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“Good evening, monsters,” Irulon spoke in a loud voice, standing in the center of the room where the golden censer had once hung. It was now lying on the floor at her feet. Her visible feet. She had decided to remove her invisibility to better address the monsters. Iosefael stood next to her, shooting glares at the censer, but nobody could see the angel. “If I could have your attention…”

It had Alyssa a little worried. Everything did, actually. The stairwell leading down here was blocked off by a silvery mirror. The same spell that had obstructed the entrance to Irulon’s laboratory back in the palace. Reality Wall. That was one small reassurance. She wasn’t sure how thick the ceiling was, but was almost positive it wasn’t thick enough to stop a dedicated arcanist from getting through. Even ones who used lower ranked spells like the Society.

Of course, the Society wasn’t the only danger around. They were in a room filled with monsters. Sure, they were in cages at the moment, but that wasn’t going to be permanent. And Alyssa still didn’t know where to place half of them on her threat assessment. Like the hellhound. The muscular beast with fire literally burning out of its eyes apparently warranted a special mention from Irulon, meaning it was probably more dangerous than it looked—and it looked pretty dangerous from where Alyssa was standing. Despite its name, it apparently wasn’t a demon. Something gave Alyssa the feeling that nothing about their current course of action would have changed if it was a demon.

“What an unfortunate predicament you all have found yourselves in. Captured by humans? Imprisoned. Exposed to that nasty smoke. Used in experiments. Repeatedly forced under the control of the fairies. Abused. Starved. Not to mention those chafing chains.” Irulon, hands clasped behind her back, paced left then right. When she got back to the left, the toe of her foot slammed into the censer. Black powder spilled from its holes as it skidded across the floor.

More than one of the monsters flinched at the sharp noise it made. The ants and the two elves especially. And the goblins, for that matter. They had been pressed right up against the bars only to be sent scurrying back against the far wall when Irulon kicked the censer.

“I’ve taken care of one of those problems. For the others… well, I am not such a bleeding heart that I would free you without expecting anything in return. But I expect that many of you will want what I want.” Irulon slowly turned her head about the room, pausing on the troll cage, the shadow assassin cage, and the hellhound. “Others,” she said, snapping her gaze to the group of ants, who all flinched back again, “I’m sure want nothing more than to return to their hives. That is fine. I don’t mind you running away like cowards. There is only one thing I cannot tolerate.”

Irulon took a step forward, looking directly ahead with a deep scowl on her face. The fairies caught in her gaze looked like they wanted to cry. One of them, a tiny little man in the back corner, actually was crying, but he had been before Irulon had even started speaking. So it probably wasn’t her fault.

“The only reason I haven’t freed any of you is because you’ve been too close to these fairies. I know fairies. I know how they think, how they will react. The second I release one of you, you’ll stop at nothing to free the fairies. Not because you want to, but because fairies are too stupid to think past their own noses.”

Taking her hands out from behind her back, Irulon held up two spell cards. “When you wake up, feel free to eat any humans you come across. In fact, I insist. But for now, please stand back. Split Reality.” She didn’t give them a moment to actually comply. Possibly because it wasn’t needed—the fairies were nowhere near the front of the bars at the moment—but also possibly because Irulon didn’t care if she actually hit any of the fairies with her spell.

One of the two cards elongated with Irulon’s words, turning into a long shard of glass. The glass wasn’t like a broken piece of a window. It twisted and folded in on itself over and over again, giving Alyssa a mild headache as she stared. Irulon sent it flying across the room with a flick of her wrist. It left a hazy trail in its wake, but didn’t do much aside from that until it actually struck the fairy cage. The metal started coming apart, splitting into tiny pieces just like the woman who had captured Oxart. The spell didn’t stop at the cage either. It crashed straight through, striking the stone wall which promptly started falling apart.

“Fractal Lock,” Irulon said before the wall could do more than garner a few splits. The entire area slowed to a stop. Panicking fairies froze. Shards of the cage stopped in mid-air. Even the remnants of the first spell, still sticking out of the wall, stopped the space warping and twisting.

“Excellent,” she said, smiling. “The rest of you will have twelve hours before that spell wears off. If you do not wish to be slaves to the fairies, I recommend you be anywhere else by morning. Now then, who wants revenge? Just raise your hands, claws, paws, or whatever limb you desire. Or rattle your chains if that isn’t a possibility.”

Alyssa was almost certain that the hellhound had moved first. But it was far from the only monster that jumped at Irulon’s words. After a quick glance around the room, Irulon walked over to the goblin cage. While walking, she moved her hands behind her back again. Except… the hand that passed over her tome wound up with a spell card pinched between two fingers. Alyssa didn’t see how the card moved from her tome to her fingers, but it did.

She didn’t use the spell. Instead, she reached across her waist with her free hand and pulled out another card. The tome had to be enchanted because Irulon didn’t even look before pulling it out. There was no rummaging or flipping through pages to find the one she wanted. It just came to her hand. Having put a bit of distance between them, Alyssa didn’t catch what the spell was called. Its effect was simple enough, however. The thick lock keeping the cage door closed split in two down the center.

Before the newly made scrap could touch the floor, the door flung open. The first goblin out immediately lunged for her, grasping with its tiny hands.

Alyssa started, grasping for her pistol. She was supposed to be invisible, ready to back Irulon up in case something went wrong. If this wasn’t going wrong, she didn’t know what was.

Irulon simply stepped around the goblin. One hand slammed the cage door shut before a second could emerge. She stuck out her foot, catching the one free goblin in the back. Rather than kick it across the room, she pinned it down.

“I forgot to mention… Attack me and I will kill everyone in your cage.” As she spoke, she took her hand out from behind her back, holding out the spell card she had withdrawn earlier. “Toymaker’s Touch.”

Instead of vanishing, as most spells did when cast, this one… wilted. It turned black and soggy. Sticky, maybe, dripping tar. Irulon slapped it down on the goblin’s back. The black spread into the goblin’s green skin, spreading out in a lightning-like pattern. Or maybe like veins. Iosefael made a strangled noise as it spread, but Alyssa didn’t have eyes for the angel. She was busy watching the princess.

Whatever the spell was supposed to do, Irulon didn’t give it time. She grasped the goblin by the throat, picked it up, and flung it back into the cage. Another goblin required a kick to keep it from getting out when she opened the door, but Irulon moved with barely a care.

Or maybe with extreme arrogance. Alyssa, pistol in hand and safety off, could only shake her head. No wonder Irulon had wound up skewered by a gaunt. She could do with just a little more caution. What if that had been the hellhound? Goblins were stupid, small, and likely fairly weak without their poisoned blades. That hellhound had abs. It looked like she bench pressed trees.

Of course, that was probably why Irulon had gone to the goblins first.

Keeping her pistol in hand, just in case, Alyssa watched with a morbid curiosity. Irulon had said that she would be killing everyone in the cage, but it didn’t look like she actually was. The one goblin with the spell on its back was lying face down. The black tar had spread and soaked in, becoming a faint grey against the goblin’s green skin, but it wasn’t doing anything aside from lying there. Four more were trying to reach out of the cage and grab at Irulon, but their short arms meant that they couldn’t do much except hold onto her dragon hide pant legs as she held the cage shut with her foot. They wound up getting in each other’s way more than they actually harmed Irulon.

It wasn’t until one of the other goblins tried touching the downed one that Alyssa realized what was happening.

The tarred goblin jerked. Its hand snapped out, grasping the extended arm of the other goblin. It opening its wide mouth made Alyssa gasp. Black tar dripped from every tooth. Its mouth didn’t stay open for long. Those crooked teeth sank into the arm of the now panicking goblin. Black started spreading up its arm while the first goblin turned to find a new target.

Chaos broke out in the cage. Reactions varied. Some spread out to the bars, trying to put as much distance between themselves and the center of their cage as possible. When the first goblin bit down on the shoulder of a third, another of the things tried punching it in the face. It didn’t cause any reaction. For his troubles, the attempted rescuer wound up getting its arm bit by the second goblin, now also leaking black from its mouth. One goblin kept trying to grasp at Irulon, apparently failing to notice the other snacking on its ankle.

Eventually, there were no unaffected goblins left. With no more targets around, they just stood there, nearly perfectly still. In less than a minute, twelve angry goblins had transformed into twelve docile zombies. Not a one tried to attack Irulon despite her stepping away from the cage door, allowing it to partially open.

“Excellent, my little toys. You stay there. I’ll set you loose later.” Turning her back to the cage as if there were zero possibility that one of the zombies would bite her, Irulon looked over the rest of the room with a smile. “Now then, who wants to be free and won’t attack me?”

Unlike before, no one jumped at her offer right away. Irulon looked at the trolls, then at the elves, then the ants. She skipped over a few cages when the hellhound’s chains jangled.

“Ah yes. I suspected that you might still be interested in my offer. I…” Irulon trailed off, looking at the ceiling near where the partially broken chains dangled. “It appears as if our little party has been noticed. Shame. I was hoping for more demonstration time.”

Alyssa couldn’t see whatever it was that Irulon had noticed. Maybe it had to do with the spell she had set on the stone. Whatever the case, they were sure to have company soon. Alyssa double checked her pistol, making sure she hadn’t accidentally put one of the empty magazines in. She had a few spell cards in hand as well. Fireballs. She kept the Immolating Gloves spell handy as well, separated from the rest of the deck’s drivel in an outer pocket of her satchel.

As she went over her arsenal, Irulon stalked straight over to the hellhound’s cage. It had an even thicker lock than that of the goblin cage, but it split in two with a single spell just as easily. “Go ahead and attack me if you must. Just know that you will not survive. Now, hold still if you do not wish for your head to be separated from your body.”

The chain keeping the gag in the wolf-like humanoid’s mouth split apart just as easily as the lock on the cage. While the hellhound spat out the actual gag, Irulon moved on to the chain around its throat. She had to push away an armful of the jet black hair to get at it, but it fell away just as the others did. Only when Irulon moved to the hound’s muscular arm did she hesitate. Which did not go unnoticed by the chain’s captive.

“What’s the matter, human?” the hellhound growled, low and guttural. She reached forward, rattling the chains as she moved, though she only made it a few inches before the chain caught her wrist. “Wondering how fast I could kill you?”

“From the moment your arm is loose, assuming I remain as close to you as I have been, I would have one and one third of a second before your claws tear out my throat.” Irulon’s eyes flicked from their usual violet to their black with white rings. That seemed to give the hellhound pause. She blinked, ending the ceaseless discharge of flames from her eyes for a brief instant.

That moment was long enough for Irulon. She slit the chain in two, pivoted around the hellhound and did the same to her opposite arm.

The hellhound almost fell forward. She had been leaning against the chains, using them to keep herself upright. Without them, she had to use her impressive abdominal core to keep from flopping straight to the floor.

“I trust you can remove your leg bindings on your own,” Irulon said, already half out of the cage before the hellhound had fully recovered. “My spell supply is not unlimited and there are others that need freeing.”

She was already stalking across the room toward the troll cage, a larger cage than most. On her way, she cut the lock from the elf cage without even glancing inside. Unlike the hellhound and the trolls, they were not given additional bindings within their cages and thus required no additional attention. None of them actually emerged from their cage, not even when the door swung open.

An outcry from the mirrored barrier over the stairs tore Alyssa’s attention from Irulon and the monsters. Someone had just found it. The wall and the mirror muffled too much of the noise to actually understand what that noise had been saying, but it had definitely been a voice. Irulon didn’t think that anyone could break through her barrier. She was probably right about that. But Alyssa glanced up at the ceiling once again. How long would it be before they tried breaking through the relatively thin floor to get at their monsters. Or rather, they would almost certainly value the broken censer more than the monsters. Unfortunately for them, it was shut off completely. Recovering the golden orb wouldn’t make it work again, not even if they burned incense. Or so Iosefael had said. The only thing that could fix it would be Adrael.

And Adrael couldn’t show up without Iosefael noticing.

A metallic thunk signaled the hellhound’s freedom. It had taken longer than Rizk, but then, these bindings were a lot thicker than the salamander’s had been. The hellhound kicked them aside before pouncing, landing outside her cage. She didn’t pounce on anything aside from the floor. Irulon was across the room inside the troll cage and Alyssa was still invisible. Since the hellhound hadn’t so much as glanced in her direction, she assumed that those flaming eyes couldn’t detect her… or find her through smell.

“Hellhound, if you would be so kind as to free the shadow assassins. I am almost finished with these trolls. Then… what’s left. Ah. The ants.”

“I don’t take orders from you, human,” the hellhound said in that same low growl. It wasn’t quite as hostile as before, having an almost giddy note to it. But she didn’t move to the shadow assassin cage as Irulon had asked.

Irulon paused her work, leaving a chain around the neck of one of the trolls. Sighing, she looked out of the cage. “Are we really going to do this?”

The flames cut off as the hellhound blinked again. “What?”

“You aren’t an imbecile as those goblins were or as fairies would be. You are intelligent. Surely intelligent enough to work together against a common enemy. Even these trolls understand that working together is preferable to doing the whole ‘waa, you’re a human’ thing.” She patted a gloved hand on the troll’s arm. “I would hate to compare you unfavorably with a troll of all things.”

Alyssa wasn’t sure how smart trolls were. Oz had called them more intelligent than goblins back when they were attacking the city, but that really wasn’t saying much. Irulon had effectively insulted them while standing close enough to have her head crushed by their giant hands. Either they were a whole lot less vicious while not being controlled by a fairy or Irulon had said it in such a roundabout way that they couldn’t comprehend. Or maybe they just didn’t care, wanting to get out more than anything, and knew that Irulon was their best option for that.

Really, she wasn’t even sure that they could talk. The elves and lizards were clearly talking among themselves. Not loudly enough for Alyssa to hear, but they were talking within their cage. The ants were chittering too. Them, Alyssa could hear, but she couldn’t understand. Most of their noises were clicking. They also made a lot of hand movements that probably stood in for a decent amount of verbal language. Since Pho could speak and ants and bees were somewhat similar, Alyssa assumed that the ants could talk if they wanted to, but it made sense that they would have their own way of speaking given how stilted Pho’s English had been.

But the trolls hadn’t said anything. They grunted a bit, but no words. Now that one was free, it was… touching the other one a whole lot more than Alyssa would have expected. Its large, meaty fingers danced across the other’s skin, drawing out patterns with the wiggling. The still chained one seemed to respond to with its own finger wiggling. Some kind of sign language? Or maybe Alyssa was reading too much into what was nothing more than affectionate gestures for each other.

Which might have been confirmed the moment Irulon freed the second troll. The two immediately embraced each other. It gave Alyssa a mildly sick sensation in her stomach. Not because she found the display disturbing, but because they were clearly real people. She had helped Oz kill controlled trolls back in the city and hadn’t thought a thing of it. Not to mention all those that had died to the city guard.

Alyssa found herself glaring at the frozen fairies. They were only part of the problem, though. Even they wouldn’t have captured a troll army on their own. Her gaze turned to the toppled censer and then over to Iosefael. Clicking her tongue, she turned away, checking that the mirrored barrier was still keeping any intruders from entering.

“Don’t think this means I’m trusting you.” Alyssa turned back to the hellhound just in time to watch it grip the lock of the shadow assassin cage. With barely a grunt from the monster, the lock came loose. “You’re just using us.”

The red haze representing four shadow assassins all acted at once. They didn’t appear to communicate with each other either, but the way they jumped out of their cage and spread about the room roughly evenly looked practiced. Alyssa tensed as one scampered past her. It didn’t stop or seem to notice her presence as it jumped to the roof and hung just above the doorway. She had never seen them actually move before given their invisibility. Though the red haze from Unseen Sight wasn’t perfect, it gave her a decent picture.

Despite looking like disproportioned humans with their shorter legs and longer arms, and, of course, their missing heads, they didn’t move like people at all. The first thought that popped into Alyssa’s mind was of a bear, but maybe their movements more resembled that of a gorilla. Either way, they used all four limbs to get around, putting most of the movement in the arms. Except while upside-down on the ceiling, there they used their small legs to somehow grip onto a supporting beam of wood.

“Of course I’m using you,” Irulon freely admitted as she sliced the lock on the ant cage and the lizard cage at the same time. “But being used and using the situation to your advantage are not mutually exclusive. I want to see the humans here crushed and destroyed, dying with the knowledge that all their plans have failed. Maybe the shadow assassins could slip by—they won’t, but the possibility is there—but you will have to fight your way free. Might as well enjoy it, hm?”

The hellhound ground her teeth, fur bristling on her tail. The grinding stopped. Tail swishing back and forth and flames in her eyes doubling in intensity, the hellhound grinned—though there really wasn’t much difference. “You want the humans here dead?”

“Excepting myself and one companion of mine, yes.”

“Then our goals are the same,” the hellhound said, nodding to herself as if she hadn’t believed Irulon earlier but now did. “I’ll play your game. For now. There’s an old human who kept trying to exorcise the hell from me.” She rubbed her paws together, grin widening. “I look forward to seeing the expression on her face when I exorcise her head from her shoulders.”

“Then I’ll wish you luck in accomplishing your goal. First, we must egress.”

Irulon left the ants behind—unlike the elves, they had emerged from their cage, though seemed reluctant to do so with the princess standing nearby. As soon as she was back in the center of the room, they came out at once. One smaller ant was apparently injured to the point where it required aid from the others. Irulon didn’t so much as glance over her shoulder at them. She even walked past the hellhound, coming far too close for Alyssa’s liking. But the hound didn’t pounce, choosing to follow Irulon with its eyes only.

The lizards were unexpectedly timid. With how much they looked like Rizk, Alyssa had almost been expecting them to jump out and attack Irulon. But they didn’t. They, like the elves, remained in their cage even with the door fully open.

“Attention, my toys.” Irulon clasped her hands behind her back, staring into the goblin cage. At her words, all the little zombies got to their feet.

Alyssa shuddered at their robotic movements.

“Align in front of the stairs. Attack any humans apart from myself.” Irulon turned as the zombies moved with surprising dexterity to follow the command. “The rest of you, let the toys go first. As a resource, they are significantly less valuable than… most of you. Destroying the barrier… now.”

The mirror fell away, revealing three humans standing on the other side. Two wore hooded robes, though both had their hoods down. The third was wearing more of a tunic than a proper robe, though it did have a hood on it. The latter of the three had his back to the room. He was apparently in deep discussion with the others. Maybe talking about how to get past the barrier. Maybe just talking about what a terrible day they were having with the barrier and stables and food storage while other people were evaluating their options for taking down the mirror.

Either way, it didn’t matter. The goblins didn’t share their surprise at the barrier falling.

None of the humans stood a chance.

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