“Is she going to be alright getting back to the city on her own?” Alyssa asked, watching as the captain rode off in the rough direction of where they had come from not long before. After getting a bit of food into her, Oxart grew much more steady and far more focused on returning to the city. Even if she had wanted to, Alyssa doubted that she could have stopped her. Well, not really. Spectral Chains could leash angels and gaunts. The captain wouldn’t have stood a chance against that.
But Alyssa wasn’t about to chain someone up for no good reason.
“The high ranking city guardsmen are often chosen by nepotism or societal status. That isn’t to say that they are not capable of performing their duties. A captain is generally needed for organizational and administrative matters rather than front-line combat—that is what the soldiers are for. However, though I’ve only met her for the first time a short while ago, I have a high opinion of her personal combative skills. The way her eyes bounced from person to person, estimating the threat each posed while searching for anything she could use as a weapon was particularly telling. She didn’t panic upon waking up. Considering what happened to her, that is probably the most surprising thing.”
“Huh. I didn’t notice.”
“You are not the most observant person I’ve met,” Irulon said.
Alyssa frowned, but didn’t say anything until she noticed some movement in the corner of her eye. “Why are you nodding your head?”
Kasita shrugged. “Just something I’ve noticed as well. Like that time you left me behind in the Taker’s dungeons. I was sitting right there, you know.”
“I said I was sorry,” Alyssa sighed. She was about ninety percent sure that Kasita was joking around, but in the event that that wasn’t the case, she did feel a need to reassure the mimic. “And I grabbed you after using the same spell on Oxart, so at least I learn from my mistakes.”
“Hm.” Aside from that slight grunt, Irulon said nothing as she climbed on the back of Musca. “The guild knights are likely ahead of us by this point. We should catch up before they run across something troublesome.”
“I’m sure the gigantic mirrored bubble would have stopped them,” Alyssa said with only a mild note of sarcasm. Irulon had taken it down only minutes before. The mirrored wall shattered into small shards, as may Fractal spells did, before dissipating. The outside world hadn’t changed at all. If not for Irulon’s comment just now, she might have thought that time had stopped outside, but that seemed almost too much for a spell. At least a Rank Six spell. Tenebrael’s magic obviously could do it.
“From the outside, they would not have noticed anything. This section of the world had been shunted into an alternate, as far as I understand the spell, anyway.”
“We were in a different world?” Alyssa asked, raising an eyebrow. Earth? No. It couldn’t be. If Irulon had ever used that spell before, someone would surely have noticed the giant silver bubble. Even in an uninhabited area, satellites were constantly flying about, taking pictures.
How many worlds were there? Tenebrael was clearly in charge of this one. Who was in charge of Earth? Maybe she should have asked a few questions of Tenebrael when she showed up to collect the souls of the Society members. Even now, she still hadn’t decided on what she wanted to ask of the angel. It didn’t help that she didn’t know the exact limits of what Tenebrael could do and was willing to do. Going home was obviously out.
A question to ask or a task to accomplish. Those had been Tenebrael’s exact words. Questions probably wouldn’t be good to use on this particular offer. Tenebrael often answered questions. In fact, Alyssa was having a hard time coming up with something that she had asked that Tenebrael had not given an answer to. In terms of information, anyway. The only things she had denied were during her experiment with Irulon.
A task then? What did Alyssa want that Tenebrael could accomplish? She couldn’t wish the Taker dead because Tenebrael couldn’t kill people. Could she wish the Taker bound and chained in front of her? Possibly, but would that be a good use of a wish? Maybe she should wish for an endless supply of money or magical knowledge and ability that would make even Irulon envious.
Could Tenebrael do something else? Something more esoteric? Money and magic might be nice and the latter might even lead to a way back home, but neither would be any good if she wound up with a dagger in her back thanks to the Taker. Could Tenebrael offer invulnerability? Like super powers? Turning into Superman would solve a lot of problems.
Perhaps she was wrong in treating this like a genie’s wish entirely. A task that Tenebrael could complete did not necessarily equate to granting Alyssa some boon. But what could an angel possibly do that Alyssa would want done.
Maybe that was it. She should ask for a full dossier on what exactly angels were, their capabilities, numbers, and so on and so forth.
As she hooked a foot into the stirrup and swung her leg over Izsha’s back, Alyssa looked over at Irulon. “Have you thought more about that question I asked you?”
“The being of unimaginable power offering to grant a request?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Not particularly. Unless this being comes to offer me power and knowledge, I don’t have much to say about it. Now, if you want to ask for Her to show Herself to me, I would not object in the slightest.”
That made Alyssa smile. Maybe she should. Get Irulon to see the one she worshiped for what Tenebrael truly was. Then again, Tenebrael would probably stat putting on airs of being the god she pretended to be. Surely Irulon’s analytical abilities would reveal that to be a farce. Still, that might be an option. It would give Irulon more information even if she still viewed Tenebrael as a deity. That might help with getting home.
Something to keep in mind.
Holding out a hand to Kasita, Alyssa raised her eyebrows as the mimic took it without turning to a rock, or whatever form she wanted to ride along in. She nestled into the saddle just behind Alyssa, remaining fully human. The saddle was only designed for one person, so it should have been uncomfortable. Kasita’s nearly weightless body was hardly noticeable in reality. She wrapped her arms around Alyssa, feeling more like a winter coat than a person.
“You’re not going to go floating off as soon as we start moving, are you?”
“I have enough control over myself to stop that. But I know what I would wish for.”
“You were listening?”
“Ufu~ Of course! And I would ask for immortality. Indefinite longevity. Unending existence. Re—”
“Foolish,” Irulon said with a sad shake of her head. “Musca, Izsha, locate the guild knights’ scents, if possible. Otherwise continue heading in the direction the Society members had been.”
The two draken immediately started sniffing about. They walked around, but not with the same fervent rush that they had been running with while chasing after Oxart’s captors. It was a nice change of pace and removed the worry that Izsha might forget and let her fall right off her back again. Though really, both times Alyssa had fallen had not been the draken’s fault. The first had been Tenebrael, the second had been some attack knocking her off.
“Not all of us yearn for Tenebrael’s embrace,” Kasita called out. She wasn’t shouting—Irulon and Musca weren’t far enough away, though they had moved a bit to smell around—but she was definitely not happy. Irulon’s eyes darkened as she glanced in Kasita’s direction. They didn’t turn black and white, she merely glowered. But Kasita was undaunted. “Why is my wish foolish? Because I want some monster to ferry away whatever my soul is to wherever she wants? I don’t like the idea of another having that much control over me. I’d rather live forever.”
Irulon pressed her lips together, holding her glare for a moment longer. “I’ll ignore your blasphemy on account of you being a monster, being taught differently than proper humans. However, even assuming your fear of Tenebrael is justified, immortality is a foolish wish. You picture being young and healthy for eternity. But that won’t be the case. Death has the singular benefit of cutting short suffering. Even if you never fall ill, you will eventually become trapped.
“Perhaps a cave collapses on you, burying you under a mountain’s worth of rock. Perhaps you fall into a bog. Unable to escape from the sticky tar, you’ll slowly sink to the bottom where you’ll lie for eternity. Or worse, what if you are captured by some of your own kind, wanting to learn your secrets? Or fall into the Underworld? Suffering at the hands of demons with no possible escape. It may not happen in your first year of immortality. Perhaps not even in your hundredth. But when you live forever, you have an infinite amount of time to find yourself in a less than ideal situation. And it only takes once to ruin the rest of eternity.”
Without a single verbal command from Irulon, Musca turned and took off at a moderate jaunt, heading in the same direction that the Society of the Burning Shadow had been headed before the mirrored dome had interrupted them. Izsha was a little slow on the uptake, leaving a sizable gap between the two draken and making no effort to close that gap despite obviously having the ability to do so, effectively cutting off further communication.
Alyssa frowned at their actions, wondering if the distance had been intentional and, if so, on whose part? Irulon or the draken?
Probably for the best. Kasita slumped slightly, resting her chin on Alyssa’s shoulder. She didn’t say anything, but she did let out a deep sigh that said more than enough on its own.
“Sorry,” Alyssa said, feeling somewhat lame about her response, but also feeling like she should say something. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much to say that might make Kasita feel better. Irulon had a fairly convincing argument against immortality. Probably invulnerability and other derivatives as well.
“It’s fine,” Kasita said after a moment of silence. “Irulon is right. Not necessarily about immortality, but about the fact that this isn’t my wish.”
Alyssa winced at that. “Sorry,” she said, a little quieter. “If it makes it any better, I doubt immortality is a possibility. Even if Tenebrael can do something like that, she probably won’t. Death is kind of her thing, you know?”
“Yep. That could be Tenebrael’s middle name.”
“So what are you going to ask for?”
Alyssa started to shrug, but stopped herself, not wanting to throw Kasita off or disturb her from her shoulder. “I don’t know at all. I’ve seen her since then, popping up to steal the souls of those people we killed, but… I didn’t have anything to say so I didn’t call her over. The things I want to ask for, I have a strong feeling that she will deny. Like going home. If I ask for something she decides she doesn’t want to give, I could easily see her deciding to give me nothing at all. As I’ve said before, Tenebrael is kind of a bitch.”
“Should you really be saying that about someone prepared to grant you a wish? Won’t she take offense and reject whatever you ask for regardless of what it is?”
“Doubt it. She thinks I’m special because I ignore whatever plan the angels have, which she wishes she could do. Not to mention, I’ve called her worse to her face.” Probably. A demon was worse than a bitch, right? To an angel, at least. “I get the impression that she is fairly unflappable, as expected of an ancient being of unrivaled power who has ‘seen it all’ already.” Though, maybe she could dial it back. While angels might not be able to harm humans, Tenebrael could sure be a lot more annoying than she was now. Or Tenebrael might decide to ignore Alyssa entirely, which might be worse overall.
“Just be careful. I’d be mildly upset if you disappeared.”
“Thanks for the sentiment, though your worries are probably unnecessary. Angels cannot harm people.”
“According to Tenebrael?”
“Well… yes. But I don’t think she was lying.”
Kasita let out a thoughtful hum, falling silent after.
It was a nice sort of silence. Despite being a monster, Kasita was one of the few people she had met that she felt comfortable around. Alyssa found herself intimidated to some degree by most everyone else. Especially Irulon and, to a far lesser extent, Tzheitza. Oz wasn’t so bad, but things were obviously a bit awkward as of late. Of course, she hadn’t really spent much time around him in the first place. He tended to find excuses to get away from Tzheitza or work that he wasn’t being paid for.
With the lull in conversation, Izsha started picking up the pace. If there was any doubt about the draken being intelligent, that right there removed it. Following orders was one thing. A dog could follow some simple orders with proper training. But taking conversational cues and understanding when a conversation had ended required heightened ability to comprehend and reason.
Though, now Alyssa wondered if she should have said anything at all. She and Kasita had both mentioned Tenebrael by name. The draken did not seem to be able to talk, but they could be obfuscating their abilities for whatever reason. As much as Irulon probably suspected at this point, Alyssa wasn’t sure that she wanted to outright confirm that she had frequent chats with the effective deity of this world. If Izsha could tell her… Who knew what might end up happening.
Probably a lot of questions. And Alyssa knew very little about Tenebrael despite their interactions.
A dossier on angels might actually be the best thing to ask for. The more she thought about it, the more that seemed to be the case.
Izsha slowed down as she neared Musca and Irulon. Not a whole lot. The princess had been traveling much faster than Izsha had before trying to catch up, though nowhere near the draken’s top speed. It was just enough to match their pace.
Irulon didn’t say anything or even turn toward Alyssa. Was she actually mad about Kasita? Hopefully not. Things were awkward enough with Oz and his companions. And with Oxart, though she wasn’t present. Having Irulon acting all cold would just be unpleasant.
“Any sign of the guild?” Alyssa asked, trying to break the ice.
“Musca caught a scent. They’re somewhere ahead of us. The draken will be able to catch up, though I do hope they have not gone too far.”
“You did tell them to ride as hard as they could to back us up… and then you locked them out of the fight with that dome.”
“Hm. I suppose I could have used a different spell. But I saw an opportunity to prevent any from escaping in the confusion and disable the lead rider at the same time. I stand by my decision in the end… Do you see anything through your trinket?”
That was a question that Alyssa could answer. She pulled out her binoculars, taking care to not elbow Kasita off her back with her movements, and started scanning the horizon once again. Starting at the left, she swept to the right before returning to her starting spot. Not seeing anything interesting, she started looking over the land closer to her. “Don’t see them. Should there be tracks or anything?”
“The ground up ahead is much harder than behind us. More rock than dirt.”
“Well, I hope Musca and Izsha have something then, because I—” Alyssa paused, frowning. Something was out there. A narrow pillar rising above a slope in the terrain. It wasn’t another ant hive column of rock. Those pillars had been lumpy and irregular. This was a straight rectangular pillar.
“What is it? What do you see?”
“Not sure. Might just be an odd tree.” Getting closer to the hill was making more of it drop below the horizon. Soon she wouldn’t be able to see any of it until they crested the hill. Getting a bad feeling about it, Alyssa pulled away from the binoculars and started looking around. “Izsha, do you think you could climb on top of that tower of rock without throwing me off?” Alyssa asked, pointing at another of the rock formations. That should give enough of a vantage to see without having to actually get closer.
Izsha turned its head, giving Alyssa the eye. Apparently taking that as a challenge, the draken charged off in the direction Alyssa had pointed. Gritting her teeth, she leaned forward and grabbed on to Izsha’s neck again, wondering why she ever said anything at all. Would it have been that much trouble just to wait for the hill? Probably not.
Claws dug into the stone as Izsha jumped and landed halfway up the suddenly narrow-looking tower of rock. Izsha’s muscles coiled and released, springing her straight upward. As the safety of the ground got further and further away, Alyssa squeezed her eyes shut.
Very bad idea.
Her arms squeezed tighter, uncaring of the sharp scales pressing into her. If she cut her face, so be it, but if she fell… Alyssa peeked one eye open. Her stomach tightened. Just how tall is this stupid rock? she mentally screamed. It hadn’t looked quite so high from the ground.
Keeping her eyes firmly shut and her hands locked around Izsha, Alyssa held on for dear life until the ride stopped moving. Even then, she kept utterly still until she was certain that there would be no more jumps. Only then did she chance a look.
Immediately, Alyssa closed her eyes again. Sweat welled up in the palms of her hands. And on her back, and face, and armpits, and feet… Her head swam with a sudden lightheaded sensation. The only thing keeping her from toppling off Izsha’s back was her vice grip around the draken’s neck.
Izsha had two feet down on a narrow pillar of rock, barely large enough to hold one and a half of its feet. It was steady, even if Alyssa wasn’t, but that could all change with the slightest shift in weight. They would all topple a hundred miles to the rocky ground below.
“H-How do we get back down without killing ourselves?”
The draken looked back. Izsha’s slit pupils met Alyssa. Aside from a small huff, Izsha didn’t do a thing, yet Alyssa got the distinct sensation that she was being made fun of. And she didn’t care in the slightest. The draken could laugh all it wanted so long as it got them down to the ground.
“Didn’t you want to look through your binoculars?”
Alyssa jumped at the voice in her ear, making her stomach clench tighter as she crushed Izsha’s neck in her grip.
“N-No. Not really.”
“But it looks like there’s a building over there. Made of wood and stone with a big cross of wood set atop it. And several other smaller buildings arrayed around it.”
Against her better judgment, Alyssa looked up. Strangely enough, looking out over the landscape wasn’t nearly as bad as looking straight down. She actually managed to breathe a little, calming herself down. And Kasita was right. There was a… church down there. Not like Tenebrael’s cathedral in Teneville, which was full of Gothic architecture and flying buttresses and sharp spires, but like a simple church made mostly from the same orange-brown stone that littered the desert. It had a longer building, single story, that might have been a congregation hall. On one end was a square tower. Not a very high one, maybe twice the height of the hall. Atop that, a simple wooden cross jutted high into the sky.
The cross was the strangest part. Since coming to this world, Alyssa hadn’t seen a single sign of Christian iconography. No crosses, no Virgin Marys, not even any halos despite Tenebrael wearing one on occasion. All images that referred to Tenebrael tended to do so with her facial tattoos or her wings.
To find what could easily have been a modest Catholic church out in the middle of nowhere in this world… it had to mean something. It almost certainly was the destination of the Society of the Burning Shadow’s recently deceased. Which meant that it would not be a friendly, welcoming place.
Feeling a little more steady—Izsha hadn’t moved a muscle since its little laugh—Alyssa pulled out both her phone and her binoculars. Pressing the camera lens right up to one of the binocular’s eyepieces, she adjusted the angle a bit until she was happy with the result. Then, she started taking pictures. Irulon hadn’t followed her up the rock pillar. She was down below—which Alyssa was both trying to not think about and was quite thankful for given how little space there was up here—so having something to show her might be advantageous. There were several other buildings near the little church, more like single-room homes than anything else. The place was like a little village. It even had a wall around it… partially. It looked like it was still under construction.
Maybe Irulon could use her analytical abilities to make something useful of the pictures. The images weren’t the best. The darkness didn’t help with that, but there was enough light down there to get something on screen. In front of the church, a few banners had been erected. Embroidered cloth containing images of swords and a shield. She snapped a few pictures of those too, thinking that the symbols would mean something to Irulon.
Alyssa was just about ready to put away her phone and go back to dreading the idea of descending the rock tower when a blinding light flooded the little town. Wincing and throwing up an arm to block the sudden light, she willed the night vision spell to end. Even that didn’t help much. It was still too bright.
Not daring to turn around to Kasita, Alyssa squinted, trying to see just what had happened. It was like the sun had risen, but only for the little valley the church occupied. Taking advantage of the increased light, Alyssa started snapping much better pictures. As she looked back to the cross through her binocular-enhanced camera, her heart caught in her throat.
Someone was standing on the very top point of the cross, looking down at the ground toward a much smaller rock formation right on the precipice of the town. Not just any regular person, either. The person had wings. One pair of feathered wings.
Not a familiar one. Tenebrael had two pairs of obsidian black wings. Iosefael had a single pair of golden-white wings. This one had wings white as fresh snow.
Two of these things were bad enough. Three? And this one standing on top of a building almost certainly associated with a group that despised Tenebrael? Alyssa started snapping pictures as fast as her phone would allow, pleased to see that the angel showed up on the screen. A slight gasp from Kasita upon taking the first picture likely meant that Alyssa wasn’t the only one who could see the winged woman, even if she could only see through the phone.
She wore a red evening gown, further differentiating herself from the golden armor that Iosefael wore. A slim one with a fairly modern look. A slit ran from the side of her thigh to the center of her chest, wrapping around to the front at the stomach. She had no weapons, but neither did Tenebrael or Iosefael, at least not until they were needed in the latter’s case.
Raising a hand covered in an elbow glove, she pointed toward the rock formation she had been staring at. Her mouth started moving. A ruby hued mystic circle formed at her fingertip. A spell. Far more complex than any Alyssa had seen with the possible exception of Irulon’s Fractal spells or anything Tenebrael had done. Lines within lines weaved between layers of those angelic runes.
Alyssa kept taking pictures, focusing on the spell itself rather than the woman casting. She was excited to show it to Irulon to see what her analytical mind made of it, but terrified to find out what the spell did. Angels couldn’t harm humans. She had to hope that Tenebrael was being truthful in that regard.
The spell completed. A thin blip of light shot from the mystic circle like a bullet from a gun. A flash of light momentarily blinded Alyssa as the spell struck the rock formation.
Kasita made a noise at her back. Whether that was because she could see this light or because she could see what had happened, Alyssa didn’t know. Even Izsha jolted slightly, making Alyssa grab on tight once again. She was extremely glad that her binoculars were dangling from her neck and that her phone couldn’t be lost or destroyed, because she dropped both.
The spots in her eyes slowly lessened to the point where she could see once again. The pillar of rock near the hilltop had fallen flat on its side. A dust cloud welled up around it, flooding the area with powdered earth. The clouds billowed outward, sweeping across the land.
Alyssa stared, watching as dark shadows within the cloud burst forth.
Three horses running away as fast as they possibly could.
Taking her binoculars in a shaking hand, she confirmed what she already suspected. “Found Oz,” she mumbled to Kasita. The light flooding the land vanished as she was watching, making her blink twice as her eyes tried to refocus to the night lit by nothing but the moon.
Swinging her view over to the church, she frowned.
The angel was gone. Not a feather in sight.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know for sure. An angel. But… But… W-we should get back to Irulon,” Alyssa said, closing her eyes as she dropped the binoculars. Her arms locked Izsha’s neck into a tight hug once again. She did not know how they were supposed to get down without parachutes and, honestly, wasn’t sure she wanted to know. As soon as she was able, she was going to draw up a hundred of those Feather Fall spells just in case she ever had a lapse in judgment and found herself this high again.