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“I see them,” Alyssa said, trusting Izsha to keep her in her seat while she focused on the binoculars. Or rather, focused on what she saw through her binoculars. “Just as you said. Three people riding horseback. Looks like Oxart is draped over the one in the middle, unconscious, I think. Maybe dead, but I don’t know why they would carry around a dead body like this. I don’t see the fairy.”

“It is small enough to be easily tucked away in some container or pocket.”

“They don’t appear to have noticed us. All three are riding directly away at a quick pace, but looking somewhat lax. Unworried. Plan?”

“Kill them. Kill them all.”

Alyssa lowered her binoculars to glance to her side. Irulon sat on the back of Musca, eyes locked in the direction they were moving. Her eyes were not currently black and white, but she did stare with an intense focus. She didn’t even blink. As if that would help her see their quarry. Which it wouldn’t.

Without her binoculars, Alyssa could barely see a tiny dot on the edge of the horizon. While Irulon had confirmed that there were a handful of spells capable of offering sight at a distance, she hadn’t cast a single one since Retrograde Cognition. Alyssa couldn’t say why. Being able to see far away was clearly a boon. The princess’ tome might not have any. They probably wouldn’t come in all that handy on an average day in the city, though Alyssa had to wonder just when Fractal Mirror would come in useful, which was a spell Irulon did have in her tome.

Seeing the intensity on Irulon’s face, Alyssa doubted that there would be much room for argument. Alyssa… wasn’t sure what she thought about that. She didn’t want to kill anyone, if possible. Except, perhaps, for the Taker. Even the people she had killed, she wasn’t too happy about. While she definitely preferred her current status as opposed to that of a slave or a whore, had she really needed to kill Svotty and his guard? Even that thief who broke into her home. If she hadn’t been so vigorous in attacking him, everything since then might not have happened. The thief’s father wouldn’t have flown into a rage upon seeing his deceased son, she wouldn’t have had to defend herself, and…

And it all came back to Tenebrael, that little black book, and whatever the angels’ mysterious plan was. Just thinking about it made her a little uneasy, wondering if she had ever had a choice in the first place.

Here and now, however, Alyssa was wondering if she shouldn’t reconsider her thoughts on death. This was not America. It wasn’t even Earth. The laws, rules, and even morals in this place were only a distant cousin to what she was familiar with. When she had told Irulon about killing Svotty, the princess had shrugged it off completely, not even blinking as she was far more concerned with the Taker. Perhaps Irulon wasn’t exactly the best gauge of morality given her apparent hobby of collecting corpses to turn into… whatever those toys had been in her laboratory. But still… it said something about this world.

These people they were chasing were more dangerous than anyone else. Even the Taker. If their surveying of the ant hive had been what it looked like, they were certainly planning on sending a million-strong horde against the walls of Lyria using fairy mind control. The same Lyria that had mustered only a few hundred soldiers to defend against an army of trolls and goblins. Irulon hadn’t participated in that skirmish, and she didn’t think that Administrator Devo had either. The only other Rank Six arcanist in the city was Irulon’s father, and he wasn’t even in the city at the moment, being off inspecting the Fortress of Pandora.

Given their assassination attempts against the royal family, perhaps one or all of the Rank Six arcanists would be a credible threat to a million ants. Many, many people would likely still die, however. That was before considering the mesmered ants as people. The poor creatures wouldn’t even have a choice in the matter. Even if the arcanists didn’t wipe them all out and the ant army came away successful, they would just be sent against town after town, city after city, until the army was entirely depleted or until the Juno Federation were satisfied with their genocide. Upon which the ants would probably die anyway, killed by their controlling masters. Just because the Juno Federation used monsters didn’t mean that they were any less hostile to them. If anything, placing monsters under mind control then sending them to die was worse than what she had seen and heard from the people in Lyria.

No. In this case, at least, Irulon was right. These people had to be stopped. Going up to them and asking politely wasn’t going to work. If anything, it would just get her killed. However…

“Kill them all is not a plan. It’s a goal. A plan is a series of steps designed to accomplish a goal.”

Irulon finally took her eyes off the dot in the distance long enough to shoot a glare in Alyssa’s direction. “Do they have weapons? Or spell tomes?”

“It’s a bit difficult to tell from this distance,” Alyssa said. The desert was relatively flat, as it had been since leaving Lyria, so she had a good view of them. But her binoculars were not magical. They could only do so much. “One might have a sword? I don’t see anything on the others, but all the Society members I’ve come across have had their spells in much smaller decks than yours or Oxart’s tomes, held together by a single metal ring. None had more than thirty cards in their decks, most of which were basic utility spells such as Light and Flame. I got the impression that they were not the most magically adept of people around.”

“Unsurprising. The Observatorium is the largest repository of spells and knowledge of spell creation in the world. We guard our secrets with some modicum of jealousy. Just to grant you what little admittance you have received, I was forced to accept responsibility for you, including slaughtering you to safeguard our knowledge should you prove… more subversive than you appear. That is in addition to a few subtle threats toward several of our esteemed administrators.”

“Well, thanks for telling me. I guess. Actually, I think I would rather have not known.”

“All you have to do is not go give the Observatorium’s secrets to the Juno Federation. Simple.” Irulon spoke about casually killing Alyssa with a jovial note in her voice. Maybe this world really was too insane. “As for a plan… They have a base somewhere nearby. Perhaps just a little camp, perhaps more of a fortified outpost. Not enough information to determine which yet, nor do I know how far. It could be behind the next pillar of rock, it could be three days out. Whatever the case, we do not want them to reach their allies.”

She pulled up the tome chained to her hip and started flipping through it. “Ah. Perfect,” she said, pulling one card out. She then removed another two cards before letting the tome fall back to its hanging position. “Musca. Izsha. Close the gap. Quietly, if possible. We don’t want to alert them until it is too late.”

Given the warning, Alyssa leaned forward and grabbed on to Izsha’s neck once again. Knowing how smoothly Izsha could leap when it wanted to move quickly, she was unsurprised when the two draken took off. It felt like flying, hovering just above the ground. Although she was slowly growing to trust Izsha, she couldn’t enjoy the feeling while charging into battle. Worse, Irulon hadn’t said what she was going to do. She had pulled out those spells, but what were they?

When they next had a moment, Alyssa really needed to sit Irulon down and tell her just how badly poor communication could kill. Probably literally, in this situation. It was like she had never watched a movie in her life… Right. Of course she hadn’t. With her phone back, Alyssa could show her a few. But again, only when they got a chance. She couldn’t even ask what Irulon had planned while riding—Izsha and Musca were no longer directly side by side. Izsha was just a little faster than Irulon’s mount. These people needed radios. Or a better communication spell than Message.

For now, Alyssa had her eyes locked forward as their target slowly grew closer. One hand moved away from Izsha’s neck to find the grip of her pistol. Shooting from Izsha’s back would be a last resort. Even with as smooth a ride as it was, trying to hit a moving target while also moving would be next to impossible. Just a waste of bullets. But she wanted to be ready just in case. Maybe Irulon would kill them all with one big spell and she wouldn’t need to do anything.

Rather, that was what Alyssa hoped for.

But realistically, Irulon couldn’t do that. Not while Oxart was right in the middle of them all. Any large-area spell would catch her in the blast. Wasn’t Lumen supposed to specialize in precision? Alyssa wasn’t sure she trusted that given her experiences at Tzheitza’s shop, but her spells would probably be better than guns. She should have been the one riding Izsha.

Alyssa scowled at herself. Aside from guns, what did she have available?

Fireballs, a handful of them. Desecrate Spells. Probably best to let Kasita use that if necessary so that they wouldn’t have to spend the time to suppress the aftereffects on her. Spectral Axes. Honestly, she wasn’t sure what use that spell had. That burning hands spell. That might be useful if they grabbed for their weapons or spell cards. Spectral Chains, which was probably the most useful spell she had come across. It was a nice, non-lethal way of removing someone from a combat situation. Could she just chain them all up while they were riding their horses?

That was an idea. Definitely something to try before shooting them while riding Izsha. Though, did Spectral Chains need to be aimed? She had never tried it on moving targets. At least, nothing moving as fast as a horse. Still, at least if she missed with Spectral Chains, she wouldn’t run the risk of accidentally killing Oxart. Moving her hand away from her gun, she slipped it into her satchel and gripped the deck of cards.

Izsha and Musca had closed the gap. In barely a minute, Oxart’s captors went from being an ant on the horizon to an actual group of three horses and three riders.

Irulon held out a hand. The card whipped around in the wind, but she was entirely unconcerned. “Sever Reality.”

A mirrored wall sprouted from the ground just in front of the lead horse, growing high into the sky. The rider let out an undignified shout as the horse ran into the mirror at speed. They crashed into it, plowed into it as if it were a brick wall. The other two managed to stop in time, but they couldn’t escape. The wall hadn’t stopped growing, it was stretching high into the sky and wrapping around, forming a dome large enough to fit a football field.

Neither Izsha nor Musca slowed in the slightest, they slipped under the dome just before it slammed into the ground. Izsha leaped to one side, just about throwing Alyssa from the saddle in the process.

A beam of light passed by a foot away from Alyssa. She didn’t know what it would have done had it hit her, but she was extremely thankful to Izsha that she didn’t have to find out.

Black miasma spread out from the extended hand of one of the two horse riders, rolling along the ground in a cone shape. Again, Izsha turned to avoid entering it as much as possible while Musca turned in the opposite direction. Irulon had her second card in hand. She said something else and the card vanished with a shattering noise, but Alyssa couldn’t hear what the spell was.

The woman spreading the miasma stopped with a shocked look on her face. Something struck her in the chest, exploding out from the other side. She had just enough time to look down before her body started coming apart. She started with a split straight up and down from the impact site, splitting her in two. But it didn’t stop there. The two halves split again, and again. And again. Bits no larger than her thumb pulled apart from the rest of her body. It spread from the impact point outward until her entire body was subsumed by the shards of flesh. It fell around the horse, landing in two distinct piles on either side.

Her horse wasn’t spared. As if an invisible bubble of flaying knives spread outward to encompass the woman, it caught the horse as well. The poor thing split apart just as the woman did, starting at its back right where she had been riding.

Alyssa’s stomach tightened, but she did not turn away. She couldn’t. Not while there were still possible threats. The one who had crashed into the mirrored dome was getting back to his feet and the other one…

The other one grabbed hold of Oxart as he slid off his own panicking horse. She was limp and unmoving in his arms, but he managed to prop her up enough to be used as a shield so that what happened to his companion wouldn’t happen to him. At least, not without also killing Oxart. He held out a hand around Oxart with a card between his fingers.

Alyssa didn’t hesitate. She already had her cards in hand. One came to mind.

Immolating Gloves.

She focused on one hand only. The extended one. With the other wrapped around Oxart, lighting it aflame would end up burning her as well.

The man, mouth already open to shout whatever spell he had, turned from forming words to a startled cry of pain. His card turned to ash, but that seemed the least of his concerns. Swinging his arm didn’t help. If anything, it made it worse. The flames engulfing his hand spread upward, crawling along his arm. It spread faster and faster, as if his wool tunic had been doused in gasoline.

Oxart, being unconscious, dropped to the ground like a puppet with cut strings when the man stumbled away, patting his burning arm with his now free arm. That only served to spread the flames up his other arm. His screams were growing louder as he started running. Which, as with swinging around his hand, only made it worse. Fully engulfed in flames, he ran straight into the mirrored wall. The screams abruptly stopped. He fell into a twitching heap on the ground, still burning.

Izsha jerked to the side again, forcibly tearing Alyssa’s eyes away from the grisly sight of the burning man.

Alyssa grunted. Something clipped her arm. Before she could understand what was happening, she felt the familiar sensation of falling off Izsha’s back. Clouds of dirt rose up around her as she rolled along the ground with her momentum. It didn’t hurt. She had fallen off Izsha before. The dragon scale armor protected well enough against impacts. A stinging sensation welled up in one hand, but not enough to draw her attention.

The second she managed to stop herself, Alyssa looked up.

The last remaining person, the one who had first crashed against the wall, was up on his feet with a sword in one hand and a spell card in the other.

Alyssa winced at the sight of the blade, but her gaze was drawn to the man’s eyes. They were… watery. Sad. Anguished and angry all in one. She blinked and, for just a moment saw herself back within her parents’ bedroom, watching the elder thief cradle his son.

That sensation vanished the moment he opened his mouth. “Execu—”

His eyes flicked to the side.

A ball of twisted shards of glass hurtled toward him. He noticed just in time, throwing himself to one side. The ball struck the mirrored surface behind him… and kept going. It didn’t stop at the mirror as his horse had, but rather passed into it and slammed into his reflection.

He, the real him, flew a short distance through the air, landing face-first in the desert dirt. A chunk of him was missing completely. A half-sphere the size of a basketball was simply gone from his lower back. He was still moving his arms and his head. He was still alive.

That’s right. This was a battle. A fight. One-sided though it may have seemed given their ambush, these people were still dangerous. Spacing out… could cost her. Even now, lying on the ground with a hole in his back, he still gripped that spell card. Execu—what? Execution? For some spells, especially Fractal spells, it was hard to discern their effect from their name. Execution did not sound like one of those spells.

Alyssa fumbled her hands about. Her cards were gone. Somewhere behind her from when she had rolled. But her pistol was still secure in its holster.

She drew it, took a second both to calm herself and to aim, and fired.

Blood spurted up in a miniature geyser at the base of his neck. His movements stilled to tiny twitches before disappearing entirely.

Alyssa’s eyes turned over the scene, checking each of the people. One was in pieces, nothing more than a pile of meat. One was a charcoal husk in a vague shape of a person. One had a few holes in his body, clearly fatal ones. And Oxart, Oxart lay where she had fallen. Was she breathing? Alyssa couldn’t tell from where she sat on the dirt. But at least the captain wasn’t going to get any worse. The three Society members were undoubtedly dead. The horses had run off… or rather, one of them had. One was lying in pieces along with its rider and the one that rode into the mirror didn’t look like it would be getting up anytime soon.

Despite the gruesome scene in front of her, Alyssa felt oddly content. Maybe it was shock, but she felt like she had done a… good thing? These people were not good people and definitely needed to be stopped from using the fairies as weapons. She didn’t know how big this organization was or what it would take to stop them, but destroying their camp could only help. If they were able to delay the Society’s next attack, likely the one with the ants, and then report back to the city, they could send a more dedicated force to wipe out whatever needed to be wiped out. This was a small step on that path.

Best of all, Oxart was safe. She was definitely still alive. Alyssa could see her moving. Nothing major, no conscious movements. Confirming that she was alive was a weight off Alyssa’s mind. Ever since that fairy had… that fairy…

A spark of adrenaline ran through Alyssa. Where was the fairy? Her eyes flicked over everything one more time. Was it in pieces? Burned to a crisp? Running off with the horse that had escaped? Where would they have put it? A cage? In their pockets? She couldn’t see any fairy holder.

Irulon and Musca were slowly approaching the bodies and Oxart. They moved warily, searching just as Alyssa was. The princess had her hand on her open tome, ready to pull something out if necessary. To Alyssa’s side, Izsha was coming back. After Alyssa had fallen off, the draken had continued on for a short time. Opening her mouth to shout a warning ended abruptly when she noticed movement. The lead horse’s saddlebags were moving. White fog leaked from one of the pockets.

That was it. The fairy had to be in there.

Sure enough, a little head popped out, topped with a tuft of black hair. The fairy’s relatively large eyes were hazy and unfocused. A side effect of the fog, no doubt. But now that it was out in the open air and the fog flowing from the pouch was dissipating, it would probably gain cognizance quickly.

Alyssa stood, aiming her pistol directly at it, unsure whether she should take the shot or not. It would be difficult. The fairy was much smaller than a person. But her mother hadn’t dragged her down to the shooting range on occasion for nothing. But should she? Something, some small part of her still screamed that the fairy was a victim in all this, that it had kidnapped Oxart out of panic and twisted morals. The fairy was small enough that it could hide easily. All it needed to find was a foxhole to duck into until danger had passed. If it even needed to do that with its mind control ability. It would be dangerous if Oxart woke up while she was so close. The draken as well. Musca and Irulon were almost on top of them.

Ah. Irulon, of course. The dilemma was simple. Ask the princess what to do about the little monster.

“Fairy!” Alyssa called out, raising her voice to be heard over the slight distance. Although Izsha was nearby again, she started up in a light jog to get a little closer. “Fairy near the horse’s bags!”

Irulon apparently hadn’t heard her first call, but she did hear the second. Her head whipped around to find the fairy, not pausing on the diced horse or swiveling about to find the runaway. As if she had known exactly which horse Alyssa had been talking about. She smiled, leaned forward, and said something too quiet for Alyssa to hear to Musca.

The draken trotted on over, looked down at the clearly dazed fairy, opened its wide maw, and chomped.

Red dripped from Musca’s teeth, apparently chewing once before tipping its head back and swallowing.

Irulon smacked Musca on the side with an open palm. “I said toy with,” she said louder than before. “Not snack on.”

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