“‘Tess, my bath? Tess, please prepare my meal. Extra meat today, I think. My clothes, Tess. Oh Tess, dress me.’”
“Will you desist.”
To say that Irulon sounded a little annoyed would be an understatement, but Alyssa couldn’t help it. She chuckled. While awake, the princess acted stern and focused. That wasn’t to say that she couldn’t laugh, but they were often serious sorts of laughs. Or cruel sorts of laughs. It was hard to tell the difference sometimes. But half asleep…
First of all, Irulon slept heavier than anyone Alyssa had ever seen. Nothing she had tried elicited a reaction in the slightest, from nudging Irulon to shaking her to pinching her nose shut. Alyssa had considered slapping the princess, but it would probably have been her first time ever being slapped and Alyssa didn’t want to die. Assuming Irulon even noticed the slapping, that was. Something Alyssa was still unsure about.
It had taken dipping her fingers in water and flicking it on Irulon’s face before the princess reacted. And that was only just barely a reaction. Her eyes had stayed closed, but her mouth had started moving. Alyssa, in her mocking tone, might not have gotten everything the princess had said verbatim, but it had been close enough. Irulon hadn’t so much as opened her eyes until Alyssa upended a tin of water on the princess’ face. Even after that, it had looked like she might head back to sleep had she not noticed her surroundings, lurched forward, and just about slammed her forehead into Alyssa’s.
Now, Irulon wouldn’t even turn her head in Alyssa’s direction. She hid deep within the pages of another tome, barely glancing up as she read through the text. Which was actually an improvement over her glares immediately after waking. For a while there, Alyssa had felt as if her life was in danger. Had Alyssa not saved the princess’ life just the night before, it might actually have been in danger.
Shaking her head with a small smile—she never would have believed how dependent Irulon was on her personal attendant—Alyssa looked around the desert scenery. The sun had set, but she could see perfectly thanks to the Night Vision spell. She had been a little worried about traveling at night, but now was wondering why people even bothered with light producing spells and potions. Well, not actually wondering. Light was a Rank Zero spell, meaning that anyone with even the slightest ability in magic could use it. Night Vision was surprisingly highly ranked at Four. And potions could be used by anyone.
As for the desert itself… well, there wasn’t much around that she hadn’t seen yesterday. Lots of dirt, lots of rocks, lots of rock formations, and lots of sagebrush and other small deserty plants. Irulon rode Musca just a short distance away, pointedly ignoring Alyssa. Kasita was hiding somewhere. Oz and company were, again, keeping their distance a few dozen feet back. She couldn’t see the palace anymore, which was a minor indicator of how far they had traveled, but she had actually lost sight of it yesterday well before they had stopped.
Despite the surreal aspects of riding on the back of a dinosaur to rescue someone from being eaten by a fairy, it really was an incredibly mundane experience. A lot like a long road trip. As much as she could appreciate the natural beauty of the scenery, it really didn’t change much minute-to-minute or even by the hour. Worse, there were no gas stations or fast food restaurants. The jerky and bread hadn’t been inedible. Eating nothing but them for weeks… was not something she was looking forward to. Even on the way to Lyria, she had eaten with people in their homes, having what they would be having for dinner. Often it hadn’t been anything especially tasty compared to Earth foods, but the variety had been a welcome break from that stale travel bread.
There were no towns or villages in the desert. Not human ones, anyway. An ant colony lived not too far from where she was now. The fairies had their oasis commune another day or few to the north. Apparently there were lizard people somewhere in the desert, somewhat like Rizk by Irulon’s description, though hopefully not quite so hostile should they make an appearance.
In all honesty, Alyssa wasn’t really interested in meeting any monsters at the moment. She just couldn’t envision any way that a monster encounter would turn out well. The guild knights she was traveling with would almost certainly be immediately hostile with no time for negotiation or discussion. From the opposite side of things, it was doubtful that monsters would be too happy with a bunch of humans charging through their territory. Riding through claimed territory was still not nearly as bad as stopping in it would be. Oz—Or rather, the guild had a map of the desert with known territories sketched out, so they should be able to avoid such troubles. At least so long as nothing had changed since the maps were made. Alyssa wanted to snap a picture of it, but hadn’t really worked up the nerve to actually talk to Oz, Lumen, or Catal for any length of time since leaving Lyria.
She should talk to them. Things were just… awkward. None of them liked her, or Kasita, or the draken. She wasn’t even sure they were all that pleased with Irulon. And not just because of the princess’ mildly abrasive personality, but rather because of her association with monsters. Except for Oz, they probably wouldn’t have liked Alyssa much even had she not brought a fairy around them and fought back when they attacked her. Kasita alone would have ensured that, but bringing along the draken did nothing to help.
Musca jerked off to the side, nearly making Irulon lose her tome as she had to grab the lip of the saddle. Izsha followed, though she took the turn in a more gentle curve. That took them off at an angle from where they had been traveling before.
“What? What is it?” Alyssa looked around. They had been traveling in a straight line since leaving their camp. Or straight enough that she couldn’t tell if it hadn’t been laser straight or slightly curved. Behind her, Oz was looking just as confused as she felt. Neither he nor the others had turned to follow, still moving forward on their original path. “Irulon?”
The princess didn’t respond straight away. Having lost her position in her book thanks to the sudden movements of Musca, she slid the tome into the saddlebag before staring around. Her eyes started straight ahead of where they were now moving toward before turning to the side to observe their old path. Turning slightly, she looked down at Musca then back at Izsha. During the few seconds she was turned back, Alyssa caught a glimpse of her eyes—once again all black except for those thin white lines. “I think,” Irulon said, “they smelled something. And if it is food, I am going to be extremely displeased. I’m speaking to you, Musca.” Balling her fist, she tapped Musca on the back of its neck with enough force that it bordered on being a punch.
The draken didn’t like that. Musca kept moving forward, but it turned its head to the side, snapping at the air. It continued forward, increasing its speed. Izsha sped up to keep pace, feet hammering into the ground far harder than before. The formerly smooth ride turned to something a bit less comfortable as Alyssa found herself holding on to the edges of the saddle just like Irulon was. Once again, Alyssa couldn’t help but wish the designers had added some handlebars to the saddle.
Pulling out her binoculars, Alyssa tried to see for herself what they might be heading toward. Night vision combined with binoculars was really something special. She could see perfectly, even in places that she shouldn’t be able to. For example, one of the pillaring rock formations had a heavy overhang that, with normal lighting, would be cast in a heavy shadow. Alyssa could see every detail of the stone inside. She had already dismissed the reason why everyone didn’t use Night Vision, but it made her wonder why everyone with the ability didn’t always wander around with the spell active. Perhaps it had long-term detrimental effects on vision. Something to ask Irulon about before using it constantly.
As for where the draken were now headed, Alyssa couldn’t see much of anything but dirt and sagebrush. She couldn’t actually see all that far. The desert was relatively flat, save for the jutting rock formations, but it wasn’t flat enough. Even with the minor elevation from being on Izsha, it was nowhere near the distance she could see from the walls of Lyria. The city was almost on a hill of its own, giving it a great view of its surroundings.
She just about put her binoculars down, but stopped when she saw it. At first, she thought it was just a small mound of dirt out on the horizon. Except it had long strands at both ends. Dark, thin strings. It took her a minute, but as soon as her mind made the connection, it clicked. The strands were hair. A dark mane ran down the neck and a tail sprouted from the opposite end.
Irulon glanced back momentarily, eyed the binoculars, then turned back forward. “Hm. Any sign of our wayward captain?”
“I don’t think so. The horse looks dead… or sleeping. It isn’t moving either way. I don’t see anyone else around it.”
“Is it breathing?”
“Too far to tell.”
“This is a lot closer than I would have expected to find a toppled horse. The fairy must have been pushing it as hard as it could go.”
“Are there no feral horse packs living in the desert that this might be from?”
“Too much of a coincidence to find one randomly in the same direction we were chasing the fairy and captain.” Irulon looked back much further than she had before, nearly turning fully in the saddle. “Inform the guild of what lies in this direction. If they do not wish to follow, that is fine. The draken will catch up to them after we have inspected the area.” Looking forward once again, she snapped out a simple command. “Musca!”
The draken underneath the princess jumped ahead, barely getting off the ground but managing to put all its energy into the horizontal movement. At the same time, Izsha started to slow and turn back toward Oz and the other horse mounted knights. Oz, noticing her approach first, angled his horse slightly in her direction while slowing down. The other two brought their horses to a dead stop.
“Where is Princess Irulon headed?” Oz called out as soon as they were close enough. “If she continues in that direction too long, she’s going to run into a hive.”
“The draken smelled a downed horse in this direction,” she said, thumbing over her shoulder. “It might be the one we’re looking for. If you want, you can continue toward the commune. The draken should be able to catch up after we’ve inspected the area. I or Irulon will send a Message if a trail leads off anywhere but the direction of the commune.”
“That’s the horse that was carrying your pet fairy and the guard captain?”
“Probably. I could barely see it even with my binoculars. Hence the inspection.”
“You let Princess Irulon go off alone to where we suspect a fairy might be?” He sounded upset now. Not angry, but agitated and worried.
And for a moment, Alyssa started. But… “If I can throw off a fairy’s control, I’m sure Irulon can.” Unless that was yet another weird quirk of magic that interacted with her. Except it couldn’t be. Irulon’s older brother had broken free from a fairy much faster than Alyssa had back on the Brechen Overlook. If he could do it, surely Irulon could. She had a whole dragon shoved in her head to help out.
“Even if you and she can,” he said, pointing a finger. “What about your… lovely scaled friends?” He pulled back his hand to pat his horse on the side of its neck halfway through speaking. Both of them looked rather nervous all of a sudden. The horse even reared back, forcing Oz to take hold of the reins and whisper into its ear.
Sitting behind Izsha’s head, Alyssa couldn’t see what the draken was doing, but it clearly had an effect. Regarding Oz’s question, she honestly didn’t know the answer. Irulon would have presumably considered such a thing. In fact, it might even be the reason they were using draken rather than horses. Alyssa couldn’t imagine a horse having more mental fortitude than the obviously intelligent monsters. Thinking about it now, she was actually more worried that Oz and the rest of the guild might fall prey to a fairy well before Alyssa or Irulon or even the draken. They had been the ones worried when Alyssa showed up with one in her pocket.
Then again, they knew they were going after a fairy commune. Surely the guild wouldn’t have selected people too susceptible to a fairy’s control. Perhaps Lumen had some magic that would keep their minds safe and they just hadn’t had the time to cast it when Alyssa popped in unexpectedly with one in tow. That made far more sense than the guild sending a bunch of rookies to get themselves eaten.
Alyssa started to ask, but Oz started talking first.
“We better make sure the princess doesn’t come to harm. It isn’t our job, but I doubt we’ll get much prestige if we let her run off into an ant hive on her own.”
“I’ll head back with Izsha and make sure she doesn’t do anything foolish.” Using the stirrups, Alyssa pushed herself just a little higher in the saddle to see around Oz. Both of his companions were stalled a fair distance back. It was possible that they could hear from their position, but also possible that they couldn’t. She wasn’t exactly shouting, after all. “If you want to inform your friends for me… I don’t think they like me too much.”
He glanced back himself with a bit of a grimace. “That stunt you pulled with the fairy did not impress them. And how you cast spells. And the company you keep,” he added, flicking his eyes downward to the draken. “Lumen is under the impression that you’re a monster trying to deceive the princess into… she actually hasn’t figured out the rest of your dastardly plan just yet.”
Alyssa just rolled her eyes. Really. A monster. What else is new. Part of her wondered exactly what kind of monster everyone kept thinking she was. Irulon had considered a lich and a demon at the very least, but she hadn’t a clue what anyone else thought. “Well I’m not. If anything, I’m the one being dragged around by the princess. I didn’t want to come on this stupid trip. No offense intended. But the only reason I’m here is because I feel a little responsible for what happened to Oxart.”
“You don’t need to complain to me. I believe you, though I also believe that you are incredibly foolish. Hopefully this fairy thing has given you a little wake up call. Not a big enough one, obviously, because you’ve still got that mimic. You do still have her somewhere, right?”
“Somewhere.” She couldn’t answer any more specifically than that as she didn’t know exactly where. But Kasita was somewhere on her person. “Kasita has saved my life at least four times. Maybe more? If she is planning to betray me at my weakest or something, she’s definitely doing a very poor job of it.”
“Just be careful. And don’t…” His eyes flicked down to Izsha again before he shook his head. “Catch up to the princess. We’ll be along as fast as our horses allow.”
“Right.” Glancing down at Izsha’s back, Alyssa said, “Irulon and Musca have a decent head start. Think you can get to the horse first?”
Izsha turned her head just enough for one of the draken’s eyes to meet hers.
“No. Wait. They’re too far. I wasn’t serious. It was a joke. Not—”
Never before had Alyssa regretted opening her big mouth more than now. Hoping that the dragon hide would protect her arms and chest from Izsha’s spikes, she grabbed hold of the smooth sides of the draken’s neck.
Just in time.
Its tail whipped around as muscles coiled in its legs. The dinosaur jumped, crossing a football field of desert in seconds.
Alyssa kept her mouth clamped shut, not wanting to bite off her tongue. The wind rushing past her face made her squeeze her eyes shut. Her hands were wrapped so tight around Izsha that some tiny rational portion of her mind worried over strangling the draken. A slightly larger portion of her mind calmly explained to the first that the draken would stop if it passed out, so hold on tighter.
The rest of her mind screamed.
Izsha was clearly taking the challenge as just that, a challenge.
It didn’t take long for the rush of wind to die down to normal levels. She hadn’t fallen off. She hadn’t died. Yet it still took a bit of courage to actually open her eyes.
Amazingly enough, despite feeling like she had been flying at the speed of sound, Alyssa found herself still in the desert. In fact, they hadn’t traveled that far at all. Further than where she had left Irulon by far, but not far enough. Alyssa could see Irulon and Musca up ahead, the former already sliding off the latter’s saddle.
Izsha made a small whining noise. Not the first sound Alyssa had heard it make, but possibly the most pronounced and obvious in meaning.
Pushing herself back from the sharp scales that ran down the back of Izsha’s head, and being very glad that she hadn’t slammed her face into them, Alyssa patted the draken. “I’m sorry. I spent too long talking. Maybe next time.”
With another disappointed groan, Izsha started trotting forward. It wasn’t moving as fast as it had been, but Alyssa wasn’t going to complain about being a minute or two behind Irulon. Glancing behind her, Alyssa just about dropped her jaw.
Oz and company were just tiny little dots on the horizon, looking about as big as the toppled horse had from when Alyssa first spotted it. Even riding full speed, they would probably not be here for another ten minutes. She could not believe how fast Izsha had moved in what felt like only a few seconds. Maybe it had been longer than that, she hadn’t exactly timed it, but they couldn’t have been running and jumping for more than a two minutes.
If she and Irulon weren’t intentionally going slowly to keep the guild nearby, just how much faster could they have gone? Could they have caught up with Oxart before stopping for the day?
Probably not, actually. Maintaining that speed for any distance was sure to wear the draken down. They weren’t bulky with fatty stores of energy. And, if they had caught up to Oxart, things might not have turned out so well as Alyssa had been practically falling asleep at the time.
Reaching the downed horse, Alyssa dismounted. She was getting fairly competent at getting on and off Izsha, no doubt thanks to Izsha helping out with minor shifts in its body position. Regardless, she managed to get to the ground without any trouble.
“Its description matches the one given by the gate guards,” Irulon said before Alyssa’s boots hit dirt. “It isn’t dead, but I imagine that fairy forced it to run at top speed the moment it left Lyria. No rests. No stops at any waterholes. I would estimate that it managed to run at top speed for only thirty minutes, slowed down over time past that, and eventually collapsed here between four and six hours ago.”
“You can tell that precisely, huh?”
“There is a certain amount of guessing involved, but yes.” Irulon walked around the horse, which Alyssa now noted was breathing at a rate that she might find worrying. If she knew more about horses, that worry might have increased or decreased, but she didn’t. The whole time Irulon moved, she kept her eyes locked on the ground. “Wind has disturbed the dirt here, but not enough that I cannot make out tracks. It looks as if a human limped off in that direction,” Irulon said, pointing roughly where they had been traveling before taking the detour to the horse. “The limp may be explained through the horse collapsing while the rider was still on its back. All saddlebags are gone and we know from the gate guards that there were some, so I would assume our missing captain has provisions.”
“A limp is good as long as she isn’t too injured. It should slow her down. How far is the fairy oasis?”
“At the rate we are traveling, we should reach it in roughly a day and a half of travel time, not including any rests, camps, and other breaks.”
“So on foot and with a limp at that, she can’t have gone too far. Relatively, at least.”
“No. If we wish to save Captain Oxart, now would be an optimal time to find her. The fairy won’t have support of its kind and the captain will be exhausted given that she likely hadn’t slept while riding.”
Glancing back to the horses, Alyssa said, “Let’s tell them what’s going on then split up to search? Have any plans for that?”
“Follow the tracks then use the draken’s sense of smell to narrow it down further. We should endeavor to keep the horses and possibly the others out of the fairy’s range or we risk losing it again.”
That made Alyssa raise an eyebrow, thinking about what she had considered just a few minutes ago. “Are they going to be a problem if we encounter fairies?”
“I imagine Lumen won’t have an issue, but I am unsure about the other two. Lumen should be able to apply Mental Fortitude to both, but it doesn’t last forever, so they won’t have it on permanently. If they are caught by surprise, things could go poorly for us.”
So they did have a spell. Still worrying. She would have to keep an eye out for any fairies. Kasita too, though Kasita had already proved that she might not be able to handle a fairy influencing her. Maybe it was a bad idea to give her desecrate spells while they needed other spells to protect from fairies. As long as it was just the one, Alyssa and Irulon could handle it. Once they got closer to the fairy commune, it might be best to have a talk with Kasita bout that. Though she really didn’t want to. The mimic had looked so happy while explaining her reasoning for picking the spell.
Ah well. Oxart first. Fairy second. Commune third.