Getting back into the town proper was the last thing Alyssa wanted to do. With their food and water destroyed, she didn’t see much of a reason to stick about. If this were a true medieval society, they would almost certainly be dead by now. Unfortunately, the Message spell existed. Alyssa had found the spell moderately useful. It definitely wasn’t a phone, but sending quick warnings was probably what it had been originally designed for.
And if these people sent off a request for help, extra supplies might arrive well before they actually felt the effects of their existing storage depots being destroyed. Which was the main reason that they simply couldn’t walk away. Not after Irulon had gone through all the effort of getting Iosefael to remove the protections around the buildings.
Also Kasita. Alyssa wasn’t too worried, but the mimic’s radio silence had been going on for a bit longer than she would have liked. Sending a Message asking for an update had yet to produce any response, which added to her worrying. Was she in trouble? Had she been captured or had she fallen prey to one of the protections? The best possibility that came to mind was simply that Kasita had to hide and couldn’t send a message at the moment.
Alyssa looked around the church’s main floor with a spell active. Unseen Sight. It was supposed to reveal hidden things. Shadow assassins and mimics were all Alyssa cared about at the moment. At least, they were the only things that she knew about. If there was some other invisible Predator in the church, she might care for that as well.
The main floor of the church didn’t look a thing like what Alyssa had expected. The rows and rows of pews were missing. There was no pulpit where a preacher might preach. No giant pipe organ covering one wall or Christian iconography in stained glass windows. That wasn’t to say that the church was empty. There were several… shrines set about. Each featured a small clay statue of a seated person holding one hand with the palm facing upward and the other hand with the palm facing downward. The sculpting wasn’t detailed enough to make out any facial details save for large pits in place of the eyes.
Seeing six or seven of them placed around the room with clear offerings of food or plants in a bowl at the statue’s feet sent chills up Alyssa’s back. It was like something out of a horror movie. Why didn’t they have eyes?
Shaking her head, she looked toward the center of the room. A wide basin, maybe the size of the average hot tub, occupied the majority of the floor. The water was only ankle deep, but it was crystal clear. The water in this world was not polluted at all, not like it was on Earth. However, this pool of water was the only basin that she would consider drinking from without boiling it first. Maybe it was paranoia—other people drank water and she had even taken a few long baths at the public baths back in Lyria without getting sick—but just seeing those doctors in action had reaffirmed her belief in modern science.
In the center of the circular basin, a narrow marble pillar jutted upward. It was elegantly carved with many intricate lines. Alyssa couldn’t make out any distinct images in the carvings, the lines looked more like it formed one gigantic maze. With how elegant the pedestal was, seeing a hunk of sandstone haphazardly dropped on top felt off. It wasn’t polished, chiseled, carved, or otherwise prettied up. The sandstone was just a orange boulder of rock the size of a beach ball. It wasn’t even perfectly round, being lumpy and more flat on the bottom than the rest of it.
The only notable thing about it were the two holes in its side, each no larger than Alyssa’s finger. Beneath the holes, the stone was darker. It glistened slightly in the light from the shrines’ candles. Wet.
“This must be the Struck Stone.”
Alyssa started at hearing the disembodied voice. She glanced to where she thought Irulon was probably standing. It was hard to tell for certain with the invisibility spells active. Unseen Sight did not see this unseen sight. According to Irulon, it was something to do with Fractal magic tricking the world into thinking that Empty Mirror’s occupants weren’t in the world. Or something. Basically, pure illusory or mind-altering magic would be detected easily, but not Fractal magic.
Which was good. It meant she didn’t have to worry about the Society of the Burning Shadow spotting her. But it was bad in that she had no idea where Irulon exactly was.
Or even vaguely. While Alyssa stared at the empty air, Irulon could easily have moved closer to the fountain.
“It’s broken now. Let’s just find Kasita and get out of here.”
“One moment,” Irulon said.
The water in the basin splashed, making Alyssa jump again. Irulon had moved forward. And jumped into the fountain. There were ripples in the still water that hadn’t been there before. Dirt as well. But no sign of Irulon’s actual body. The ripples were fairly uninformative. Maybe Irulon could determine the exact location of an invisible someone standing in the water, but Alyssa couldn’t. There weren’t any feet-shaped holes in the water or a wider disturbance that might be from the shroud.
A black mist formed in the air above the fountain’s basin. It drifted toward the sandstone boulder, seeping into the rock until Alyssa couldn’t see anything more. The splashing in the water happened again. This time, a few wet footprints appeared on the outside of the basin’s wall.
Irulon clearly noticed. Despite Alyssa having seen nothing at all, the footprints vanished, swiped away by some unseen hand.
“What was that?”
“Just a little surprise,” Irulon said with clear amusement in her voice. “Anyone inspecting the stone in an attempt to figure out why it isn’t working is going to have a bad time. Incidentally, I advise against touching it.”
Even though she was nowhere near the basin, let alone the stone sitting atop the pedestal in the center of it, Alyssa took a step back. The warning was enough for her. She had absolutely no desire to find out what Irulon had done to it.
“It looks like there is a stairwell leading to a lower level at the far end of the room. Shall we find out what they’re keeping down there?”
Ugh. She would have to get closer to the fountain to get around it. Luckily, the main room was large enough to provide ample space to go around. It was paranoia, she knew, but she couldn’t kick the thought that she might slip on a puddle of water, fall into the basin, knock into the pedestal, and wind up with a cursed rock crushing her to death. Or doing whatever it was cursed to do.
“If you are quite done,” Irulon said, voice having turned terse for some reason. “We should be making haste, not dallying around.”
“How do you know that I’m not already down the stairs?” Alyssa asked, looking at the doorway leading down. An unpleasant scent was wafting up the stairwell. Something of a cross between a zoo and a farm. It wasn’t the worst thing Alyssa had smelled, but she pinched her nose anyway.
“Minor changes in the air and the way you disturb the dirt on the floor, mostly. It’s a strain, but I can keep this up for a while yet.”
When she had cast Unseen Sight, Alyssa had really been hoping that she would get some overpowered version of it. Lots of spells that she cast seemed to be stronger than what other people cast. Spectral Chains could capture gaunts, for instance, while other people’s chains broke instantly when used on gaunts. Unfortunately, the spells didn’t seem to be able to do more than they were designed for. Lumen’s Annihilator had destroyed five cubic feet of stone. Alyssa’s had done five hundred—which was just a guess, she hadn’t actually done the math to figure out exactly how much her version had done.
Unseen Sight was designed to see through illusions. No matter how overpowered she made it, it wouldn’t ever see into the other worlds that Fractal magic used to perform its tricks.
“Well great,” Alyssa grumbled. “I don’t know where you are, so let me go down the stairs first. That way I don’t bump into you and send you tumbling down with a broken neck.”
“I’m sure you’re exaggerating. Besides, knowing where you are, I can step out of the way.”
“Unless you get distracted,” Alyssa said, already heading down the stairs. They were fairly unassuming stairs, carved straight out of the hard rock that covered a decent portion of the desert except tiled with smooth slabs of… slate? The stairs were steeper than she would have liked. Especially with no hand rail. She took the steps one at a time with her hand on the wall, all the while trying to ignore the soft giggling. “And what are you laughing at, you stupid angel.”
The giggling cut off instantly. “You don’t need to be rude,” Iosefael said. The church had been large enough that she could hover off on her own, but now that they were headed down these stairs, the space to float about became significantly more cramped. “I was just thinking how fun mortals are with all your concerns about things angels never even think about. Like broken necks.”
Alyssa paused and stared at the golden angel before shaking her head. Two more steps and she reached the bottom. The smell was starting to get to her. More than a few times in her life, she had been to the local county fair. There were all kinds of activities at the fair. From hypnotists to rides that looked like they might fall apart if bumped wrong. But Alyssa often enjoyed the animals. Walking around, getting to hold cute baby chickens or pet a baby calf. Unfortunately, the animals had a cost to them, and not just the price of admission.
That same cost was creeping up her nostrils right now, making her snort a bit. Which didn’t help at all.
“What is Tenebrael’s agent saying?”
Irulon’s voice came from Alyssa’s shoulder, so close that it made her jump. She had thought that she was descending alone and had been about to call up to let the princess know where she was. This whole invisibility thing had only been going on for a few minutes and Alyssa was already sick of it. It might even be worse than having three Irulons trading off on finishing their thoughts.
“Sorry. Just got distracted. She thinks broken necks are amusing.”
“That’s not what I—”
“Really? Hm. And here I was concerned that Tenebrael’s agent would frown on me setting traps. Maybe I’ll set more.”
Iosefael crossed her arms, head turning to track something that Alyssa couldn’t see. Irulon, presumably. “Mortals die. Since the beginning of time, that has held true. The exceptions can be counted on one hand,” she said, wiggling three fingers. “And even they are not truly immortal. They will die. The important thing is the soul. Aside from that, while I interfered with Adrael, it isn’t my place to stand between two mortals.” After a minute of silence, Iosefael huffed. “And I’m not Tenebrael’s agent. Tell her to stop calling me that.”
“She isn’t going to interfere in anything we do as long as it doesn’t involve angels,” Alyssa said, looking to where she thought Irulon was standing. Turning to Iosefael, Alyssa glared. “And tell her yourself. I’m not going to sit around being a translator for you whenever I can’t hold up my phone. In fact, you’re distracting. Since you’re scanning for Adrael, do you even need to be here?”
“I enjoy observing humans and don’t often get a chance to do so like this.”
“Just don’t be distracting. Wouldn’t that count as interfering with mortals if someone heard me talking to you?” Alyssa was whispering at a level where someone would have to be standing right next to her to hear—or have Irulon or Iosefael powers, neither of whom seemed to have an issue with listening—but it was still a valid point.
“My lips are sealed!”
Alyssa shot the angel a glare before staring around the basement. It was a wide open area. Maybe half the size of the main floor above. Not as opulent. The floor was a lot rougher than the almost polished tiles used in the upper level of the church. Considering that this was out in the middle of nowhere, it was a bit surprising that they had spent so much time and effort on the construction. Other buildings around it weren’t nearly so high quality, looking far more haphazard and sloppy. The Juno Federation was a theocracy, apparently, so maybe taking religious buildings seriously was to be expected of them.
The central area was the only place lit, using jars of potion light. Six of them were spaced evenly around a golden orb hanging by a chain from the ceiling. Clearly an object of some importance. The orb had intricate embossing covering its surface. While its underside was solid, the upper portion had holes. Leafy patterns wrapped around the holes and the three points where the chains connected to the bottom half. Three clawed feet on the bottom were likely for placing it on a solid surface, though that was unnecessary so long as it hung from the ceiling. As long as her sense of space was working correctly, Alyssa estimated that the chain would be directly beneath the fountain’s pedestal.
“The blessed censer,” Iosefael said despite her lips being sealed.
Alyssa didn’t respond, too busy looking around the room with a rapidly deepening scowl. What she had thought were walls weren’t walls at all.
They were bars.
And there were creatures behind them. Living, alert creatures. Which explained the smell. Glad that she had been whispering earlier, Alyssa walked toward one of the cages. Ants. Six of them, all huddled together, making soft noises that Alyssa thought might be attempts at comforting each other. They had clearly been abused. Much like Pho back at the Waterhole, their carapace had cracks and a few had missing antennae.
Moving along the row of cages, Alyssa looked in each. A dozen goblins jumping about while trying to break or even gnaw at their bars. Two trolls chained to the wall of their cage. A furry wolf-like humanoid female—it had breasts, at least—that Alyssa couldn’t put a name to with literal fire coming from its red eyes. That one, like the trolls, apparently warranted extra chains keeping it from moving about even within the thick bars of its cage. It even had some metal ball gag between a set of razor sharp teeth. A cage over from the wolf-thing held a quartet of green lizards similar to Rizk, but not quite the same.
One of the cages looked empty except for some red haze inside. At first, Alyssa thought it was just mist. But the haze was distinct, each with is own vaguely humanoid form. It took her a moment to realize just what she was looking at. Shadow assassins. Four of them. Invisible shadow assassins revealed through her use of Unseen Sight. At least she knew that it worked.
Some of the cages were empty. They clearly showed signs of having been occupied at one point in time. Said signs came in the form of teeth marks on the bars, feces and food residue, and the way some of the bars were bent out of shape, among other things. At the far end, separate from the rest of the cages, was something more like a walk-in aviary. Its bars were thinner but much more dense, leaving it looking like a net draped over a metal frame. Five fairies, all huddled together much like the ants with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Alyssa kept her distance upon seeing what was inside, just in case. Her fairy had mentioned that it would be able to detect even invisible minds if they got too close.
Alyssa found herself torn at seeing them in their cage. The fairy she had rescued had not given her any love for their species. Basing her negative opinion of the entire species off one encounter was the very definition of racism. At the same time, she felt like exceptions should be made when dealing with monsters that could take control of someone’s mind. Shrugging off her fairy’s control might have been nothing more than luck or thanks to the fairy’s panic and distressed mental state. Testing her resilience with five at once seemed the very definition of a bad idea. Still, seeing them locked up as they were made her sick.
It was just… not right. And this Society of the Burning Shadow was the whole reason the fairies had attacked in the first place.
Her disgust turned to contempt directed at the humans rather than the monsters. If not for the Society, everyone could have lived on in peace, minding their own business.
Alyssa turned back to the main area of the room, wondering how she was going to find Irulon. She could call out, but she didn’t want to get the captives riled up before having a chance to talk things over with the princess. However, before she could try any locating tactics, Alyssa noted another red haze in the room. This one on the floor right up near the golden orb of the censer.
A rock. A familiar rock. A smooth, flat and round stone that might be ideal for skipping across a glassy lake. Alyssa had picked up one just like it back in the palace. Back when she had used Desecrate Spells to get out of Oxart’s subjugation.
“Kasita?” Alyssa whispered, nudging the rock with the toe of her boot. It felt like a stone, moved like a stone, and didn’t respond to her words just like a stone would. But the haze around it from Unseen Sight… it had to be Kasita. The placement of the rock near the censer was… concerning. No smoke leaked from the holes in the top half at the moment, but the air was a bit musky nearby. And not just a zoo-like musk from the monsters captured here, but a musk not unlike the designated smoking area behind her work back on Earth. “Iosefael? This is Kasita, right? Is she alright? Is her soul connection damaged or whatever the smoke was supposed to do?”
“The effects aren’t permanent,” Iosefael said, floating closer to look at the rock. “But I can see signs of recent exposure. It should wear off in a few minutes.”
Nodding an acknowledgment, Alyssa picked up and pocketed the stone, feeling a bit bad as she did so. Kasita tended to jump at opportunities to help out. Having found the censer and this prison must have been elating, only for her to be taken out by the censer’s effects. Waking up to find that everything was taken care of would… probably be a minor blow to her happiness.
But better to be picked up and rescued than left here.
Now for Irulon, Alyssa thought, staring around the room. Naturally, she saw no sign of the princess. What would she need to detect the princess? Some ability to see through multiple worlds, probably. She definitely didn’t have anything like that in her decks. What else? Thermal vision? That probably wouldn’t see through worlds either, but she might be able to spot glowing footprints where Irulon stood.
Not that it mattered. She only had a handful of unidentified cards in her deck, those she had picked up from the lead horse rider after rescuing Oxart. Irulon had glanced over them beforehand, but Alyssa had forgotten to ask about the few that she didn’t already have indexed in her phone. Given that Irulon hadn’t made special note of them, they probably weren’t anything special.
Alyssa almost called out, only to hesitate and whisper to Iosefael instead. “How do you see me?”
“You’re a determined little mortal who causes a lot of trouble for just about everyone merely by existing.”
Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes to center herself, Alyssa tried again. “I meant literally. This spell is supposed to turn me invisible, right? But you can clearly see me.”
“A perk of being divine. Mortals trying to play with magic won’t work on us.”
“Spectral Chains worked on you.”
“Th-That was a fluke!” the angel sputtered. “Because Tene was bullying me. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. It couldn’t have.”
“So if I tried it again right now…”
Iosefael’s wings twitched, sending her back a few paces from Alyssa. “Weren’t we talking about something else?”
“Yeah,” Alyssa said with a slight snort. “It’s stupid that I can see you, some divine being who has never been seen by a mortal before, but I can’t see Irulon while she’s using some mortal spell. I’m even using Unseen Sight. I don’t need a spell to see you, so why, with a spell, can I not see Irulon? It’s stupid and shouldn’t work like—”
Iosefael flinched, face twisting into a grimace momentarily. It was an abrupt enough change that Alyssa stopped whispering to simply stare.
“What?” Alyssa said. Had she accidentally activated a spell without meaning to? She had considered the problem before, but if it actually was happening, she needed to ditch magic altogether. The risk of blasting out her hips with a fireball from her pocket was too great if that was the case. But for now, Iosefael’s stare was more concerning. What happened? Adrael? Alyssa glanced around for any other angels in the room…
And just about choked on her own breath.
Enormous scaled legs dug into the ground just in front of the shadow assassin cage. The muscular legs were attached to a torso that… clipped through the ceiling? The bottom half of two wings jutted through the ceiling as well, just a bit separated from the rest of the body. There was something familiar about the wispy black smoke the entire scaled being was made from.
Alyssa recognized the form instantly.
Irulon’s soul. It was the same dragon she had seen back in the Observatorium on the very first day she had met Irulon. One of those unidentified spells must have been Spectral Sight. It fit with what she knew of the Society of the Burning Shadow favoring low-ranked Death and Fire spells. Irulon, knowing the spell well, would have simply shrugged at spotting it without feeling a need to make verbal note of it. Alyssa hadn’t taken a picture of the one Irulon had handed her, and she really could only vaguely remember what it had looked like, having only seen it for a few seconds before using it. As such, it slipped under her notice too.
Handy, but it was disturbing evidence of spells activating accidentally. Alyssa might have to ask Irulon if she knew about a way to stop that. For now, Alyssa kept her mind clear of spells and approached the shadow assassin cage.
“Irulon? I found Kasita. She’s in my pocket.”
There was a sharp breath from between the ethereal dragon’s legs. “Alyssa?” Irulon’s voice had a tension to it that Alyssa would have thought to be surprise had she not known better. “You came this close to… never mind. How did you find me?”
“Spectral Sight. I see your… dragon.”
“Hm. Odd. In all the excitement of leaving the city, I failed to have my brother test the spell on me. I was unaware that it would penetrate Empty Mirror as well, another thing to test on him just in case your usage of the spell is being warped by… you.”
“Right.” Alyssa glanced up at the bottom half of the dragon’s giant body. Maybe Empty Mirror would have worked on it better if it had been smaller. The Empty Mirror shroud of glass shards didn’t extend that far from the body. Shaking her head, Alyssa looked over the princess’ shoulder. The shadow assassins clearly heard something outside their cell. They were moving about, getting closer to the bars. “What are we going to do about them? You wanted to destroy this place, right? They’re victims in all this too. We should let them out before you do. I mean, maybe the shadow assassins and the fairies are too dangerous, but the ants—”
“Alyssa! You and I were thinking the exact same thing,” Irulon said. She was still invisible, but Alyssa could hear the grin in her voice. “Plans change. Originally, I had thought to destroy this place and leave. But no longer. We should let them out. All of them. Especially the shadow assassins, fairies, and the hellhound.”