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The main floor of the chapel had changed since Alyssa first passed through. The biggest difference was with the fountain. Alyssa had made a special note of the water being crystal clear her first time past. To say that was no longer the case would have been an understatement. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought that someone upended a vat of chunky salsa into the basin.

She tried not to think about what actually happened.

A spell flying across the room proved to be a sufficient distraction. It wasn’t aimed at her, thankfully. Still, Alyssa had to force down the mild nausea and pay attention lest some stray spell accidentally hit her while she was creeping across the room. The spell, a fast moving ball of yellow… goop, slammed into one of the goblin zombies. And it didn’t stop there. Carrying the now stuck goblin, it hit three more before sticking to the wall. They were still alive, struggling against the ooze, but their struggles were ineffectual.

That dropped the number of Irulon’s… toys down to only four. Two humans and two goblins. They were not as resilient as movie zombies. Two were lying on the ground with their legs torn off from some spell and they weren’t even crawling forward with their arms!

With only one exit from the church, that being the main doors, Alyssa wasn’t liking the odds of everyone escaping successfully. Especially not with most of the zombies down or out. The three men who had been in the lower stairwell, though they had quickly been pounced on by the goblins, had made enough noise that the entirety of the town was now tossing spells into the building anytime they spotted movement. They had to run out eventually, but they might just set fire to the church before that happened.

The shadow assassins were climbing across the ceiling toward the door. A few spells had barely missed them, meaning that the Society could detect their presence. Alyssa, unable to climb on the ceiling, also moved toward the door under her own shroud of invisibility. Empty Mirror was enough to keep spells from targeting her, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t worried about taking a random fireball to her face. She wasn’t quite sure what she was to do. Irulon had simply sent her a Message saying that she should cause a distraction.

Glancing over her shoulder, Alyssa scowled. Irulon had at least one Empty Mirror left. Plus the rest of her spell tome. There had to be something in there that she could have used. Yet she just took shelter behind one of the shrines along with the hellhound. The elves, lizards, ants, and trolls hadn’t even left the safety of the stairwell yet.

This wasn’t quite the ‘monsters tear their way through the Society of the Burning Shadow’ scenario that she had envisioned while Irulon had been freeing the monsters. On further reflection, it made sense. The Society had captured the monsters in the first place. They certainly possessed at least part of the capability required to do so a second time even without their soul-separating incense burner.

If only she had another Annihilator. That would be a distraction. She wouldn’t even need to hit the people with it. Blasting away the side of the wall would be enough. Even that might be too much if it left a gouge in the ground. She wanted a second exit, not another Grand Canyon. Maybe Annihilator was a bit much, but all she really had were Spectral Chains and Fireballs. Neither would do anything to the church walls and she didn’t want to approach the door while spells were flying through it.

“How do you cast spells?”

The angel, floating not far from Alyssa, jerked at being addressed. It took a notable amount of effort for her to tear her eyes from the goblins trapped against the wall. Both how she reacted now and back when Irulon first cast the spell had Alyssa wondering just what was up with those goblins. Tenebrael hadn’t shown up for their souls. Even now, with a few lying in literal pieces, Tenebrael still hadn’t shown up. Iosefael hadn’t done anything either. But she wasn’t curious enough to ask just this instant. If Iosefael could show her how to cast spells without needing little pieces of paper, she could just blast open the wall right now.

What other spells had she seen that would help here?

Lumen’s sweeping laser beam might work if it could penetrate stone walls. The Fractal spell that split things into smaller and smaller bits. That spell that Adrael had used to scare away Oz and company would be perfect here. Even Fractal Mirror, as much as Alyssa didn’t have good memories of it, would be inexorably handy. It would show her all the possibilities and she could just pick one that worked. Maybe it wouldn’t be quite so debilitating on a second attempt now that she knew what to expect.

“Iosefael?” Alyssa said after realizing that the angel had been silent for a few seconds.

“I don’t think that I should say,” the angel said, slowly turning back to look at the zombies. “What you humans have done to miracles of the universe is… horrifying. And that is with only a little knowledge and authority granted by Tenebrael. Directly telling you more? I shudder to think what you might do.”

“All I want to do is distract these people so that Irulon doesn’t die. And the monsters too. I’m surprised you’re not leading the charge. I mean, I know you want me to die because I’m supposed to be dead or whatever,” Alyssa said with a mild note of disgust. “But those people had the monsters suffering with the help of your angel friend. Shouldn’t you care about that at least?”

“Humans have such strange notions on angels. I suppose that comes from your religions idolizing us?” Iosefael shook her head, using the motion to look back to Alyssa instead of the zombies. “All humans—or mortals, in this case—suffer. From the highest king to the lowest peasant, it doesn’t matter. Suffering tempers the soul. It is what you do in the face of that suffering that defines who you are.”

Ugh, Alyssa immediately started scowling. “That sounds like the drivel you’d read on the back of some self-help book written by some television evangelical who hasn’t lived through a single a hard day in his life but claims he has to scam people out of their money.”

“Not all suffering is as obvious as others. That does not change the fact that all mortals suffer—”

“That’s bullshit. I don’t dispute that people suffer, but some people definitely have easier lives than others. What I really object to is your stance on the matter. Because people are ‘supposed’ to suffer,” Alyssa spat, “you get to just stand by and watch? I’ve only really spoken to you twice, here and back at my home, but both times, you make me think that Tenebrael has the right of it.”

Iosefael’s green eyes with the little cross-shaped pupils blinked. She cocked her head to the side with a frown. “Tenebrael isn’t here helping you either.”

“Maybe not, but at least she understands that your whole angelic society is screwed up.”

“That’s the way things are.”

“And she’s trying to break way from it. She—”

A pressure on Alyssa’s mind made her wince. Narrowing her eyes, she allowed what she assumed to be another Message.

Sure enough, Irulon’s voice sounded inside her head. ~A distraction soon would be nice, Alyssa. I’d rather not use up some of my rarer cards. I used up enough freeing the monsters as it is.~

Alyssa rolled her eyes. At least that explained why the princess wasn’t acting. She was trying to preserve spells. Irritating, but understandable… somewhat. If Alyssa had all of Irulon’s spells, she probably would have used them all up by now. Which, in a way, might just mean that Irulon was right to try to preserve the spells. Were Alyssa as pragmatic, she might have a few more magazines worth of bullets than the few that she had.

That still didn’t help with her immediate problem of causing a distraction. Iosefael didn’t seem like a useful angle to take anymore, so she focused on what she had. Fireballs, Spectral Chains, Spectral Axe—a spell she had yet to use as it just didn’t seem as useful as some others—Immolating Gloves, Conjure Flames… Alyssa paused and went back, pulling out the two Immolating Gloves cards that she had. That spell had proved to be… almost too effective the last time she had used it. She was extremely thankful to absolutely nothing in particular that she hadn’t wound up in flames when she had used the spell to sear her wounds after fighting the Taker. Whatever the reason the Society member had wound up entirely immolated instead of just his hands didn’t really matter. That was something she could research later with Irulon’s help. Doing that again, however, might be just what she needed here.

Being on fire tended to be somewhat distracting, even if the spell effect ended up only affecting the hands this time.

She would have to get line of sight on one of the arcanists. That meant putting herself within their line of sight. Even invisible, she could get hit by a random spell aimed in her direction.

That just meant that she had to cast first.

Alyssa edged closer to the center of the room, though making sure to keep clear of the bloody basin. She held her spell cards in her left hand and her pistol in her right. Watching the entrance, she started frowning. Only one of the Society members was in view. She knew that there were more. They must be doing the same thing that Irulon was doing, hiding to avoid any possible incoming spells—Irulon had tossed a few at them initially to keep them from flooding inside. Probably also watching the entrance with Unseen Sight active. On Alyssa’s side, three of the shadow assassins were hanging directly over the front entrance, just waiting for an unsuspecting target to meander inside.

She considered waiting for a second target. Not knowing how the situation might change and worried that she might lose even this chance, Alyssa cast the spell. Immolating Gloves.

The effect was instant.

One hooded man standing halfway around the side of the open doors, gripping a set of cards with one hand, burst into flames. It started with his hands, as the spell was supposed to do. It didn’t stay there. Catching onto the loose sleeves of his robe, the flames raced up his arm. He didn’t even have a chance to try a counterspell before being fully engulfed.

Alyssa shuddered. She had learned this the other night, but people made distinctly unnerving noises while burning. Then, she had been a bit high on adrenaline, fear, and concern from Oxart and Irulon. Now, however, she didn’t have those distractions. At least not to the same degree. And she was closer, making it easier to hear his screams.

“Hypocritical to complain about me, isn’t it? I have never caused suffering…” Iosefael said, sounding morose. “Ah! This must be the pot calling the kettle black!”

Alyssa didn’t say anything in response. What could she say. Iosefael wasn’t exactly wrong. Alyssa wanted to justify her actions, but wasn’t sure she could. That wasn’t to say that she regretted her decision, this one or any of the others she had made since arriving in this messed up world—parading the fairy around the palace excluded. That one exception aside, she had made a number of tough decisions and a number of spur-of-the-moment adrenaline-infused decisions.

Not one had been made to intentionally cause suffering. Even using Rigor Mortis, a spell definitely designed to cause suffering, had been more in desperation than because she had wanted to make the Taker suffer. Though he had definitely deserved it.

That was the difference between her and Iosefael. Iosefael wouldn’t do anything no matter the situation. Unless Adrael showed up, she wouldn’t harm anyone, but she wouldn’t help either. Maybe someone could say that Alyssa had jumped the gun and started helping the wrong people just because they were the closest people. Lyria kept slaves. They were probably kept in inhumane conditions like the cages beneath this church. But at least they didn’t use them as mind-controlled shock troopers in their wars. That right there was one point in Lyria’s favor.

And she still held on to the minor hope that she might be able to change things. With Irulon’s ear, and maybe Brakkt’s as well, she could whisper some policy changes that might just reach the desk of the Pharaoh or the eldest brother.

For now, however, Alyssa clenched her fist and narrowed her eyes. Determination renewed to see herself, Irulon, and the formerly captive monsters out of this alive, she strode forward. The burning man was rolling on the ground, trying with moderate success to extinguish the flames. Water splashed over him from somewhere out of sight as Alyssa walked. Someone must have tossed a bucket of water. Or had used a spell to the same effect. Either way, it was enough. He stayed on the ground, moving enough to show that he wasn’t dead, but not enough to actually move.

Alyssa considered casting Immolating Gloves a second time on him before deciding against it. He was out, even if he wasn’t dead. His robes, or what was left of the smoking fabric, definitely didn’t have any intact spells. There were others who were more of a threat.

Casting the spell hadn’t destroyed Empty Mirror. She wasn’t even sure if Annihilator had done so as she had recast Empty Mirror while still half-blind just to be on the safe side. The invisibility and lack of spells coming her way gave her ample opportunity to walk right out the front entrance of the church. One of the shadow assassins tried to follow her out—though it probably hadn’t been aware of doing so given her invisibility. A veritable flamethrower doused the upper doorway, blocking its advance.

That got her heart beating. Three steps slower and she would have caught a face full of fire. As it was, she bet that some of her hair wound up singed. Still, she had made it outside.

And she couldn’t help but frown as she watched two men drag their burned comrade away from the church’s opening. A pair of hooded people stood on either side of the doorway, watching without blinking. One of them had used the flamethrower spell. She considered using the other Immolating Gloves on them before noticing a group of five standing well away, deep in discussion. Or argument.

Alyssa edged closer, leaning in to listen.

The current speaker was a larger man with a full beard. He was one of the few people here who didn’t have a hood on, though his cloak did have one. “The who doesn’t matter. It is clear that we have a traitor. Debating that is meaningless. We must contain this outbreak if we wish to have any hope of surviving until help arrives. If that means destroying the entire basilica, I am willing to do that.”

“Destroy the basilica?” another one said, taking a step away from the larger man. “The only reason our position has remained intact is because of the basilica’s Holy Cross.”

“Its protections work on outside threats, but they clearly do not work when one of our own is acting against us.”

“It will work on the monsters. If we allow them out, the Holy Cross will subdue them as it has every other monster that has ventured close.”

“Yet it leaves them unharmed while inside the basilica and…” He trailed off, looking toward the man who had so recently been aflame. The man still had yet to get up and move under his own power. Both of those who had dragged him off were kneeling at his sides, though it didn’t look like they knew what to do about his injuries. They must not have that bee medicine that Tzheitza had used for Alyssa’s burns. “It is clearly doing nothing for us.”

“Indeed,” a third spoke up, this one wearing a hood. “Between this incident and the inaccuracies in Liadri’s visions, I wonder if we aren’t forsaken.” His voice sounded familiar. It took Alyssa a moment to place it, but she was almost certain that it was the same man who had been criticizing Liadri earlier. With all the hoods, actually recognizing anyone by facial features and hairstyle was nearly impossible.

And the second man gasped at his words. “You… You…” He took a deep breath, sighing it out while clenching his fingers together. “Talk like that is what will see us forsaken. Doubting our faith. Have you forgotten the tenets?”

“Have you? Self-sufficiency is key to a healthy body, mind, and soul. Cowering and hiding, expecting the unnatural twists of magic to save us instead of using it as a tool and nothing more? We have become too reliant on Liadri’s visions, on the life-giving waters of the Struck Stone, on the placating nature of the Golden Censer, and, of course, the protection of the Holy Cross. It should be no wonder why we have been abandoned. And it isn’t my words that have brought us to this point.”

“I agree,” the larger man said, nodding. “Praying for yet another miracle to deliver us from our ails is not how we have been taught. It is a reliance. A crutch we have leaned upon for too long. A miracle should be seen as a wondrous occurrence, not as an expected outcome.”

“So your proposition is to destroy that which we have held in such a high regard, all to kill a few dozen monsters.” A woman spoke this time, tone even as she stared up at the man.

“The basilica is a building of stone and wood, the same as any other. It can be rebuilt. The Golden Censer has obviously failed to keep the monsters placated and you saw what the Struck Stone did to Gawain.” The woman winced at his words, nodding her head. “Even the Holy Cross itself may be corrupted. If that turns against us, we will all be doomed.”

The group fell silent. They did nothing more than stare at one another, thinking over what the large man had said. Alyssa watched from a short distance, wondering what exactly they were going to do. One by one, each turned to look at the fifth member of the group. The only one who had yet to voice an opinion. He wasn’t staring at any of the others. His eyes were locked on the ground as he slowly stroked his long beard.

Alyssa gripped Immolating Gloves, considering using it on him. With the way the others were looking at him, it was clear that he was a leader if not the leader. All were waiting on him to make a decision.

He looked up, staring at the large man, and nodded his head without a word.

“I’ll have the basilica down before you can say Tenebrael’s tits,” he said, turning as he pulled a ring-bound deck of cards from the sleeves of his cloak. “Let’s see how these monsters like a building dropped on their heads.”

Alyssa changed the angle of her card away from the bearded man.

Immolating Gloves.

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