to the side, he was still eight paces away. Far too far to actually hit her. She hadn’t been hit by a sword.

More importantly, Oz was clearly fighting something. He jumped back, falling into a quick roll before springing back to his feet. With a grunt, he thrust his sword forward. Whatever he was trying to hit wasn’t there anymore. What was it? A shadow assassin? Some other invisible monster? The horses were leashed up to a peg that had been hammered into the rock formation. None of them looked panicked, though they were watching Oz as they lay on their sides. The draken weren’t even awake. Both were sleeping practically on top of each other with their heads nuzzled together not far from the horses. Would they just let him die fighting for his life ten feet away?

Probably, actually.

Why was Kasita never around when she was needed?

Alyssa half turned, about to quietly—so as to not spook whatever monster was fighting Oz—wake up Lumen, Catal, and Irulon. But something made her pause.

Oz sighed, letting the tension in his muscles drop. After rolling his head from side to side, he slid his sword back into its sheath. What now? Had a fairy gotten to him? She couldn’t see one nearby and knew from the fairy that she had encountered that they had to be close, but magic could do all sorts of insane things. Invisibility the least among them. Tzheitza had said that even the fairy village would be invisible.

Staying where she was to watch him more, she frowned as he walked up to the waterhole. What was he going to do now, poison it? That wouldn’t work on her—she had plenty of water bottles and a canteen in her backpack, plus whatever the Black Prince had packed on Izsha for her. She would have to warn the others, though.

But he didn’t move to dump anything into it. He grabbed a rough metal pot by the handle that had been lying nearby, scooped up a small cup of water, and dumped it right over his head. He was… cooling himself off? But…

Something brushed up against Alyssa’s back, making her jump and practically fall out of the tent in her haste to put distance between it and her. Lumen stood in her recently vacated spot, looking down at Alyssa with amusement riddling her features.

“Got your eye on Oz, do you?” she asked with a soft, short laugh. “You’re out of luck. I don’t think you’re his type.”

“What? No. I—”

Lumen stepped around Alyssa with barely another glance, calling to Oz. “I hope you were keeping a watch for anything that wanted to kill us in our sleep and not swinging about your silly stick again, Oz.”

He jumped slightly, running his hand through his red hair to sweep the dripping strands back over his head. “‘Course I was. On watch, that is. Not the other thing. I mean, I was, but it was just a little training to keep my senses sharp.”

“Uh huh,” Lumen scoffed, shaking her head as she walked off. She said a few quiet words to Oz before disappearing around the side of the rock formation. Where exactly, Alyssa didn’t know, but imagined that Lumen needed a little privacy first thing in the morning.

But…

Training? That had been training? Ugh. She had been all worried about him fighting nothing but the air? Alyssa felt like slamming her face against the wall. It was a good thing she hadn’t called out to everyone in the tent. Lumen woke up, but if she had pulled everyone out of their much needed sleep for a fat lot of nothingUgh.

“Kasita,” Alyssa called out softly. “Kasita, are you around?”

“Always.”

Alyssa did not jump at the voice coming from her back. If anything, it had been expected. How many times had Kasita suddenly shown up behind her or to her sides? Enough that she was starting to get used to it. So she just calmly turned and spoke softly. “There aren’t any monsters around, are there?”

Kasita, wearing her sisterly visage, raised an eyebrow.

Which just had Alyssa rolling her eyes. “Aside from the obvious,” she said, gesturing between the mimic and the draken. “I mean like shadow assassins or invisible fairies.”

“I don’t see any… Ufu~ You didn’t think he was—”

“Not a word to anybody.”

Alyssa just shook her head as the stupid mimic had a giggle with herself. “I’m going to figure out what I can eat and then… depending on how much time we have before we start traveling again, would you like to make some spell cards with me?”

The giggling cut off abruptly. Her eyes flicked downward for a moment. “Your hands are fixed, you don’t need me.”

“That will just mean that you aren’t doing all the work. You can still take some of the spells. In fact, it will be reassuring to have you at my back able to do more than just scare or distract possible enemies. Just… I trust you. Believe it or not, I do.”

Kasita smiled a unique smile. Most of the time, she had an air of amusement about her which her frequent tittering laughter only served to emphasize. This was a genuine smile. Alyssa was having trouble remembering a smile like that on Kasita. Enrique the elf had showed off true happiness while being freed from her chains, but Kasita always looked as if she were expecting someone to stab her in the back, regardless of how much damage she would actually take from such an attack. The closest she had come had likely been when Alyssa first told her that she could have some spells if she helped draw them.

Which, thinking about it, might paint her sudden bad mood immediately after Tenebrael appeared in a slightly different light. Alyssa had thought that she was upset about being rushed away to save Irulon without being told anything about Tenebrael. But she could have easily been put off by Alyssa’s sudden healing and apparent lack of need for an assistant.

Still, she was smiling now. And that was the important thing. It was somewhat surprising how natural the smile looked, especially with Irulon’s apparent troubles doing the same thing. Then again, a mimic wouldn’t be a very good mimic if it couldn’t blend in with humans. Now that she was thinking about it, maybe it was too natural.

“You know,” Kasita said, “you’re not so bad. For a human. If that’s what you are.” She definitely had some teasing in her voice.

Alyssa rolled her eyes, putting thoughts of the smile out of her mind. She already knew Kasita was a mimic, whether or not the smile looked exactly right or just flawed enough didn’t matter. It was the feeling behind it. “Everyone I meet seems to think I’m some monster or other, so might as well get along with you guys.”

“If it makes you feel better, I believe that you’re human.”

“Gee. Thanks.” Pulling out her phone, Alyssa checked the time. An hour until nightfall. Most of their movement would likely be overnight. Copying spells once night hit would be difficult, but she had flashlights and night vision spells. While riding would be impossible. It would be good to find out exactly when the others were planning on moving again. Until then…

“You were watching me explain how to use the phone to Irulon, right?” At Kasita’s nod, Alyssa quickly tapped a few things. “While I eat, if you could take a picture of all these cards,” she said, pulling out the decks she had stolen from Morgan and the other Society of the Burning Shadow infiltrators. “I already have a few of them, you can see the gallery right here, but it’s fine if there are duplicates. If you know what the spell is, you can label it like this. Once done, grab my satchel and start copying whatever you think looks good to have copies you can cast.”

After making sure that Kasita’s quasi-illusory fingers could actually work the touch screen, Alyssa left her to it. She started toward Oz, but hesitated. They had their own food, right? The guild likely carried more food than they thought that they needed, but not enough for two unplanned people. Irulon’s brother had prepared food specifically for the two of them. And what about the draken? Did they need to eat? One of the horses was chomping down on some of the plant life that was growing around the miniature oasis, but the draken were surely obligate carnivores.

Maybe it would be best to wake Irulon. The princess probably wanted her beauty sleep, but Alyssa wasn’t feeling too confident in approaching the draken. Izsha maybe, but Musca had nearly taken Irulon’s hand off yesterday. Besides, Irulon would surely want to get up and get ready to go.

Right. Plan in mind, Alyssa headed back into the tent. She crept around the sleeping Catal—Oz or Lumen could be in charge of waking him—and paused next to Irulon… and hesitated again. Irulon didn’t have any sharp blades as far as Alyssa knew, but she had her spell card tome in her hands. Would she have a knee-jerk reaction to being woken? Heading back to the draken was looking a little more appealing now. Between dinosaurs and dragons, Alyssa would take her chances with the former. Except, Irulon’s mind worked fast enough that surely she wouldn’t curse the first person who touched her while she slept… Right?

“Irulon,” Alyssa said, voice barely above a whisper. “Princess? Princess Irulon.” Her voice was getting louder, but still the princess didn’t react. Except for her breathing, Irulon didn’t so much as twitch. Kneeling, Alyssa stretched out a hand. It felt like sticking her hand in a lion’s mouth, but her fingers brushed against Irulon’s bare shoulder—unlike Alyssa, Irulon had removed her dragon hide armor prior to sleeping, apparently. As soon as her fingers made contact, Alyssa pulled back, half expecting the princess’ hand to latch on to her extended wrist.

But Irulon still didn’t move.

With a little more confidence, Alyssa nudged Irulon to no effect. Growing frustrated, Alyssa started resorting to slightly more extreme measures. She started out with a light shake to Irulon’s shoulder, poked her cheek hard enough to turn her head to the side, flicked her ears, and ended with a heavier shake. All to no effect.

How could she possibly sleep this deeply?

Just this morning, Irulon had been freaking out about the possibility of her blood getting in someone’s hands, but who needed to try roundabout methods of acquiring blood when they could just walk up to her and slit her throat. She was one hundred percent defenseless. How much did Irulon trust those around her? Even with as tired as Alyssa had been, she still felt like she had slept with one eye open.

Maybe she was just that exhausted. Irulon, this real version of her anyway, had been in stasis for most of the night. That didn’t mean that it hadn’t been a harrowing night for her. She had been effectively stabbed several times thanks to the gaunt. True, she hadn’t run around the city picking fights with pretty much everyone short of the Taker as Alyssa had, but it had still not been the best of times to be the princess.

A small part of Alyssa wondered what had happened to the gaunt. In leaving the city, they went right past the Waterhole on Alyssa’s request—she had figured that the draken would be quick enough to escape from anything unpleasant and she had wanted to see what had happened; the entire building had been burned down. The gaunt had been nowhere to be seen. It was too slow to have gone with the fairy, so it had likely found a spot to hide out. Outside the fairy’s influence, it would likely remain dormant for some time so long as everything Kasita and Irulon had said about them was true. Alyssa had personally watched it eat one person and if that had been the only one, she would eat her hat.

As for Irulon, Alyssa stood and left the tent. The princess could sleep at least as long as Catal. And what did Alyssa need Irulon for anyway? She was an adult. She had been camping several times before with her family. She could get her own food. The draken saddles weren’t even on the draken at the moment—another thing Alyssa would need to apologize for, having left Irulon and the others to take care of practically everything.

With renewed determination to not become overly dependent on Irulon for absolutely every little thing, Alyssa set about her morning rituals. Except it was evening, but still… There weren’t any showers around, obviously, but she did grab a spare rag that she had used on her way to Lyria and wiped herself down a bit. Just enough to stay mildly hygienic while avoiding contaminating what was likely the drinking water as much as possible. For provisions, she managed to grab a small roll of thick bread and a slice of extremely salty jerky. The taste beneath the salt was almost sweet. She wasn’t sure what animal the jerky had come from and she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know.

By the time she had finished her meal and wandered over to where Kasita knelt next to a flatish rock, the mimic had finished taking pictures of all the cards. There really weren’t that many unique cards despite the deck being about as thick as a normal card deck. Lots of fireballs, several Spectral Chains, a handful of more mundane utility spells such as Light and Flame. A few other Fire and Death spells, but nothing of a particularly high rank or unique effect. Neither of the decks she had stolen this time had Recall in them—a spell she couldn’t use anyway without drawing her own recall point and offering it a drop of blood.

Though she hadn’t looked through Irulon’s tome, Lumen’s deck of cards, or Oxart’s tome, all three looked far thicker than even the two decks she had retrieved from their owners. Given Irulon’s Fractal magic, those laser beams that Lumen had been using—and the floating card trick—and even Oxart’s Subjugation—although one of the Society members had used that last one—it really painted a poor picture of the Society of the Burning Shadow’s arcane prowess.

All spell cards had angelic runes on them. Considering their apparent hatred of Tenebrael, perhaps it was more surprising that they used magic at all. But then, they had to use magic unless the Juno Federation had learned how to light fires on their own. It had Alyssa wondering if there was some theological backstory regarding magic’s existence. She could imagine it all too easily: And then the great and wonderful Tenebrael descended to the people, granting them the gift of magic so they might light their nights and cook their meals.

With a sardonic shake of her head, she peered over Kasita’s shoulder, wondering which spell the mimic had chosen to copy. What she saw brought her up short. “Desecrate Spells? Is that a good idea for you to have? I mean, I don’t want to tell you what you can and can’t do, but you haven’t had the best of reactions to it in the past.”

“Ufu~ While looking through the spells you had in your phone, I thought long about which I wanted. Your first use of Desecrate Spells in my presence was an accident, I understand. The second time was out of desperation—which worked out quite well for us. It is a useful spell. I don’t like being taken out, however temporary that might be. But then I got to thinking: Irulon says that spells like this shouldn’t work on a monster’s natural abilities, which my illusory forms are. You say that magic acts odd around you. So maybe, should the need arise while I’m nearby again, I’ll cast Desecrate Spells. Though we should test to ensure I don’t hurt myself with it first.”

“That’s… actually a decent plan.” If anyone ever had that Projectile Reflection spell on them, Desecrate Spells was an amazing counter to it that would allow her full use of her guns again. But if Kasita was around, she couldn’t use it without hurting the mimic. As Kasita had mentioned, it wasn’t a permanent harming, but she still wanted to avoid it if possible. Especially because she still didn’t know how Suppress Magic worked when she cast it. It was a spell with temporary effects, so she probably could Suppress Magic long enough for Desecrate Spells to wear off, but she still would rather have Irulon cast it around Kasita if possible.

“I’m glad you think so. I also want to test my limits. You humans and your ranking system seems awfully arbitrary—”

“Not me humans. Those humans,” Alyssa said, waving a hand toward Lumen near the waterhole and the tent. “I had no part of this magic thing until a month ago.”

“Regardless, I want to find out where I stand on the scale. With my use of Contract, I know I can cast at least Rank Three. What rank was Loophole again? Four? Or was it five? So I should be able to cast this, but other spells might be interesting to try,” Kasita said, waving the fountain pen toward the phone and half-drawn card.

“I don’t know that I have many advanced spells. The ones I have from the Observatorium are all Rank Three or lower. Not particularly useful ones at that—I mean, relatively. Draw Water seems like a great ability to have on reserve, especially if it can be used for less obvious uses. But for higher rank spells… I kind of want to get access to Irulon’s spell tome. Maybe Lumen’s too, though I don’t think she likes me very much.”

“Ufufu~ Introducing yourself by burning her spells and tying her up probably isn’t the best way to make friends.”

“Ah. I had been wondering what I was doing wrong back home. But I just don’t know how to get people sticking around and listening to me without the rope.”

Kasita giggled just enough to let Alyssa know that her joke hadn’t fallen completely flat… or maybe it had. Kasita did giggle at an awful lot of things. Oh well. Kasita was good humored enough to not make a big deal about it.

Alyssa just about sat down to help out before realizing one minor problem with both of them working at the same time. “That’s my only pen.”

“No it isn’t. You forget I’ve been inside your bags. Literally. They might look a little strange, but I recognize the function of those tubes you carry with you.”

“Irulon said that the ink used for spell crafting has some added treatment compared to the ink used for general scribing. I can’t imagine pens from my world have had that same treatment. They all have their own internal ink too, so I can’t just dip them into the inkwell.” Even if she could, she would probably end up leaving large ink blots all over any card she tried to make. The fountain pen was weird enough to write with as it was, but at least it could be filled like a modern pen.

“If you want me to hand it over…” How Kasita knew how to use pens was anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was part of her innate disguise abilities. Perhaps she had disguised herself as a scribe for a time.

“No. No. Keep doing what you’re doing.” A movement from the tent caught Alyssa’s eye. Catal, with an enormous yawn on his face, lumbered out from the flaps. Before his yawn had subsided, he was looking around. First at the draken, which put a small scowl on his face, then to a whispering Oz and Lumen. He glared in Alyssa’s direction—or rather, in Kasita’s direction—before heading off toward his guild companions. “I should probably see if Irulon has woken up yet, or wake her up if she hasn’t. The draken can probably catch up to the horses without any problem if the others decide to leave ahead of us, but I would prefer if we all stick together.”

“I wouldn’t mind if they… disappeared. If you don’t think the arcanist likes you, you should have seen the looks she was giving me while you were tiptoeing around the draken to get your food.”

Alyssa looked over to find all three of the guild knights looking in her direction. Oz quickly glanced to one side. Catal did a moment after. Lumen kept up her glare long enough for Alyssa to feel uncomfortable. “Just,” she started, pausing to sigh. “Just try not to start anything. I’d really rather us not fight with each other. Don’t worry too much. The princess is on your side, after all. They… probably won’t go against Irulon.

“Speaking of, I’m going to go wake her. Call for help if anything happens.”

Leaving Kasita to continue her drawing, Alyssa headed to the tent. She walked in, calling out softly, entirely unaware of the monster she was trying to rouse.

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