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Solid ground! Oh how Alyssa loved solid, unmoving, nearby ground. Being down on the ground gave her a chance to actually concentrate without occasionally glancing down and losing all train of thought. And yet, she hadn’t a clue what to think.

An angel! Why was there an angel? Did Tenebrael know about this one? She had to, right? Except… Tenebrael had acted surprised when Alyssa had first mentioned that Iosefael had followed her around. Tenebrael was not omniscient. What was it she had mentioned? Astral Authority? Was this angel part of that? They were planning on destroying this world if they found out about Tenebrael… weren’t they?

At the very least, this angel’s association with the Society of the Burning Shadow meant that she wanted to destroy Tenebrael. As much as she didn’t like Tenebrael, Alyssa really wasn’t sold on other angels being better. Iosefael had all but admitted that they intended to get her killed, even if the angels couldn’t do it themselves. And that was the one good thing about all this. That angel couldn’t hurt her or any other human. Not directly, at least. Giving the Society of the Burning Shadow Divine Inspiration? That was almost certainly fair game.

She needed someone to die nearby. Or for Tenebrael to show up for her chat sooner rather than later.

“This is what attacked us?” Oz said, pointing down at the phone.

Although Irulon had a great many questions after Alyssa had miraculously managed to not fall during Izsha’s descent, she had elected to retrieve the guild before showing any of the pictures she had taken. And before they could run too far off. Partially to get her thoughts together and partially to avoid having to explain things multiple times, if she indeed had to explain anything. For now, she was keeping silent, letting them come to their own conclusions without her bias added in. From Kasita and Tzheitza, Alyssa knew that nobody here had heard of angels before. That didn’t necessarily mean that angels were an unknown species, only that they called them something different.

“How did she get up there?” Oz asked. He looked up and over as if the cross was still in view. It wasn’t. Nothing but a cave ceiling was. They had moved a fair distance away, not wanting anyone from the little town to come across them while they discussed what had happened.

Lumen rolled her eyes. “The wings, idiot. I’m sure they’re not for show.”

“I meant, how did she get up there without us noticing? She’s not exactly trying to hide but I didn’t see her at all. And what is she? Some kind of deformed harpy? Why arms?”

Apparently angels were unknown, both in name and in form.

Catal leaned forward, trying to get a better look at the image. Most of the pictures Alyssa had taken were a bit blurry, but this was one of the best. The angel had her arm outstretched with the magic circle fully formed. It was just before the spell had gone off. “A new species,” he said softly. “I’ve memorized the guild’s monster repository. There is passing resemblance to harpies, but harpies do not have arms and hands. There are no other winged creatures that look this human. We should prepare to make a report on it. Unless the royal family has information on them?”

Irulon’s head barely twitched in a negative shake. Her eyes were black and white, spinning as fast as ever. Since Alyssa first pulled up the images, the princess hadn’t once blinked. “Show the other portrait,” she said, voice soft. “The one just before this.”

Alyssa swiped her thumb across the screen, going back to the picture before. The spell wasn’t fully formed in this one, but the shot was a little wider, giving a better view of the partial magic circle.

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You mean the part where she’s drawing out a spell in the air?” Lumen said with a scoff. “Or that a monster is drawing what looks like human magic? The Juno Federation has a lot to answer for if they’ve been spreading magical secrets among monsters.”

Alyssa did not miss the way Lumen glanced in her direction while speaking. She tried to put it out of her mind, focusing on Irulon. It was the princess who Alyssa most wanted to hear speak and so far, she hadn’t heard much. Irulon was not doing the thing where she talked aloud while thinking, unfortunately. If she was going to start talking now, Alyssa wanted to listen.

“Aside from that,” Irulon said. “The spell itself. Look at it. Tell me that isn’t the most overly complex diagram you’ve ever seen. And it’s huge, encompassing a total space equivalent to twelve by twelve standard spell cards.” She shook her head, managing to keep her eyes on the phone at the same time. “If the objective was to destroy your hiding spot, I could have managed the same with a single Fractal spell, which are complex spells, true, but far more compact. No human could have cast this. Dragons are estimated to be magically equivalent to Rank Nine and I doubt even one of them could have done so. This might just be Rank Ten magic, all to destroy a bit of rock.”

“Rank Ten? You’re serious? Princess Irulon, if I may be so blunt, your Fractal magic research has clearly addled your mind. I’ve heard what has come of those who have researched such magic and you are definitely following in their footsteps.”

“Surely you aren’t so ignorant as to believe that nothing out there could surpass Rank Nine? It must be unimaginably sad to have such a shriveled imagination. I believe that all Monster Lords are on par with the mythical Rank Ten. A few might even surpass that.”

“Surpass Rank Ten? You truly are insane.”

“Enlightened, Lumen. Just enlightened. And I would like to be more enlightened,” she said, turning away from her fellow arcanist. “So tell me, what is this creature?”

“Well,” Catal started. “Anytime the guild runs into a new monster type, there are a number of elements to take note of. From physical description to abilities to sexual dimorphism if—”

“Thank you, Catal, but I was inquiring of Alyssa.”

Three heads turned to face her with a variety of expression, from Lumen’s scowl to the thoughtful furrowed brows of Catal. Kasita and Irulon had already been looking in her direction. Despite having expected the question, Alyssa still hesitated under their glances, not sure exactly what to tell them all.

“You know these creatures?” Catal said, giving her a bit of prompting. “Do they have a name?”

“A name. Lovely. That tells us so much,” Lumen said, sarcasm dripping from her words.

Despite Lumen’s dismissal, a name was something she could jump off. A starting point. “Angels. My people call them angels. They were thought to be mythological… still are, really. I might be the first person to have seen one in thousands of years. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell anyone about it. The one I saw got a little mad at me for… uh, seeing her. She sent me here before I saw anyone else from my home.”

“Capabilities, Alyssa?” Irulon’s eyes were dancing, all lit up. She definitely found all this to be fascinating. How much was because she was finding out more about where Alyssa came from and how she got here? How much was about a new species? And how much of her excitement was because she realized that Tenebrael might just be one of these angels.

It almost surprised Alyssa that none of the others jumped to that conclusion upon seeing the picture. Tenebrael had black wings and four of them, true, but they were both humans with wings. Then again, she could also see how such a thought wouldn’t cross their minds. It was exactly the same situation Alyssa would be in if she found some old guy in a toga performing magic tricks. No matter how amazing those tricks were, she would never consider the possibility that he might be Zeus.

But their capabilities? “I don’t even know if there is a limit to what they can do,” Alyssa said after a moment. Lumen scoffed, but Alyssa ignored it. “I do know that they cannot normally be perceived or interacted with in any way by us mortals. They are invisible and intangible, which is why you didn’t notice her on top of that church. Strangely, they are not omnipotent. At least, they aren’t omniscient, which I believe is a requirement for omnipotence.”

“We’re supposed to believe this drivel?” Lumen shook her head. “What even is this trinket? How do we know this isn’t a ruse.”

“I have inspected the capabilities of the trinket and trust that it is accurate in its depictions. And I believe Alyssa to be telling the truth as far as she knows it, though I would ask that you stick to events and situations that you have directly observed. I gather that your feelings of omnipotence come from your mythology rather than your experience. Try to keep the two separate.”

Alyssa nodded at Irulon. Experiences. Right. Alyssa started telling them about everything she could remember of her experiences with Tenebrael, obviously leaving out the part of Tenebrael actually being one of these angels and the whole soul consumption aspect. She mentioned their teleportation abilities, the fight between Iosefael and Tenebrael and how they wound up destroying several buildings near the wall. “The one angel that has been interacting with me told me precisely when you would have died,” Alyssa said to Irulon. “The time she told me was fifteen minutes after your stasis would have run out naturally. She… asked if I would save your life.”

As soon as the words were out of Alyssa’s mouth, she regretted phrasing it like that. If Irulon suspected that Tenebrael was an angel, she would probably take that as her deity watching over her. If she didn’t suspect, she would take it as an impossibly powerful being watching out for her. Either way, a grin spread across her face at being explicitly mentioned.

Moving on as quickly as she could, Alyssa held out her phone. “Normally, these devices are relatively fragile and will only last continuously for a few hours. See how thin it is? It’s very flimsy. But I asked her if she would make this indestructible. She did.”

“Now that is something we can test,” Lumen said immediately, drawing a card from somewhere on her person with a smile.

Alyssa hesitated, pulling the phone closer protectively. It really wasn’t something she wanted to test. Though, she supposed that she had already done so to a degree. Just a half hour ago, she had dropped it from that pillar Izsha had climbed. Calling it to her hand had worked and it didn’t even have a single scratch on it. It was invulnerable. Right?

And it might shut Lumen up for a moment. She interrupted with a scoff at the very least every time Alyssa mentioned something Tenebrael had done.

“Alright.” Alyssa closed her eyes and took a breath. It would be fine. Tenebrael hadn’t lied about anything so far, even if Alyssa didn’t like what she had to say. Letting out her breath, she tossed the phone to the ground.

Lumen’s eyes practically glowed. “Stand back,” she said, making Alyssa wince. Once everyone was well clear of the poor phone, she threw the card into the air. It spun around, hovering directly above the phone with the magic circle aiming downward. “Annihilator,” she intoned.

Alyssa winced again, this time from the light. It wasn’t quite as bright as an angel’s halo, but she still had to shield her eyes. A heat crashed into her arms. Considering she was still wearing dragon scales, the fact that she could feel it on her arms made her extremely glad that she had put them in front of her face. Thankfully, it only lasted a moment. When Alyssa blinked the spots from her eyes enough to see, she found herself standing in front of a narrow crater at least five feet deep. The rock had turned from dusty brown to a glowing orange with a glossy sheen down to the very depths.

It was a good thing they had moved to a cave a fair distance from the town. If they had just been down on the other side of the hill, Lumen’s spell would have been as good as a mile-high neon advertisement. A beacon to everyone that wanted to hunt them. Alyssa glanced back for a moment, double checking that the cave entrance wasn’t anywhere in sight. It was a fairly deep hole in the side of a butte, so she doubted anyone would have seen anything.

Approaching the fresh pit, Alyssa leaned over the edge, pinching her nose. Molten rock did not smell the most pleasant, though she had smelled worse by far. It smelled far more… alive than Alyssa would have expected from rock. Hopefully it wasn’t anything toxic. The heat coming from the inside was intense. Still hot even after a few moments passed. How any of them had managed to avoid third degree burns from proximity was something likely only explainable through magic. But she could see her phone. Right on top of the slowly cooling rock, her phone sat, looking just as good as the day she had bought it. Better, even. Holding out a hand, it disappeared from the pit and reappeared at her fingertips. Turning it on, Alyssa quickly made sure that it did indeed still work. “Phew.”

Looking away from her phone, she found Lumen scowling. All Alyssa could do was shrug. Destroying five feet of rock sure was a good test for her phone’s tenacity. That was one load off her mind.

“These angels certainly sound impressive,” Lumen said, crossing her hands over her chest. “But if so, why let us go? Surely it could have destroyed us easily with that spell if their powers are so great.”

Alyssa nodded. “Yeah. The one that sent me here wanted to kill me at the time, I’m almost certain. But she mentioned something to me. Apparently angels cannot harm humans.”

“Cannot or will not?” Irulon asked.

“I… assume will not. I really don’t know. I do know that there is some sort of Astral Authority of angels that is supposed to keep them in line, but I also know that it doesn’t do a very good job of it. Something about leadership problems at the moment.”

“Then we should assume that they can hurt us, though may be reluctant to.”

“I suppose. But it is most likely why you three,” Alyssa paused, looking between Oz, Lumen, and Catal, “were merely sent running instead of worse.”

A brief moment of silence followed. Alyssa couldn’t help but notice Oz shiver slightly. Although somewhat panicked at the thought of facing a high number of trolls, he had faced the ones he had fought that night with a calm decorum that really made Alyssa believe that he was a veteran fighter. And she still believed that, even if Irulon was less than impressed with him. Still, it was probably somewhat unnerving to find out that he could have died without any way of fighting back first.

On the other hand, Lumen was shaking her head. Did she not believe anything that she was hearing? Her frequent scoffs and haughty attitude lent credence to that. Not to mention her obvious dislike of both Irulon and Alyssa. But surely she had to realize that something destroyed the terrain. Much more effectively than she had, at that. Maybe she was just hiding her insecurity over the situation using her attitude.

Catal, Alyssa knew the least of the three. She had met him at the exact same time as Lumen, but he didn’t talk much, and when he did, it was soft spoken. It gave her the impression that he was the thoughtful type. The way he was stroking his bushy mustache with furrowed brows only reinforced Alyssa’s opinion of him.

He was the one to break the moment of silence, first looking at Alyssa, then Irulon, then his two companions. “So what do we do about this angel? We aren’t even at the fairy commune and we’ve already run into this monster.”

“If it cannot hurt us, we simply ignore it as we go about our business. There were banners inside the town with the emblem of the Juno Federation. We’ll mark this on the map for our report and continue to the commune.”

“There are things worse than death, Lumen,” Irulon said. “It would not be wise to ignore this as a threat.”

“Of course we’re not going to ignore it. But we’re not going near that place again. We’re not equipped to fight off a whole army, which that town likely holds based on our brief reconnaissance.”

“Are we not?” Irulon said, smiling a smile that sent a small shiver down Alyssa’s spine.

“Besides that,” Alyssa said, trying to change the topic, “until now, I believed that I was the only one to know about angels in this world. But if the Society of the Burning Shadow is also aware of them, it is highly likely that this angel informed them of our presence here. Even if the angel does not interact with the Society, that light when the rock was destroyed will have alerted everyone, not to mention the rock being destroyed. I doubt we’ll be able to simply walk up to that town again.”

“Your trinket captured the state of the compound as it was before the angel made its presence known?”

Alyssa blinked, mind taking an extra second to process what Irulon had said. “I took pictures of the buildings and the town, if that’s what you mean.”

“Excellent. Morning isn’t far off. We will make camp here. This will give us time to plan as well as a chance for them to lower their undoubtedly heightened alert status.”

Oz held up a finger. “I don’t mind camping for the day, but Princess Irulon, Lumen is right. We are being paid to scout with a side objective of destroying a fairy commune. We have scouted a Juno Federation outpost. But entering it, and while it’s under the protection of a monster none has ever heard of before, definitely does not fall under our quest’s parameters. The five dragonsfire orbs I had to purchase from Tzheitza are only enough for the fairy commune. We don’t have spares to take out this place and we aren’t being paid to do so either.”

“If you wish to continue with your original mission, that is acceptable. However, the Society of the Burning Shadow clearly has an operation here and I will not be leaving until their operations are sufficiently disrupted.”

“How sufficient is sufficiently disrupted?”

Irulon grinned, flashing as many teeth as she could possibly manage. “The Society of the Burning Shadow nearly killed me. Worse, they’ve wounded my pride and made me look weak in front of someone whose opinion of me I did not wish to lower.” She did not look in Alyssa’s direction as she spoke, but who else could she have been talking about. Tess? “To repay their slight against me?

“I intend to raze this military compound to the ground along with every inhabitant.”

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