The large man catching fire was just the distraction the shadow assassins needed. They acted far faster than they had when Alyssa used Immolating Gloves on the first man. Three were swinging out the door in an instant. One landed on top of a hooded arcanist, wasting no time in grabbing his neck and twisting to the side. The other two followed suit. Of the four men standing to the sides of the church doors, three died in less than ten seconds.
“Spectral Axe,” the fourth screamed.
Alyssa’s eyes widened as a ghostly weapon materialized in his hands. She had apparently misunderstood just what the spell did, thinking that it would toss a little hatchet. The kind that might be used in a circus side-show.
The pole alone was taller than the man who summoned it. Each end was tipped with a long, curved blade that looked more like the head of a scythe than any axe that Alyssa had ever seen, except the tips of the scythes bent back to the shaft. Maybe more like a halberd. He hefted it up, moving it in a spiral as if it weighed nothing at all. The tip of the blade passed straight through the nearest shadow assassin without resistance, trailing a thick smoke from where the tip had struck the body. The red haze vanished from Alyssa’s sight as the maze-like tattoos covering the shadow assassin’s body appeared out of thin air. Like a puppet with its strings cut, it dropped, collapsing on top of the hooded man it had just killed.
Iosefael moved instantly. Instead of rushing to the body, she placed herself at the apex of the scythe’s arc. The smoke rushed around her feathers the moment the tip touched her wings. Rather than swallow the soul, it coalesced between the palms of her hands, forming into a glassy gemstone the size of a marble.
Unaware of the angel’s presence moving toward his fallen comrades, the scythe wielding man took a step forward. He hadn’t stopped moving the scythe, swinging it about toward the next red haze.
It didn’t make it.
A ball of black fur exploded from the doorway. She collided with him, tackling him to the ground. The scythe vanished as they rolled end over end through the dirt. They tumbled fast enough that Alyssa could barely keep track of them. The hellhound came to a stop on her back, managing to get her legs underneath his arms. Using the strength of her thick thighs, she slammed his horrified face straight into the hard ground.
Alyssa winced as red fountained up between the hellhound’s legs, morbidly wondering just how much of his head was intact under that fur.
The others, monsters and humans, had not been idle. Well, most of them. Of the group of five humans, the large man was trying to put himself out by rolling on the ground. Unlike the first man who had been immolated, no one had yet tossed a bucket of water on him. Three of them were too busy trying to fight off the three remaining shadow assassins.
One of them, the one who had berated the Liadri-criticizer for his lack of faith, was not participating. He didn’t have a scythe out as the bearded man did. He wasn’t flinging fireballs and orange slime balls as the woman was. He wasn’t even trying to fend them off with a sword as the last person in the group was.
The man was on his knees with his hands clasped together. His head was tilted upward, eyes open. For a moment, Alyssa thought that he was staring at Iosefael. But his eyes weren’t tracking the angel—who now had several gemstones in her hands. He was just staring, lips moving in a silent prayer.
A prayer that he never finished.
The moment Irulon spoke, the praying man choked. His hand darted to his neck. Blood leaked from between his fingers, down his nose, and from the corners of his lips. He tried to gasp in a breath. Instead, he only managed to collapse face down in the dirt.
Irulon didn’t cast any other spells. She didn’t need to. Her remaining zombies, one human and three goblins, didn’t need to act either, they just stayed at her sides with vacant gazes on their faces. With her hands behind her back and a vicious grin on her face, she watched as one of the shadow assassins dropped down on top of the second scythe wielding man… As the hellhound dashed over, crushing the burning man’s throat with her foot as she kicked out for another of the Society members, sending the woman through the church wall. And the hellhound moved on. The swordsman didn’t stand a chance against her. His blade swiped at an arm, but it didn’t so much as cut the thick fur. Alyssa winced again, glancing away as the hellhound’s paw covered the man’s entire face.
She didn’t need to watch to know what that crunch meant.
A moment of silence fell over the carnage, broken only by the heavy breathing of the hellhound.
“Excellent,” Irulon said, managing to time her words with Iosefael’s collection of the final man’s soul. “I would have preferred that they… had some time to reflect on their poor life choices before their demise, but I cannot argue with the results.”
“She’s not here,” the hellhound growled, looking about the corpses. The flames coming from her eyes were brighter than ever before, reaching high above her head as if they were fiery horns. She was seething now, chest rising and falling with short breaths as she paced back and forth. “The old woman isn’t here.”
Irulon waved a hand vaguely behind her. “There should be more of the Society in that direction. There is a large canyon in the middle of town that people were gathering about. Those we’ve killed here only make up roughly half of them, I’d estimate.” She paused, waiting and watching. After a moment, she did her little hum. “Hm. Not going to charge off to fight a dozen more humans?”
The hellhound let out a low rumbling growl. It was deep enough that Alyssa could feel the reverberations in her chest, even from a dozen paces away. “I like you. But I don’t trust you.”
The ants, elves, and other noncombative monsters started to emerge from the church, looking around as if they weren’t sure it was safe. While the ants’ chittering increased in speed tenfold, the elves seemed to catch on the quickest. All three stopped moving, looking between the hellhound and Irulon. A wave of one of their hands brought the situation to the ants’ attention, making them fall silent.
On the other hand, the trolls lumbered right past. Either they failed to notice the tense hound or they didn’t care as they ran as fast as their large bodies could take them. Alyssa wasn’t sure where they thought they were headed. Maybe they instinctively knew their way home. Maybe they just wanted to get away as fast as possible. They were headed in the opposite direction from the large gouge, but that could easily be coincidence.
Neither the princess nor the hellhound took any notice of their departure. Irulon merely waited for them to pass by before speaking in a casual tone of voice. “What does trust have to do with you killing people you already wanted to kill?”
The shadow assassins were moving about as well. Two moved around, standing as if to flank the hellhound. One crawled up the side of the church, just behind Irulon. If it decided to attack, it would be in the perfect spot to jump down on her. Irulon took no notice of them, keeping her eyes on the hellhound. A card appeared in her hand. Alyssa didn’t know if it was actual magic doing that or just really good sleight of hand. It was curved against her palm, cupped so that the shadow assassin on the church wall wouldn’t be able to see. In fact, none of the monsters could see it from where they were. Only Alyssa.
A signal? Just for her?
Alyssa pulled out several Spectral Chains cards, preparing them for use if necessary. She didn’t want to kill the monsters, but she was done hesitating. If they weren’t going to play nice, then she wasn’t either. Spectral Chains wasn’t lethal, but it was her best bet for neutralizing the four most dangerous creatures in the area. It didn’t need to be lethal anyway. If they did attack, Irulon would surely turn them into more… toys. Assuming she didn’t kill them outright.
“If I wanted to kill you, I wouldn’t have let you out of your cages. Assuming my calculations are correct—and they are—the first spell I cast on the fairy cage will eat its way through the building enough to destroy it and anything inside before the magic wears off. Anything that doesn’t escape quickly when Fractal Lock stops containing it will meet the same fate. If you think I needed you to kill these humans, don’t. You could not be more wrong.”
“You freed us out of the goodness of your heart?” the hellhound said with a scoff.
“If that is how you wish to see it. I am no enemy to monsters.”
The hellhound opened her mouth to respond, but Irulon produced a sharp whistle. The sudden noise first made the hellhound take a step back. That only lasted a moment before she leaned forward, fur bristling.
Alyssa almost cast her spells. Only a subtle wave from Irulon stopped her from chaining up every monster not watching from the church’s doorway. A second after she made the motion, the ground shook.
Two draken fell from above, landing on either side of Irulon. The princess didn’t so much as flinch as Musca prowled about her, gnashing its teeth in the direction of the lone shadow assassin. Izsha crept closer to the hellhound without a hint of fear, pulling the same stunt that it had done when Alyssa had first met it. It put its sharp teeth right up next to the flaming eyes of the hound before snorting, rustling the black hair.
“Meet Musca and Izsha. They are… like family, I suppose one might say. Musca, Izsha, this is… I never got your name, hellhound. You do have a name to give, I presume.”
The corner of Irulon’s mouth quirked. “Your name is… Draken. Well, isn’t this awkward.”
Apparently not in the mood for games, the hellhound did not play further into Irulon’s antics. “What are draken doing here?” She seemed genuinely surprised. Not afraid—it was almost playful how she used her large paws to push Izsha’s snout away from her face—just shocked that dinosaurs were roaming the world.
Or this section of the world, anyway.
“They are here because I asked that they accompany me,” Irulon said, stroking Musca’s scales with her empty hand. “Now, are you finished with this foolishness, nameless hound? We have more humans to kill.”
The hellhound held out a hand to Izsha. At receiving no backlash, she moved forward and started patting Izsha on the head. Her smile started small, but seemed to increase with each pat. It was similar to how Irulon was stroking Musca, except each pat knocked Izsha’s head down a few inches, forcing the draken to correct between pats. Alyssa might be projecting, but she was fairly certain that Izsha was not actually enjoying the affection and merely tolerating it.
“These two follow you of their own free will?”
“I am no fairy, if that is what you are insinuating.”
Smile vanishing, the eye flames flared as the hellhound looked over to Irulon. She didn’t say a word, choosing just to stare. After a moment, Alyssa picked up on a low grinding coming from the back of the hellhound’s throat, slowly rising in volume. “Grrraaalright! Where’s the old woman! I want to at least tear her throat out before you stab me in the back.” Despite her words, she gave Izsha another few pats before stalking off toward the direction Irulon had indicated only a moment ago. The two shadow assassins that had been flanking her followed without a sound… or rather, they led the way, dashing in front of the hellhound after only a few steps and using their muscular arms to climb up buildings in the way.
“The rest of you,” Irulon said, turning to the elves and ants standing in the doorway, “I wasn’t expecting much from in the first place. I confess some disappointment toward the trolls for their early departure, but nothing to be helped there. You all are free to go. If you find any other humans on your way out, feel free to exterminate them.”
The ants were the first to move. After a brief chittering session among themselves, they started walking away. They couldn’t move fast with their injured member. Not unless they were willing to leave it behind, which they clearly weren’t. It had Alyssa frowning, wondering if they would even make it back to the hive. The one they had passed while looking for Oxart was quite a way back on draken. On foot? It would be hours at least.
And, of course, there could still be more of the Society outside the little village. Maybe even a few more watching the ant hive from a different angle or some people that they had sent out to find the missing group.
The lizard people seemed to follow them, so maybe the ants would make it with their protection. Though they hadn’t seemed nearly so bloodthirsty as the other lizard Alyssa had met.
At least they had a home relatively nearby. Alyssa wasn’t exactly sure where elves lived, but Enrique had headed away from the desert after being freed. She had been chasing after Rizk, true, but still… Earth fantasy told her that elves lived in forests and along rivers. Deserts? Never. Which probably explained why the elves did not rush off. They had been freed from their cages, but they did not look even a fraction as happy as Enrique had.
Irulon didn’t show any sign of caring. She turned her back to the elves and looked almost right at Alyssa. It wasn’t quite right, but was close enough. “Excellent job… Are you alright?”
Alyssa hesitated, not quite sure that she wanted to drop the safety of Empty Mirror. There were no humans in sight nor the red haze of the shadow assassins. The trolls were gone and the ants were nowhere nearby. Unless the hellhound came rushing back, it should be relatively safe with only the elves here. Though none of the elves were as injured as the one ant, none were in much of a shape to fight either. It should be safe, but she still hesitated.
What if someone else around was also using Empty Mirror. Or what if Adrael had gifted them something even better than that. Iosefael had disabled all active angelic spells in the area, but did that include anything that might have been dormant?
Speaking of the angel, she wasn’t even paying attention to the goings on. All of Iosefael’s focus was locked onto the gems in her hands. One by one, they floated in front of her face, giving her an opportunity to inspect the crystalline structure before it floated to her other hand. She looked over each of them with a reverence deserved by something called a soul. At least, more reverence than Tenebrael had as she wolfed them down like cheap fast food.
With the lack of danger and not even the angel paying attention to her, Alyssa dropped Empty Mirror. The shards of glass keeping her segregated from the world winked out of existence. A slight muffle of the sound vanished as well, only noticeable because of the way one elf gasped. His voice started with a fuzzy mumble, sharpening as the shards went away.
Having been the only one of the three who had faced her direction when the invisibility wore off, he was the first to react. Alyssa tensed up, fingers on her pistol tightening.
But the elf didn’t attack. He grabbed one of his friends by the shoulder and pulled him back into the church. The third quickly joined them, sparing only a moment to glance in her direction.
Alyssa felt a little bad for startling them, but was more glad that she wouldn’t have to get into a fight. It was bad enough that they had killed the goblins despite them being first to attack. If Irulon had explained the situation a little better… but maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. They still didn’t seem all that intelligent.
“Alyssa? Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” she eventually said with a sigh. “It’s just… I’ve hardly done anything aside from casting a few spells and walking around. No spells have flown my way, no swords have disemboweled me, no monsters from the worst horror movie have tried to eat me… But I still feel exhausted. Can we… are we done here? Surely the hellhound and the shadow assassins can handle whatever is left here.” Poor Kasita still hadn’t popped back up yet. Alyssa ran her fingers over the outside of her satchel, feeling the hard stone that was probably the mimic. If she had to choose, Alyssa would much much rather leave and check on Kasita than go kill another dozen humans.
“Hm. Mental fatigue. It should pass. However, leaving now would be highly irresponsible. As I said, plans change. With the unexpected distraction of the monsters, now is an optimal time to kill everyone. And while the monsters may be able to handle the humans, leaving this infrastructure intact for a second team to take up the fairy controlling project is a foolish idea.”
“I thought you said that your Fractal spell was going to take down the whole church. And the censer is gone, they won’t be controlling any fairies now.”
“The spell will work as I said it would. It will not encompass the entire military compound here. And we cannot assume that this censer is the only one. Not unless our angel can detect them across the entire world. Even then, their angel could provide them with another. Best to destroy as much as possible to delay any further assaults. When my father returns from Pandora, we can plan for more… permanent solutions to the problem. Luckily, I have a temporary solution… mostly.” Irulon turned her hand, showing off the card she had palmed earlier.
It wasn’t complete, clearly. Much of the angelic text was missing. But the design stood out, clear as day. One she recognized easily.
“I’m not using Annihilator while the monsters are still in the town.”
“Lucky for you, half of them are already gone. As for the rest… Elves!” Irulon shouted, looking back toward the church’s entrance. “If you aren’t gone in fifteen minutes, you will be dead.”
Alyssa watched. Waited. And started frowning. “They aren’t moving.”
Irulon didn’t seem bothered, shrugging. “Well, we don’t have to destroy the church anyway. Its fate is already sealed. All it needs is for the stasis to wear off.”
“The hellhound? The shad—”
Iosefael’s wings spread wide. “Adrael!” she shouted, slipping an arm behind her back. The gems vanished into her feathered wings as she took off. With a single flap of her wings, she disappeared toward the gouge fast enough that she looked like a beam of light.
Alyssa didn’t waste any time. Cutting her conversation with Irulon short, she pulled out her phone and dialed the only number that worked. The angelic runes appeared on her screen for only an instant before the phone screen flickered.
Letters and characters—angelic runes, English letters, Roman numerals, Chinese? Arabic? More and more flooded from the top of her screen to the bottom. Alyssa didn’t even think half of them were real languages. Tapping the screen did nothing. Neither did any buttons. This hadn’t happened the last time she tried to call Tenebrael. Interference from Adrael? Iosefael?
Ugh. “Adrael’s here,” Alyssa said, not sure at all what to think about her phone. “Iosefael just ran off toward the gouge. I’d imagine that she is trying to protect the remaining humans.”
“Hm. Perhaps we should leave. Or…”