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Alyssa scanned the horizon, searching for any sign of Oxart. She looked through her binoculars, slowly dragging them from her left to her right. Deserts really were uninteresting. Maybe she was being unfair. Surely some people would like to go on a hike through a desert like this. Her brother or even her dad, for two examples. But not her. When hiking or camping, Alyssa definitely preferred a forest.

Of course, it didn’t help that she wasn’t here on vacation. Taking a leisurely stroll through the desert would change her outlook drastically. Without the pressure of mind controlling fairies, captains about to be eaten, and traveling companions who may or may not be too friendly, she might even find the desert relaxing in a very hot and somewhat uncomfortable sort of way. Though it wouldn’t be perfect.

Sighing, Alyssa lowered her binoculars just long enough to turn fully toward a larger… it wasn’t a mountain. It was a rock formation, but it was a huge one. One that did not look naturally formed in the slightest. So maybe not a rock formation but a rock structure built by alien hands. There were at least ten pillars jutting out of the otherwise relatively flat landscape. The tallest of which was right in the center. All of them joined into a larger mound made from the same not-rock material. Alyssa honestly couldn’t tell what it was, but guessed that it was more of compacted dirt than true stone. The entire structure, pillars and mound, was riddled with holes. Little windows, though if she got closer, she guessed that most of them would be larger than they looked. At least big enough to let her through without ducking. Maybe big enough to let her and Izsha through together.

In those little windows, Alyssa could see movement. Even with night vision making everything look like daytime, the distance made it difficult to tell what that movement was. But every now and again, something popped out of those holes enough to get at least a brief glimpse. Especially when she wasn’t looking. If she turned her binoculars fast enough, she could make out one of the things before it hid itself.

Pho had been somewhat of a strange thing. The bee girl from the Waterhole looked human so long as one didn’t look too hard. Rather, her silhouette looked human so long as that was all that could be seen. No one would mistake her for anything else once they noticed her joints being in just the wrong place, or her shiny black carapace, or her stiff face with compound eyes. Or those wings, torn and ruined though they had been.

These things she kept catching brief glimpses of had to be the ant people Oz had mentioned. Which meant that spire structure was their hive. They looked similar to Pho, though she hadn’t seen wings on any of them yet. Didn’t queen ants have wings? She felt like she had read something like that before. Those she spotted were almost solid black or brown, though the brown might have been dirt. It was hard to tell without getting closer. But they were person sized and shaped as far as Alyssa could tell—except for the second set of arms directly below their regular set.

Seeing them just made Alyssa shake her head. It really hammered home just how strange the whole concept of monsters was. They were just people that looked like animals and insects! Mostly. Kasita, obviously, was a bit different. Dragons probably were too. That medusa head inside the Observatorium’s display case indicated that there might be some other things out there. Medusa herself looked human with a bit of snake thrown on, but there were plenty of mythological creatures that were distinctly inhuman. If those were all real here, who knew what she might run across.

Turning to the giant lizard beside her, Alyssa sighed. “Smell any fairies or captains?”

Izsha let out a hefty snort, shaking its head at the same time. Alyssa took that as a negative. It was a shame that the draken couldn’t form human words. She probably wouldn’t have been quite so frightened of them at the start. Izsha had certainly grown on her after realizing just how much the draken was helping her with riding and mounting and dismounting. Musca… not so much. She was glad Irulon was the one in charge of that particular monster.

“Alright,” Alyssa said. “Let’s get back to the others. Shame we couldn’t find the captain, but they should probably be informed that the hive is watching us.”

Hopefully that wouldn’t be a problem. They were ants, not dragons, but that didn’t mean that Alyssa wanted to try fighting them. There were probably a lot of them, after all. A quick web search showed that ants killed around thirty people a year. And those were regular tiny Earth ants. People sized ones… She shuddered a little, hopping onto Izsha’s back.

The moment she was properly seated in the saddle, Izsha turned and jumped. It wasn’t quite as fast as during that momentary race, but it was fast enough that Alyssa once again leaned forward and grabbed Izsha’s neck. The draken didn’t seem to mind and she had discovered that the dragon hide armor was more than up to the task of protecting against the spiked scales. So long as she leaned slightly to the side to keep her face away from Izsha’s back, it was actually not that bad a position. Nothing she would want to maintain for any length of time, but for the short bursts of speed Izsha occasionally performed, it was better than trying to hold on to the lip of the saddle.

Even from her position a football field or two ahead of the others, it didn’t take long to get back to them on Izsha. When not running wild, Izsha could move incredibly smoothly. Like flying, almost. Or so Alyssa imagined, having never flown outside an airplane. It did, however, make her wish that she had a motorcycle helmet. Something to keep the bite of the wind out of her face. Unfortunately, even if she returned home, there wouldn’t be anything there to help her. No one in her family rode a motorcycle. Her sunglasses helped a little. She was quite glad that they were the kind that fit tightly to head, being sunglasses made for sports, rather than large aviators or something of similar design. Those would have probably flown off in the rush of wind.

Although she did feel like she belonged in an eighties music video. Luckily, wearing her sunglasses at night did almost nothing while she had Night Vision active.

It didn’t take long at all to get from the gentle hill she had been surveying the land from to the lower valley where the others were waiting. Oxart’s tracks faded into obscurity right in this valley. The ground became more firm for some geological reason that Alyssa didn’t have the experience to understand. A light wind had picked up in the last hour, helping to disturb what little impressions were on the ground.

Lumen and Irulon were off to one side, discussing with one another what magic they had between them that might help to further narrow down the search. Musca had its face to the ground, sniffing around like it was some kind of bloodhound. Oz and Catal were tending to the horses a short distance away from the rest.

Izsha stopped roughly between the two groups, letting Alyssa speak at a relatively normal volume. “No sign of the captain. That hive was watching me the entire time I was up there. I didn’t see any of the ants actually come out, but if they have tunnels around, we should probably be a little worried.”

“We won’t remain here for long,” Irulon said without looking up from the notebook she was scribbling in. “So long as we don’t get closer to the hive, they will likely not initiate hostilities.”

Oz crossed his arms as a frown worked its way across his face. “What if the fairy dragged her off to the hive?”

Irulon’s shoulders rose and lowered in a light shrug. “Well, you can’t save them all. I have quite an impressive opinion of myself, but I would still be wary of assaulting an entire hive. There could be a million of those things just beneath our feet.”

While Oz nodded as if the princess had just said something sensible, Alyssa glanced down at her feet. A million of them? She didn’t know how strong they were or whether they had any capacity for magic or weapons, but she could picture a tide of them rolling over this spot. They wouldn’t need weapons if they just trampled her to death.

“I do not believe that the fairy would have sought out refuge at the hive,” Irulon continued. “Fairies are tolerated but not well liked by most monsters for reasons that should be all too obvious. The fairy could mesmerize anything that came near it, true, but the ants have ranged weaponry. We should find out where Oxart is soon enough,” she said, pulling free the sheet of paper she had been writing on.

Alyssa eyed the slightly oversized card with a certain feeling of trepidation. The princess favored Fractal based spells. So far, only one Fractal spell seemed fine and that was the invisibility spell. Every other spell either had something go wrong or had fairly debilitating side effects. Luckily for her, there was absolutely no reason for anyone other than Irulon to be the one to cast it. “Is that Fractal Vision?”

“The spell my counterparts created?” Irulon shook her head. “I don’t have their memories and don’t know exactly how they created it. I could likely recreate it based on the exact effects you told me about, but it doesn’t seem as useful in this exact situation. Besides, you said it was faulty, was it not?”

She had a picture of the spell that she now realized she should probably show to Irulon, but for now, she just nodded her head. “You—or your clones—insisted that it would not teleport me anywhere yet it did.”

“That could just be you, but I’d rather not take the chance. Teleportation would be sub-optimal under these circumstances. Unlikely though it might be, if the fairy did enter the hive, whoever used the spell would likely be torn apart before relaying any useful information back to the rest of us. Which would probably be me. I came plenty close to dying already. I think that’s enough for one lifetime.”

Alyssa had no arguments against that. She felt much the same way. Except, she wasn’t certain that she had come all that close to dying. At least, she hadn’t wound up injured at all. If the gaunt or the shadow assassins had gotten their hands on her, that would have quickly changed, but she felt she had gotten off easy compared to her fight with the Taker.

“Protect me should anything happen. This should only take two to five minutes.” Before anyone could ask what was only going to take five minutes, Irulon raised the card. “Retrograde Cognition.”

Irulon wobbled and toppled the moment she spoke the words. Apparently having expected this, Lumen caught Irulon and slowly lowered her down to the ground where she lay breathing but unmoving. And her eyes were closed. Sleeping? Hopefully she would wake much easier than she had earlier. Alyssa couldn’t help but wonder: If she had known this was going to happen, why hadn’t Irulon just sat down in the first place. That went far beyond a simple trust fall—something Alyssa had never trusted in the first place.

Now that Irulon was on the ground and asleep, Alyssa felt a chill go down her spine. If her life were a movie, this would definitely be the part where one of their party was incapacitated and they had to fight off a horde of unrelenting monsters from over the horizon. Glancing back to where she had just come from, Alyssa frowned. The hill was placed just such that it obscured the tall peaks of the hive’s pillars. Which really didn’t reassure her in the slightest.

Fingers tight around the grip of her pistol, Alyssa kept her eyes glued on the hilltop. She wasn’t sure what she thought a dozen shots would do against a million ants. Even unloading every bit of ammo she had on her, there would still be a million ants left over. The deck of cards she had contained a few fire-based spells which might help, but help was an extremely relative word. Casting every spell she had along with emptying her guns, she still wouldn’t put a dent in one million ants.

It was easy to see why Irulon didn’t want to fight them.

If she saw the slightest movement from the top of the hill, she would grab Irulon using a combination of Spectral Chains and Levitate, and then run. Hopefully the others would jump on their horses. No one would like it, certainly, but better than being torn apart by ants.

“So.”

Alyssa jumped, yelping slightly. She was extremely glad her pistol had its safety on. Turning, she scowled at Oz while clutching her chest. Admittedly, it wasn’t really his fault. She was wound up tighter than she could remember. It was the anticipation of something horrible happening.

“What?” Oz said, frowning at her.

“What do you mean, what? That’s my question. What are you doing?” Alyssa paused, taking in a deep, calming breath of air. “Nearly gave me a heart attack…” she mumbled.

Oz didn’t respond for a moment, eying her less with anger and more with worry. “Are you alright?”

“Fine. Just fine. When you came up, I was imagining a million ants rolling down the hill, trampling us to death.”

“Ah. Shouldn’t need to worry too much about that. Most insect species are not typically aggressive unless they believe their hives are in danger. Bee monsters are almost friendly, believe it or not, though don’t tell Lumen I said that. She’s a little funny about insects.”

“Friendly? You say that after all the crap you’ve talked about Kasita?”

“Woah,” he said, holding up his hands and taking a step back. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to go pick one up and cart it around in my bag all day.” Alyssa did not miss the way his eyes flicked down to her satchel. “I’m just saying that, if I’m in a forest running from something scary, I’ll head to a bee hive over a minotaur warren and hope for the best any day of the week. Assuming those were the only two choices, of course. I would rather avoid monsters entirely if at all possible.”

Alyssa shook her head. She considered not saying anything, but decided there wasn’t much point given her obvious association with Kasita. “I don’t think monsters are as evil as everyone seems to think they are. Some of them, sure, they might be trouble more often than not. I’ve never encountered a shadow assassin that wasn’t under the control of a fairy, but I can’t imagine they earned a name like that by being cute fluffy bunnies. And gaunts might be too… alien to interact with properly, aside from the fact that they apparently go dormant for years at a time. And fairies… I’m not sure what to think. I was honestly going to help the stupid thing out of the city but then it stabbed me in the back!” Oz nodded at that, not disagreeing, though he didn’t look too happy. But Alyssa wasn’t done. “I met a harpy on the way to Lyria. It was friendly. It even tried to give me a fish for breakfast. And elves? What’s wrong with elves? They’re blue humans with pointed ears.”

He shook his head before brushing back a lock of red hair. Oz didn’t have long hair, but it did hang down to his eyebrows when it wasn’t pushed back over the top of his head. It actually looked a bit like he had styling gel keeping it in place, but knowing that there probably wasn’t gel in this world, it was certainly grease and sweat. A lot of grease. Alyssa tried not to think about that too much. She wasn’t much better given that they had just ridden through a desert. Even at night, it was fairly warm.

After staring at her for a minute more, he said, “You’re serious aren’t you. I know you’re not from around here, but Tenebrael’s tits, you can’t be that ignorant.” He paused for another moment before continuing. “Genocidal blue monsters,” he said. “You’ve seen the slaves around the city? Most of them were captured in the last war. That’s not some ancient history. It was only ten years ago.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, thinking. Another war. First the Juno Federation then the elves? “On average, how many wars does Lyria have every decade or so?”

Oz shrugged, shaking his head again. This time, less in disbelief and more in uncertainty. Which, she thought, might be because of my question more than anything. If someone had asked her how many wars America got into every ten years, she wouldn’t be able to answer either. Technically zero. The last time the United States declared war had been back during World War Two. But there were soldiers in plenty of countries all around the world. Not to mention the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Gulf War, and so on.

Did something like the Fortress of Pandora count as being in war at all times? If it really was assaulted regularly by monsters, maybe. Or maybe she was just being overly pedantic about what exactly a war was.

A low groan from Irulon pulled her attention away from her thoughts. Alyssa let out a sigh of relief at seeing Irulon stir. Oz had been a somewhat welcome distraction from her clearly unwarranted worries. Not a single ant had poked its head over the horizon. Anticlimactic? Maybe. But her life had been far too climactic as of late.

Sometimes, she wished she would have just stayed in Teneville and learned how to be a proper carpenter. She would never get home had she done so, but she also wouldn’t have fireballs flying at her head on the regular. Or ants tearing her apart.

Holding her forehead, Irulon sat up with Lumen’s help. Her eyes were foggy, glassy, and highly dilated, though that mostly went away after blinking a few times. “That,” she said in a low tone, “was distinctly unpleasant.”

“Did it work?” Lumen asked, voice soft and quiet to the point where Alyssa had trouble hearing her from not far away.

Irulon winced. “Please don’t shout at me. I can hear you well enough.”

“Uh…” Lumen looked over, finding a shrugging Oz and Catal with his bushy eyebrows raised. She even chanced a glance at Alyssa, who could only offer a confused hum.

“But yes, it did work. There are good and bad elements in the information I’ve gained.” Irulon slowly got to her feet with Lumen assisting. The former used the latter’s arm as a crutch to keep from wobbling too much. That spell clearly had taken a little something out of the princess. Hopefully nothing permanent. “The good part is that our missing captain did not venture closer to the hive. We have no need to agitate the ants.”

That was a relief. As bad as Alyssa felt for being at least partially responsible for Oxart’s current circumstances, there was a definite line in the ground regarding what she could do about it. And that line came well before charging into a hive filled with one million angry ants. As Irulon had said earlier, sorry, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Still, there was bad news to go along with this good news. Irulon sure was taking her sweet time getting to it. Alyssa felt a little bad for Irulon’s current state, but at the same time, she wanted to get the information and get moving as soon as possible. Preferably in a direction that did not bring her closer to the hive.

“Unfortunately, both Oxart and the fairy with her made contact with a small group of humans. Both were captured with little difficulty—they used some sort of smoke to subdue the fairy. I believe that smoke is what confused the draken’s sense of smell as well.”

“A white and sort of misty smoke?” Alyssa asked.

Grimacing, Irulon nodded.

“The Society of the Burning Shadow used that both times I saw them controlling fairies. So those humans probably belong to them.”

“I presumed as much. They appeared to be surveying the hive prior to noticing the captain. Which is something that has me worried given the events of last night and the week prior.” She turned her eyes, which were looking much better than they had immediately after she woke up, to Alyssa. “They left by horseback approximately thirty minutes ago. You and I would be able to catch up in short order with the assistance of the draken. Are you ready to fight three individuals?”

Alyssa swallowed a bit of a dry lump in her throat. That was the whole reason she had come here. Not to fight Society members specifically, but to rescue Oxart. Leaving her in the hands of the Society would likely see her tortured and killed before too long. Especially once they realized that she was from the city they were attacking. They would probably not do so immediately, wanting to know why she had ended up here in the desert with a fairy that was supposed to be attacking the palace, but it would be soon almost certainly. But…

If Irulon couldn’t fight with her, she wasn’t sure what she could do. Three people wasn’t more than she had fought the night before, but the gaunt had attracted more than its fair share of attention from them. It also wasn’t more than she had encountered on the Brechen Overlook, and she had run off there without thinking about how dangerous it could have been. But Tzheitza had been with her at the time.

Kasita was with her now and had been at the Brechen Overlook. The mimic, if given a handful of cards, could be quite the force to be reckoned with in Alyssa’s opinion. She just wasn’t sure that she wanted to test her opinion in live combat. Even just thinking about it as combat was giving her cold feet.

“What about you?” Alyssa said. “Are you alright? You’re looking unsteady.”

Irulon pushed herself away from Lumen, standing on her own. She straightened her back and locked on to Alyssa’s eyes. “I will be fine. The rest of you follow as fast as you are able. Between two Rank Six arcanists, I do not foresee these three being a problem, but I would prefer there be no surprises. I’ve brushed with death far too close for my liking at their hands once. It would be remiss to be unprepared. They may have Recall available or reinforcements closer than I expect. Any questions?” She looked around, meeting the eyes of everyone for several seconds before moving on to the next person. When she looked over all three and none spoke, she nodded her head. “Good.”

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