“Message. Alyssa Meadows. Acceptable. Wait for my signal. You’ll know it when you see it. Prepare a second Empty Mirror, just in case the spell interacts poorly when you cast it.”
Irulon looked back to the stables. Her original plan just wasn’t feasible with new information gained from the scene. Alyssa was having troubles as well. So Plan B it was. She had wanted to curse the horses with a particularly nasty bit of Death magic that would have them appearing unharmed and unaffected at first. When someone tried to ride them, the curse would trigger, explosively exsanguinating both the horse and rider. Suitably lethal and horrifically messy. Morale within this outpost would drop instantly.
If she further infected the horses’ blood with a variant of her Toymaker spell, the spray of blood and viscera would infect anyone nearby. Once the people were her toys, she could simply direct them to decimate the rest of the outpost. If their morale hadn’t hit rock bottom by that point, forcing the survivors to fight their former friends, comrades, and potentially family would destroy the last vestiges of hope they had. Even if she missed a few, they would probably end themselves in despair.
A perfect plan ruined by forces beyond her control.
The stables had protections around them. Her attempts at unraveling the magic weren’t working. A Rank Six arcanist should always be able to remove any spell cast by a lesser arcanist, so she had to assume that this was constructed by another Rank Six… or possibly that angel. Alyssa’s Desecrate Spells might work, but she wasn’t around to test at the moment.
Even with the help of her companion, Irulon couldn’t quite tell what the intended effect of the magic was either. All she knew was that she lacked the key, so to speak. Stealing one might be possible. From analyzing the magic around the stables and several of the other structures, she gathered enough information to determine that it was a physical object that allowed the bearer to pass through the protections. However, there was no way to determine what that object was.
Could she figure it out given time? Certainly.
Unfortunately, while they weren’t necessarily on a time limit, she did not want to spend more time near this outpost than necessary. The… angel had her uncharacteristically tense. Even if Alyssa was wrong about its relation to Tenebrael, the idea of a hostile being with a fraction of Her power was not comforting. She would have liked to dismiss the notion of angels as a delusion of stress-induced panic—Alyssa clearly loathed heights. Yet something had destroyed the landmass near the guild knights. Irulon had seen it with her own eyes.
Then there was the trinket and the portraits it showed. Having seen the phone take a picture of herself, the surrounding land, Lyria, and more, Irulon had no reason to doubt its capabilities.
A deep voice thundered within the recesses of her mind. ~It certainly is an interesting trinket. I doubt we’ve seen everything it can do.~
Mhm. I cannot fathom the spellwork required to replicate a portion of its abilities. To think she claims that it can access the total sum of human knowledge in her world alone is both awe inspiring and terrific to think about.
~The Akashic Library, made to fit in your hand.~
Let us avoid hyperbole. I doubt it is anything so extreme.
If it was… Alyssa’s world was even more fantastical than it seemed. Her city was fascinating enough. At first, Irulon had only been mildly impressed. The buildings were shiny, but nothing particularly special. It wasn’t until she caught sight of humans walking around that she realized the scale of the structures. Quickly estimating their average height allowed her to calculate the height of the buildings. Most of them were at least the size of the Royal Palace, assuming her calculations were correct—they usually were. And they were so slim too. The palace was an engineering and magical marvel, unparalleled throughout the world, designed with the best magic had to offer and the natural ingenuity of elves. No other building in the world could reach its magnificence. At the risk of thinking sacrilege, Irulon would even compare it favorably with Tenebrael’s temple in Teneville.
From Alyssa’s tone of voice, she didn’t find the structures special in the slightest. That might be the most terrific part of everything. Such structures were considered average and usual among her world.
What other wonders they must possess. Since being shown that short… video, Alyssa had called it, Irulon found herself yearning to return to Lyria and delve into her research with renewed vigor. All the more reason to get this over with quickly. She supposed she owed the Society of the Burning Shadow a begrudging thanks for nearly killing her. Unfortunate though that circumstance had been, it had led to her discovering more about Tenebrael.
A topic she still wasn’t sure what to think about or even if she wanted to consider. The theologists spoke of Tenebrael with reverence befitting an immortal being. Mortals were to be observant and respectful. The idea that an apparent mortal was on speaking terms with Tenebrael would send priests into a frenzy. Irulon doubted that she would have believed it had Alyssa been anyone more… normal. Even as it was, it sounded ridiculous enough that Irulon felt that it might be some being merely tricking Alyssa into believing that Tenebrael was speaking to her.
But Irulon tried to avoid operating on feelings as much as possible. It led to mistakes and unsound decisions.
Still, she wouldn’t mind just a little more evidence.
~Should you not be focusing on the task at hand?~
The prospect that Tenebrael might be so close is… distracting to say the least.
~I shall remind you. You were attempting to deliver vengeance upon the fools who dared to attack us.~
“Yes. How could I forget,” Irulon said aloud. Sarcasm just didn’t translate quite as well without the vocal inflections. “In any case, attempting to enter the stables would be folly. We will be a bit more violent in our destruction of their hope. It will have the side benefit of drawing attention from Alyssa, giving her more time to mentally debate her task.”
~You’re sure she will carry it out?~
“Like most humans, she has an aversion to killing her own kind. That, more than anything else, is evidence that she speaks true regarding her species. But destroying the only food supplies these people have access to will weigh on her to some degree. Depending, of course, on how much she considers the ramifications of stranding a large group of people without food.”
~They have food outside the storage depot. The living quarters will contain more readily consumable food and that church has a high chance of containing additional stores.~
“I am aware. There are also horses outside their stables. I spotted two while walking here. It isn’t about starvation. It is about morale. I want these heretics to know despair. The starvation is merely a positive side-effect.” Irulon held open her tome, cracking it open to a page she had selected earlier. Plan B was more noisy than their initial plan, but was also far more… fun. Poisonings were a dull way to go. The Toymaker spell combined with a Death curse would have been decent, and maybe she could still use it on the horses that were not currently in the stables, but they needed a little panic for the time being.
After… They would surely Message for help. Perhaps one or two survivors would be best. Reinforcements would arrive to a ghost town, finding only a fraction of the people who were supposed to be here. And everyone they would find would be nothing more than hollow shells of humans, too shocked to do more than babble incoherent horrors to their rescuers.
~You truly have a twisted mind.~
Irulon blinked, shaking her head after a moment. “I wonder whose fault that is.”
~Don’t fool yourself. You were like this before killing me.~
Scoffing, Irulon plucked the card from her tome. “Setting down traps.” Upon creating a disturbance, the first responders would arrive from between the stables and the building directly adjacent. Secondary responders, coming from the direction of the church, would arrive on the opposite side. For now, Irulon knelt between the stables, aiming the spell card downward.
The card melted away into a sickly green-black smog, seeping into the brown dirt. In a moment, nothing could be seen but faint wispy tendrils drifting in the lackadaisical wind. Someone might notice it, but it was unlikely. Once she destroyed the stables, all eyes would be on it, not the ground.
She moved around to three other spots she had identified as high probability locations for people to stand around and gape, including the area leading toward the church. At each one, she cast the same spell. It was a shame that her Toymaker spell didn’t have a trap-like variant. It was just never something she had needed. Even now, she doubted that she would put much effort into creating one. Alyssa’s very existence made the prospect of researching Fractal magic all the more alluring. Maybe even to the point where she could start terming a new branch of magic. World magic had a nice ring to it.
Finishing her traps, Irulon moved away from the stables until she was standing partway up the hill that surrounded the town. Bringing the dragon to the forefront of her mind, she scanned over everything, ensuring that she wasn’t about to make a mistake. The magic around the building protected against unauthorized entry by humanoid beings. Not against magic. Nothing she cast at it would get reflected back. Kasita could likely try entering should she disguise herself as something suitably inhuman, but there was nothing inside worthy of investigation and Kasita was supposed to be snooping around the church, looking for notable targets and information. Bringing her over here to look at horses would be a pointless endeavor.
Theoretically, Kasita could carry the curse and Toymaker spell into the room in a nonhuman disguise and then cast the spells, but Irulon was somewhat leery about handing over such spells to the mimic. Her counterparts handing over Loophole was one thing. It was an effectively harmless spell, if somewhat annoying should the mimic have used it on her.
It was the same reason that Irulon hadn’t given any deadly spells to Alyssa when she had been attempting to take down the Taker. At the time, Irulon still hadn’t been positive that Alyssa wasn’t some creature in disguise trying to assassinate a highly ranked arcanist and princess. All the spells she had given away couldn’t be used to directly kill anyone. Contract required the target’s agreement. Rigor Mortis could have been easily broken through the use of the other students at the Observatorium. Neither of the Fractal spells had been offensive.
Fractal Mirror technically could have wound up poorly for Irulon. Among the many infinite futures Alyssa had undoubtedly seen, a small infinite number of them had to have resulted in her death. Offering that had been a mistake, but Alyssa successfully casting the spell had not been among her projections for the outcome. Irulon had expected the spell to spectacularly fizzle, confirming that Alyssa could cast Rank Six spells but without actually handing her anything dangerous.
Underestimating her was far too easy to do.
But that was neither here nor there.
“Have I missed anything?”
~Actually asking me? That’s unusual.~
“This is an unusual situation. Angels. Hm. It is out of my expertise.”
~You aren’t the only one. The spell drawn on your acquaintance’s trinket—~
“It’s a picture. You heard her.”
~The picture drawn on your acquaintance’s trinket contained a spell unlike any I have encountered. I am still running simulations on its use and am attempting to recreate it as something usable.~
“Usable for a dragon or for a human?”
Well, he seemed distracted. Understandable. Sometimes Irulon wished that she could spend her days lost in thoughts with all the time in the world to develop her theories. There was just so much annoyance with regular existence. Like being stabbed by gaunts.
Shaking her head, Irulon withdrew a card from her tome. Compared to most of her repertoire, this was rather simple spell. Not Fractal magic nor Death. It was a Ground based spell. Lots of stylized arrows pointed in every direction within a cuboid. Pointing the drawn face toward the stables, Irulon activated the spell with a calm voice.
The effect was immediate. The building, made from wood and cobblestone, trembled. Several of its neighboring buildings rumbled as well, though to a lesser extent. Stones along its base came loose, falling to the dirt. With its foundations in shambles, the wooden beams holding up the main structure failed.
Before the building fell completely, Irulon already had another spell in hand. Again, a simple one. Just a boring Fireball this time. While she could have destroyed it with the same spell she had used on the horse and rider the night before, she was too well known for using Fractal magic. Unless she knew for a fact that these people wouldn’t be able to send off a Message, she didn’t want people to know that she was here. It was all too possible that the Society of the Burning Shadow would see her as a valuable enough target to throw everything they had after her.
She could take it, but it would be annoying in the extreme.
The fireball flew from her fingertips with an uttered word, flying straight toward the crumbling building. A blaze started up where it had struck, sending smoke into the sky.
Irulon didn’t stick around to watch it burn. While Empty Mirror was still secure around her body, that fireball would have been visible to anyone looking at the hill. She had to relocate before they could attempt to locate her properly. She did take some small pleasure in watching someone stumble right into one of her traps. Stranding Demise did its job perfectly with smoky tendrils snaking out of the ground to latch onto the first person who trod on them. They coiled tight, eliciting a panicked shout from their target until they started squeezing his throat. It wasn’t long before the hooded man was dragged down into the ground.
Just as his head disappeared beneath the brown dirt, Irulon winced. A blinding light filled her vision, forcing her to turn away. Even with her head turned, she could still feel the light as heat searing her face.
There was a mild panic from her constant companion. A rarity. Not even dying at the hands of the gaunt had caused much more than a calm acceptance. Technically, he had already died once. Doing so again didn’t concern him.
But a being on Tenebrael’s level… Something that might be able to rip their souls from Irulon’s body and keep them from Tenebrael’s embrace…
Irulon squinted her eyes open, analyzing everything. It only took a moment to recognize that black-within-white light. Annihilator. But the size of it. It was as if someone had turned the rings in the sky to the annihilation spell and crashed them to the ground. The blast was so large, she couldn’t even see the other half of the town.
She flicked her watering eyes between the hillside and the town, trying to estimate exactly what it was hitting and where its origin point was.
A low, sardonic chuckle started up in the back of her mind as soon as she did the math. “It’s Alyssa,” she mumbled.
~Weren’t you just saying how you shouldn’t underestimate her?~
“I don’t—” Irulon cut herself off, looking away from the light. She wanted to keep looking, to keep gathering data, but her eyes were going to suffer from the burn for an hour as it was. “I don’t understand how she could possibly have turned Annihilator into that.”
~I always felt human spells were given names far too grandiose for their actual effect. At least she puts the annihilation into that particular spell. It reminds me of the breath of a Void Dragon.~
“And she wonders why people think she’s a monster…”
The burning warmth on Irulon’s face died down, leaving the natural desert heat actually feeling unusually chilly in its absence. Chancing a glance, Irulon had to blink away the spots in her eyes just to see. And once she did, she gaped. She couldn’t help it. Even her companion expressed surprise in his own subdued manner. The surprise only lasted half a second before Irulon felt a flash of irritation. Half the hillside was gone. No one would be wandering into her traps anytime soon. The stables burning down didn’t rank as half as pressing a matter with that scar in the landscape.
That wasn’t to say that they would be useless. People would eventually approach the stables. In fact, it might be even more damaging to their morale if they stumbled into her traps after seeing that swath of destruction. Although she almost certainly had done it unintentionally, Alyssa had pulled attention off everyone else. She could use this opportunity to her advantage. She still had a dozen Stranding Demise cards. Why not use them? Maybe she would even catch someone important when they inevitably came out to investigate. This should also give Kasita time to perform her own investigations.
“Message. Kasita,” Irulon said, withdrawing one of her cards. “In case you missed it, Alyssa just destroyed half the hillside. I imagine opportunities will arise shortly for you to move about entirely unnoticed. Just be aware of the protections I mentioned. Stick to an inhuman form. Meet us behind the church when you finish.”
With that sent off, Irulon started heading toward the meeting place. Every so often, she paused and placed a trap in the ground.
~There appears to be a prison beneath the church. I am investigating for the moment, but I may need assistance freeing the captives.~ Kasita sent the response shortly after.
She arrived at the meeting point far later than she had expected with all the detours to trap likely paths, yet there was no sign of Alyssa. Softly calling out brought forth no response from invisible people. There were no abnormal footprints in the ground anywhere that Irulon could see. Had Alyssa arrived and left? Unlikely. Alyssa would have sent a Message first. Captured? Higher possibility than merely wandering off. In shock from casting such a powerful spell? High possibility, roughly equal with being captured. Or, more accurately, she wound up captured because of her state of shock.
There was another possibility. Her magic use had drawn the attention of the angel. Or of Tenebrael. Irulon might be able to break her out of a holding cell with relative ease, but those beings might pose a problem. If Tenebrael had taken Alyssa somewhere, there would be nothing that Irulon could or would do aside from utter a prayer. If it were the angel, how was she supposed to fight a being so powerful that it had managed to keep itself hidden from humanity for the entirety of human history.
Ah. Irulon turned, idly noting disturbed dirt consistent with Alyssa’s size and weight near a bit of sagebrush. The air was empty, of course. Alyssa had Empty Mirror active.
“Here.” Checking that no one was around to see them, Irulon dismissed Empty Mirror with a wave of her hand, disrupting the fractal shards enough to break the spell. The cold glass-like bits of magic pressed only slightly against her gloved fingers before winking out of existence.
Alyssa did the same a moment after, fading into visibility as her own spell dissipated. The woman did… not look great. She had bags under her eyes. Since beginning this journey, she had looked constantly tired, so that wasn’t anything too new. But her eyes did look more moist than usual. Had she been crying? That was disappointing to see.
Reassurance. She had clearly not enjoyed what she had done. Telling her she wouldn’t have to do it again would give her relief. That combined with a minor commendation should help to improve her spirits. “Note for the future,” Irulon said. “Let us have you avoid highly destructive spells unless we want something utterly obliterated. I expected something nonstandard, but this exceeds all my analysis. Even as a Rank Six arcanist, I would be hard pressed to do quite that much without significant preparation beforehand.”
Alyssa snorted, shaking her head in the process. “I didn’t mean to.”
“No matter. It is advantageous to us for now,” Irulon said, adding just a hint more praise. They started talking about Alyssa’s usage of the spell. Although she absorbed every word, filing them away in her mental library, Irulon deliberately avoided thinking about the hows at the moment. She didn’t have time and would rather not have half-formed theories interrupted when Kasita arrived. It didn’t help that Alyssa was woefully uninformed in the specifics of magic. She couldn’t explain how she managed to cast spells without an activation phrase, let alone why the spell had been so powerful.
All in all, it wound up being a waste of a conversation. Alyssa truly knew nothing. Irulon did have a few theories. There were a few species of monsters that could occasionally crossbreed with humans. It was possible that Alyssa was a product of such a union. However, she displayed no secondary characteristics of anything but human. Another theory was that everyone from Alyssa’s world would display similar interactions with magic. Not a theory that could be easily tested, assuming it was true. Irulon was still a little on the fence about that. The idea was so fantastic that she wanted to believe it. Alyssa clearly did so. Still, she would need more evidence before fully committing to any one idea.
Irulon was about to halt the useless conversation and move on to more important matters—that mimic was taking a long time and should have at least sent a message by this point—when Alyssa held out the trinket.
Yes, thank you, Irulon thought to her companion, projecting as much irritation as she could into the three words.
“I took a picture you might find interesting,” Alyssa said, entirely unaware of the mental dialog.
Looking down at the glass surface, Irulon’s breath hitched. She immediately shut off her connection to her companion. He immediately set to complaining. Irulon ignored him, shunting him completely from her mind as she stared at the captured portrait. This was hers and hers alone.
Tenebrael. There was no doubt about that. The image displayed before her eyes was just as the pilgrims described. Four massive wings, each covered in black feathers. Skin as pale as the moon with luminescent eyes shining clearly on a perfect face. The dress, black as the darkest nights. And the tattoos. Described through the words of a thousand dying men, they were nearly perfect. Nearly, Irulon thought, an unconscious hand drifting to touch her own face.
There was still the question of whether this being that Alyssa spoke to was truly Tenebrael. However, if it wasn’t, it had clearly put the effort in to appear true to the description. Everything, from the majestic poise to the calm expression, fit with what Irulon pictured in her mind.
And yet, despite her elation upon gazing at the One Above All, the more she looked, the filthier Irulon felt. Tenebrael, for whatever reason, had chosen to reveal Herself to Alyssa. Not to Irulon. Merely gazing upon her guise felt irreverent. It went against everything the priests had taught.
There was no doubt in Irulon’s mind that Alyssa would not have been able to capture this portrait had Tenebrael objected. Hadn’t Alyssa admitted that the trinket had been crafted by Her hands? If She wished, the trinket would be destroyed. That was true. It had to be.
Then there shouldn’t be anything wrong with looking. Alyssa was the medium through whom Tenebrael had chosen to reveal her full self to the living. Looking at the image before her was Tenebrael’s will.
Considering it that way set her mind partially at ease.
It wasn’t like Irulon to lose track of time. While lesser peasants required specialized candles to mark the passing of time, Irulon managed to count the seconds with the aid of her companion. Even still, fully disconnected as she was, she couldn’t be certain how long it had taken her to tear her eyes from the glassy surface of Alyssa’s trinket. She had questions on her tongue for the woman.
But should she ask? Alyssa might be the designated carrier of Her image, but words could easily be delivered through other means. A pilgrimage had taken place mere weeks ago. Irulon had already read the disappointingly sparse transcription of the events. There was little to no information there that wasn’t contained elsewhere. If Tenebrael had wished for Her words to spread across the land, it should have been a simple matter to ask one of the pilgrims to repeat what She had said.
And if She wished for only Irulon to hear the words, surely She would have appeared before her, rather than Alyssa.
The girl in question wasn’t even paying attention any longer. She was staring off with wide eyes… at nothing.
~Something is wrong.~
I concur, Irulon thought, letting her companion fully return. She did tilt the trinket away, preventing herself, and her companion, from seeing it more. Connected once again, it took only a quick scan to deduce the problem.
Alyssa’s breathing was stilted and her heart was beating faster than normal. Typical signs of panic, an unfortunately common state of being for the poor woman. Her eyes, however. Judging by the dilation, the angle of each, and the minor movements, she was tracking something approximately six paces away, slightly taller than herself.
Something that Irulon could not see.
It could be a shadow assassin. The Society of the Burning Shadow was known to use them. However, because of that, Irulon already had Unseen Sight active. And she saw nothing at all. There were a few ways to fool Unseen Sight. Objects and creatures hidden somewhere between dimensions through Fractal magic, for one. However, Alyssa had been unable to perceive the Fractal cloak around Irulon prior to their meeting. The panic inducer was something else.
There was only one thing that Alyssa was known to see that no one else could.
Yes. This should be interesting.