Alyssa crept through the town, moving slowly as she eyed her surroundings. No one should be able to see her. She had a shroud of glass shards surrounding her, making anyone who looked in her direction see nothing at all. Empty Mirror. Alyssa had snapped a picture of it the second Irulon had handed it over. It was one of the spells that Alyssa had been wanting a permanent copy of. With it being a lower rank relative to some of the other Fractal spells, it didn’t look overly complex to redraw either. As soon as she had a spare moment, she would be drawing up a dozen of them.
Now was not the time.
So far, she had passed no less than twelve people. None made any indication of noticing her presence, but they were definitely on alert, watching their surroundings almost as much as Alyssa was. Whether their agitated state came from the angel, the destruction of one of the rock pillars around their base, or the fact that three of their scouts hadn’t returned didn’t really matter to Alyssa. The point was that they were wary.
And the more she looked around at the people and buildings, the more her confidence grew that these were not random civilians. This was a military installation. There were no children around, first and foremost. Men and women, yes, but no children. If this were a regular village, Alyssa would have expected at least a handful of children. Secondly, while not everyone wore the garb, about half the people Alyssa had seen wore some form of a hooded cloak. She still wasn’t sure why they wore it. Something religious, presumably. Even just a half hour after nightfall, it was hot. A normal person wouldn’t wear a thick cloak in a desert.
Would they? Movies and other media often portrayed desert dwellers as having concealing clothing, but Alyssa had always figured that those would be light clothes, just enough to keep the sun off the skin. The cloaks the Society of the Burning Shadow wore looked more suited to a colder environment. Not quite icy tundra cold, but something with a far more manageable temperature than a desert.
In any case, Alyssa had far less compunctions about acting against these people than she had when she worried that this was just a poorly thought out settlement. Though, she was glad that her job did not involve the stables. People were one thing, but the poor horses had been dragged into this.
Of course, her job wasn’t exactly the most comforting of tasks either. It was one thing to be attacked and fight back. It was another thing entirely to sneak through their village to poison their food stores. If this were Earth, it would probably be a war crime.
If this were Earth, enslaving a million ants to use as shock troopers would probably be a war crime too. Did that make what she was doing right? No. Not at all. But at the same time, going up to them and asking politely if they would stop wouldn’t work. No matter what she did, it would take drastic measures. Poisoning them was definitely safer for Alyssa than fighting them directly.
Alyssa tossed a glance up to the church and its cross. She had expected the angel to show up when she had first crested the hilltop with Irulon and Kasita, but it hadn’t. So far, the church was silent. She wasn’t sure if she should be more worried about the lack of an angel or relieved that another one wouldn’t start talking to her. For now, she continued forward at her cautious pace, moving aside to ensure that she didn’t accidentally bump into a pair of hooded people walking in the opposite direction.
“The way you tell it, Liadri’s vision sounds most concerning,” one said as they passed, making Alyssa pause.
A vision? Like a prophesy? Or some kind of premonition? That sounded mildly more important than poisoning the food and water supply. Maybe it was just an excuse to procrastinate on potentially murdering a few dozen people, but Alyssa turned and started following the two, keeping a short distance behind them, while remaining close enough that she could hear.
“Yes. We should be on guard. Even more than we are now. The watchmen have seen nothing, but I feel an unnatural chill in the air.”
“There is precaution then there is paranoia. And Liadri’s visions breed paranoia. I wonder how accurate this vision will truly be. Her words have not come to pass as often as they used to, lately. The seventh experiment was supposed to have been a success, but only young Morgan returned. We should have received word about the ninth experiment by now, but our brethren are silent. Dead? Captured as well?”
“Have faith. We are a blessed people. Be wary of a wandering mind—”
“I know the tenets. But do you not worry that Liadri’s mind has wandered? Her visions were once as true as the sun rising every morning. Now, they are errant. Even the words you spoke to me are contradictory. Early on in this vision, she specifically mentioned that we are all united in our goal. Two lines later and, ‘The enemy walks among us. They wear familiar faces and pass unseen beside us, carrying about their subversive tasks.’ So which is it? Do we trust each other or do we have a traitor in our midst?”
Alyssa’s breath hitched. They were talking about her, Kasita, and Irulon. Surely. Those were two separate clauses. Kasita wore a familiar face of one of the watchmen they had taken out near the partially complete wall, attempting to infiltrate the church while armed with a dozen spells of Irulon’s creation in case she wound up discovered. Meanwhile, Alyssa and Irulon were supposed to be taking out their supplies and their stables respectively, both unseen under their shrouds.
Just who was this Liadri? Even vague as it was, that vision was accurate. That this guy interpreted it as referring to a traitor was luck. Someone else might not come to the same conclusion. And how old was that vision? It had to be recent. Alyssa hadn’t even known what she would be doing now just a few hours ago. Could a prophesy predict her movements farther in advance than that? Or was it predicting her at all? Not even Tenebrael’s little book could predict her, so the idea that a mundane human had managed to do what Tenebrael couldn’t was laughable. The vision could have been referring to nothing more than Kasita and Irulon, leaving Alyssa out of it.
Would this Liadri have a vision about the poisoned supplies? Or the dead horses? Both could be a problem, though Irulon didn’t seem to care much that they would be found out. Without supplies or transportation, it didn’t matter if they knew about the food. They would either eat and die or starve and die. Neither pleasant outcomes, but nothing that the people here could change.
Liadri sounded familiar. Alyssa was almost certain that she had heard that name before. There were really only a handful of possibilities. It had either come from one of the Society of the Burning Shadow, likely Morgan given that Morgan was the only one Alyssa had spoken with for any length of time. There was the possibility that Irulon or Tzheitza had mentioned a Liadri, but the more Alyssa thought about it, the more she thought it was Morgan.
It didn’t really matter, except that she couldn’t ask Irulon about it if she hadn’t been the one to tell her. Though she wasn’t sure how much she needed to ask. Just from context, it was clear that Liadri was a sort of seer. An accurate one at that, even if her vague words didn’t make perfect sense when taken at face value.
There was a possibility that this Liadri was the angel from the night before, but Alyssa doubted it. Given both Tenebrael and Iosefael’s surprise with Alyssa being able to see them, it clearly was not a common occurrence. If someone here was talking to an angel, it would be a single person, not many people. Perhaps Liadri was that person, disguising what the angel told her as prophesy.
But what to do about it? The two men were still talking. One berating the other for accusing Liadri of having a wandering mind, whatever that was supposed to mean. Alyssa waited, following them for another minute until they went into one of the smaller buildings around the church. No part of their conversation gave her a clue as to what they would be doing inside, but she didn’t want to risk entering. They took up too much space and closed the door behind them. Even though they couldn’t see her, they would be able to see the door opening and closing.
So Alyssa backed away, ducking between two buildings. Making sure that she was alone in the… it wasn’t really an alley, but it was close enough to one for her purposes. “Message. Irulon. I just overheard two people talking about a seer having a vision, warning her followers against an enemy walking unseen and wearing familiar faces. They seemed to think it referred to a traitor, but I thought you should be aware in any case.”
After sending a nearly identical Message to Kasita to warn the mimic that the people here might be on the lookout for her, Alyssa waited. It was really just more procrastination, using the excuse that Irulon might message her back to avoid heading to the food storage. Procrastination wasn’t like her. Alyssa preferred to do things as soon as possible, especially unpleasant things. Just get them out of the way and leave time to do something more fun.
But this, this was something drastically different from homework or getting her truck serviced. This…
She had killed people. There was no doubt about that. But she had justified every death through necessity or self defense. Could she do the same after indiscriminately poisoning everyone here? Honestly? Probably. This world was messed up. The longer Alyssa spent in it, the more she was confident that it was messing her up as well. It wasn’t that there was some magical corruption affecting her mind. Having to kill so many people would mess anyone up.
Two months ago, before she had even heard of this world… back when she woke up every morning, went to work, went to the gym, did the same things over and over again day in and day out, would she have ever considered poisoning even one known murderer? Probably not. Now here she was, easily able to come up with far more reasons to do it than not.
A flash of anger hit Alyssa, once again hating this stupid world and all its idiotic inhabitants. Setting her face in stone, Alyssa stalked through the streets, retracing the steps she had taken while following after those two men. She had memorized the layout of the town thanks to her pictures. Even if she had gotten lost, the church stood tall, acting as a compass. The buildings around it were tiny. Unless she were standing right up against one, she would be able to see the tall cross from anywhere in the town.
Alyssa glanced up. Still no angel. Just checking.
As she walked, a pressure weighed on Alyssa’s mind. A foreign feeling of unnatural thoughts. At first, she feared that the fairy wasn’t quite as dead as it should be in Musca’s stomach, then she worried that she had wandered too near a fairy that these people had captured. But it was a different sort of pressure. She didn’t feel giddy and happy. Once she started to relax, she heard it. A familiar voice.
~Understood. Beware trying to enter the building, I’ve found protections around the stables and am unsure of their intended effects. Complete your task using Plan B then meet near the church. Around the south side, there is a large desert sagebrush. I will be waiting nearby.~
Irulon. Alyssa sighed, glad it was just a Message spell. The first time she had actually heard it directed at her. Though heard wasn’t the right way to think of it. Like the fairy’s voice, it resounded within her mind. Not air hitting her eardrums, but not her own thoughts either. The voice was distinct and separate, clearly Irulon speaking.
Perhaps that was how Oxart had fallen. Oxart might have been expecting to receive a Message, but let in the fairy instead, giving it a foothold in her mind. That made a certain amount of sense, now having experienced both the Message and fairy control.
But again, Alyssa found herself procrastinating.
The storehouse was right in front of her. A smallish building, cobblestone up to the waist then wood from there up. The roof was a yellowed thatch. It only had one wooden door. There had been a few guards patrolling the borders of the village. Those guards hadn’t been there the night before, so something—the angel destroying a rock formation almost certainly—had spooked them. However, there was no guard here. If Alyssa were in charge here, she would definitely not leave such an important depot undefended. Liadri even said that ‘the enemy’ walks among them. Regardless of if that meant a traitor or an interloper, they had to realize that such an isolated, non-farming community lived and died by their supplies.
A magical defense then? That was probably what Irulon meant by protections. Alyssa hesitated in touching the door. Such a defense was possible. Kasita had mentioned that proper spell tomes were typically protected against being touched by monsters such as her. So it might be possible to key a door to opening only for specific people or to some with a special key. Then again, the Society of the Burning Shadow did not seem all that magically adept. They didn’t have a wide variety of spells. Everyone Alyssa had seen basically used nothing but low level Death spells and a few Fire spells.
Unless the angel had done the defenses.
With a little trepidation, Alyssa reached for the doorknob, just touching it.
Alyssa closed her hand around the handle with more confidence. Still nothing happened, so she gave it a little tug.
The door didn’t budge. Blinking in surprise, Alyssa quickly found the problem. A little keyhole just above the handle. A deadbolt, or whatever the local equivalent was. How foolish, she thought with a shake of her head. All that overthinking with magic, but it had just been locked. A regular, mundane lock.
Someone somewhere had to have a key. Probably many someones. Food and water was something needed regularly. High ranking people and whoever prepared the food were the most likely people to have keys, but she didn’t have a clue where to start looking. Kasita might be able to find one. However, Irulon had offered an alternative if Alyssa was unable to get into the building.
“Message. Irulon. Locked door on the storage house. Proceeding to Plan B in five minutes, unless you have objections.” Irulon had already said to go ahead with Plan B in her Message, so there really was no excuse for the delay. Maybe it was just another method of procrastination.
While waiting for a reply, Alyssa pulled out a spell card. A triangle with an eye in the center, similar to the eye of providence, set inside a circle with eight arrows pointing away from it. Each arrow pointed to a word directly underneath a symbol. The words were the angelic script, but the symbols were clear to see. A sun, a tree, a skull, flames, an ankh, a crescent moon, a pentagram, and some wavy circles that might have been representations of the wind or waves. There was more to it than that—it wasn’t as complex as Fractal spells, but still quite impressive.
The symbols raised a lot of questions. A skull obviously implied death, flames for fire, a tree for life—or maybe that was the ankh. But one spell incorporated elements of the various magical specializations. She knew the name of the spell and that it supposedly fit under the Fire branch of magic, but if it was only fire, why did it need a skull and an ankh?
Learning magic properly seemed like a daunting task anytime she looked at a higher ranked spell. And to think that Irulon could understand even small aspects of the angel’s spell. Maybe Alyssa needed to go find a dragon to shove inside her head for extra mental capacity, or whatever it was giving Irulon. Alyssa considered herself an intelligent woman, but magic was just a little too esoteric for her.
A pressure in her mind indicated a new Message. This time, she didn’t resist at all, listening to Irulon’s words. ~Acceptable. Wait for my signal. You’ll know it when you see it. Prepare a second Empty Mirror, just in case the spell fails poorly when you cast.~
Alyssa didn’t like the sound of that. She would have to ensure that no one was around her, just in case she became visible for a moment before she could recast Empty Mirror.
Waiting for Irulon’s signal, Alyssa couldn’t help but be glad that she didn’t have to poison the food. The food would still be destroyed and people would still die, but poison… She shook her head. Thinking about it too much wasn’t going to help matters.
A rumble ran through the ground several minutes after the message. Dust shook free from the thatch roof. Smoke started rising over the top of the nearby buildings in a thick black plume. It came from the direction of the stables. If that wasn’t Irulon’s sign, Alyssa didn’t know what would be it. The princess must have had a little trouble cursing the horses to kill their next rider. It was a shame that they had to die like that, but Alyssa had to focus.
She gripped the spell in her hand, aiming it at the door with a slight downward angle to destroy the supports of the building. After the building itself was a pile of rubble, several fire spells should incinerate anything inside. For whatever reason, she didn’t need to speak a word when casting magic. Still, the spell’s name came almost unbidden to Alyssa’s mind.
The sudden light forced Alyssa to close her eyes and move an arm in front of her face. Even with her eyes closed, it felt like she was staring at a bright light. She could feel the heat far worse than when Lumen had cast it. Her face, even with an arm in the way, felt like she had been staring at the sun for hours upon hours. Alyssa didn’t sunburn easily, but a vacation to the California beaches in the dead of summer without any sunscreen had taught her what bad sunburns felt like.
This was worse.
Even through her dragon hide armor, she could feel the burning. It wasn’t burning her, but it was burning.
Alyssa lost all track of time. The spell seemed like it was lasting far longer than when Lumen had cast it, but telling with any certainty was impossible. All she could do was wait until the heat died down.
Which it slowly did. There still was some heat, but it was residual. Without even opening her eyes, Alyssa recast Empty Mirror. If Annihilator had been as bright as it had been when Lumen had cast it, everyone in this village would be rushing in her direction. As soon as she was sure that she was safe, she opened her eyes just a sliver.
Bewildered, her eyes widened, looking around.
There was nothing. Nothing at all.
The entire cobblestone and wood building was gone completely. As was the building behind it and the building behind that. There were no other buildings further back, thankfully, but part of the hill surrounding the little village was no more. It had a gouge carved through it. Looking down, Alyssa stumbled back, feeling that queasy sensation she got from heights well up again.
The gouge ran deep. That was an understatement. A diving pool was deep. The narrow swathe Annihilator had carved into the land might as well be a cross section of the Grand Canyon. The walls were glowing molten red all the way down.
On her hands and knees, Alyssa crawled away from the pit, not trusting her legs to keep her upright at the moment. A single gust of wind could send her careening to her death.
People were gathering, shouting and making noise. Alyssa paid no attention to them. The shifting shards of Empty Mirror surrounded her. They wouldn’t see. She just needed to get away. To get somewhere safe, where she could catch her breath. She had been expecting rubble, not to reshape the landscape to have an above-ground Mariana Trench.
What if there was a landslide to fill in the fresh hole? She could get caught in it. Or what if there had been a fault line? What if, what if, what if…
She pressed her back against a building, just glad that she hadn’t been aiming toward the stables or to the church. If she had accidentally killed Irulon or Kasita… Alyssa shuddered, wondering how many people had just had their existence wiped out. Though perhaps she had done them a favor, saving them from slow deaths by poison or starvation. She supposed that she could ask as soon as Tenebrael popped into being. Already, there were feathers floating through the air.
Except… not black feathers. Spotless white feathers flew through the air in a furious whirlwind. In the center of them all, an angel in a red dress hovered above the new canyon. She stared down, searching the ground, or what was left of the ground.
Alyssa tried to edge away behind the building. It probably wouldn’t help much against such a being, but the angel gave her as bad a feeling as being near the edge of that pit.
The second she moved a finger, burning red eyes locked on to her.