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“It doesn’t appear to be fading.”

“Damn. I don’t need glowing eyes. I can’t walk around Lyria looking like this.” Alyssa would either find herself prosecuted for blasphemy, persecuted for monstrous eyes, or maybe revered by the Tenebrael-worshiping masses. And she honestly didn’t know which of the three disturbed her the most. Just thinking about going back to Teneville and talking to Lazhar with Tenebrael’s eyes sent chills down her spine.

Irulon cocked her head to the side before asking one of her few real questions. “That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Look. A lot of weird shit has happened to me since coming to this world. Glowy eyes? Hardly the strangest,” she said, turning away from Irulon. It took a moment to find her pistol lying on the ground. Even before dropping it, it had needed a good cleaning. Now? Firing it before performing maintenance might not be the best of ideas. Alyssa wasn’t worried about it backfiring or exploding in her hands. Pistols were hefty and rugged. It could survive a fair beating. But all the dirt inside the barrel and sliding mechanisms would damage it eventually.

Luckily, she still had another pistol. Plus her revolver, but she was somewhat loath to use that one. It was heavier, had more of a kick to it, only held six bullets, and was far slower to reload. Still, she might not have much choice. There was the hope that Tenebrael would show up and do to the guns what she had done to the phone. But that plan relied on relying on Tenebrael.

Glancing at her phone’s screen once again, Alyssa considered trying the angel’s number. She wasn’t sure if Adrael was blocking her or if something had happened to Tenebrael. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that Tenebrael had made her contact number a one use only thing. That was just the kind of thing that stupid angel would do.

“Glowing eyes are not unheard of in my world. Several types of monsters possess the trait. Humans… My eyes change when I allow the dragon a window to the world. Certain spells do cause a temporary effect, though nothing quite like what you have. It’s clear that you’ve absorbed something from whatever was keeping me suspended in the air.”

“An angelic spell. It looked like a net. I took a picture,” Alyssa said, tossing her phone to Irulon.

The princess caught it with one hand and stared at the screen. “Hm. Have you come into contact with angelic spell components prior to now?”

That was a question that she couldn’t answer. Obviously, she had been affected by at least one angelic spell or she wouldn’t be on this world. But, until just now, she had never touched the glowing lines that made up Iosefael, Tenebrael, or Adrael’s magic. So… no? Or yes?

“It doesn’t matter,” Alyssa said, shaking her head. “We’re a long way from Lyria. Unless I’m going to spontaneously combust, we can deal with my eyes later. There are more important things around. Like the Society of the Burning Shadow.” As she spoke, she glanced over to the two corpses… neither of which were properly intact anymore. Izsha and Musca had done a number on them.

So far, none of the three angels had popped up to take their souls. Tenebrael had claimed that souls left in the body were subject to extreme trauma if they weren’t collected. She had also said that she didn’t like leaving them alone for too long. Had she really left everything up to Iosefael? And where was that angel anyway? Alyssa could see Tenebrael leaving a soul alone for ten minutes or so despite her words to the contrary. But Iosefael struck her as the far more responsible of the two. Surely she could break away from her fight with Adrael for the two seconds it would take to collect these souls.

In fact, it was perhaps even more surprising that Adrael hadn’t called a temporary truce. These were her followers, after all.

Alyssa pointed a finger toward the smoky ghost of the second man. “Do you see anything here?” While her scythe had disappeared, the separated soul hadn’t. Iosefael hadn’t touched the corpse of the shadow assassin, she had gone after the smoke separated by the scythe. So this man probably wasn’t still connected to his body.

“Should I see something?”

“Some misty smoke. Quite similar to the stuff that came from the censer. I think… I think it is this guy’s soul.” As she spoke, Alyssa walked forward with an arm extended, trying to avoid looking at the ground around the soul—it wasn’t pretty. The soul had a feeling to it. Almost like moving her arm though a bowl of warm jelly. Iosefael had turned the shadow assassin’s soul into a crystal. She hadn’t uttered any words and there hadn’t been any of those angelic spells lighting up around her hands.

A lot of magic seemed to work off intent and nothing more. At least where Alyssa was concerned. So she decided to try.

Crystalize, she thought, focusing on a clear image in her mind of all that smoke shrinking down into a gemstone.

The smoke spiraled around, funneling toward the palm of her hand the moment she had the image locked in her imagination. She tried to snap her hand into a fist, but couldn’t. It was like trying to squeeze a baseball. The smoke swirled around her hand, drawn inward. A howling wind reached her ears, though she couldn’t tell if the howl was a separate noise from the wind.

As soon as the smoke collapsed entirely into her palm, the tension keeping her fingers open vanished. She felt a hard lump in her closed fist. Opening her fingers to get a look, Alyssa frowned.

It wasn’t as pretty as Iosefael’s soul crystals had been. Iosefael’s had looked like something that could be worn as in a royal necklace. Alyssa’s was a lumpy rock. Still, it had worked. That alone was interesting in its own right. “Can you see this?”

“A rock?”

“A soul.”

“A… A what?”

Alyssa tossed it. As with the phone, Irulon caught it with one hand. “A soul.”

The princess held it up to the sky. It was nighttime, so she wasn’t getting sunlight to help see through it. Night vision helped, surely. Her jaw hung open and didn’t close even as Alyssa looked down at the other body.

Experiencing extreme trauma? His body was more intact than the other. Izsha had taken a chunk from his neck. Probably a precautionary measure to ensure that he had actually died. Even in spite of missing half of his neck, Alyssa had definitely been the one to have killed him. She didn’t know him. She didn’t know a single thing about him other than his association to the Society of the Burning Shadow. That probably meant that he wasn’t a good man. But… could she just leave him like this?

Grinding her teeth, Alyssa pulled a spell from her deck. If those stupid angels aren’t going to do their jobsSpectral Axe.

Alyssa twisted her hand, sweeping the forming scythe’s tip from his groin through his skull. She hadn’t been entirely sure it would work. However, a string of smoke trailed along, following the scythe’s tip until it was completely separated from the body. She didn’t hesitate to stick her hand into the smoke and repeat the crystallization process.

Soon enough, she had a second lump in her hand. Why she had expected it to turn out better than the first, she didn’t know. It definitely hadn’t. If anything, it was worse. Truly, Alyssa didn’t care much—she planned to hand them over to the first angel she saw; she wasn’t qualified to handle them. If Iosefael had wanted nice crystals, she should have shown up to do it herself. If Tenebrael wanted to eat them, she would have to show up first. Adrael… well, maybe Alyssa wouldn’t hand them over to the first angel that she saw. Giving an enemy anything didn’t seem wise.

“Careful where you swing that. It is one of the few spells that cause instant death.”

Blinking, Alyssa’s eyes shifted to the scythe. The… scythe. Ugh. Grimacing, she dismissed it to wherever magic went when it was dismissed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just reminded of… ugh.”

“Hm. Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Now I have to wonder if you can shove one of these back into a body. I am having great difficulty believing that this is a soul.”

Alyssa looked back to Irulon, quirking an eyebrow. “You shoved a dragon into your head.”

“With about three months of preparation. You reached out and plucked a soul out of thin air.” Looking to the soul in her hand, then to the body, then up at Alyssa, Irulon smiled one of her less-than-genuine smiles. It quivered at the edges of her lips and did not reach her eyes, like she wasn’t sure about what she was doing. “Between this and your eyes…”

“If you start kneeling in front of me, I’m going to kick you in the face. Fair warning.”

“You shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss potential sycophants, they can prove useful in any number of situations—not that I have any intention of becoming one. You’ve far to go before you become something I would consider worthy of idolization.”

“Thanks? I guess?”

“Mhm.” Irulon took one last look at the soul rock before clamping her hand around it. Moving said hand to her waist, she slipped it into her satchel, whistling at the same time. Musca trotted over, hardly stopping as Irulon hopped onto its back. “Since the angels aren’t around, I suppose we may as well leave. Unless you are planning on dragging me off to save the other monsters? They are undoubtedly in trouble as we were… if they haven’t already been killed.”

Alyssa used the short time it took to get into Izsha’s saddle to think—the draken did, thankfully, come to a complete stop to pick her up. Her first instinct was just to leave straight away. This place was destroyed enough as it was. When the fairies came out of stasis and the Fractal magic tore apart the church, that destruction would only increase.

But Irulon was right. The hellhound and shadow assassins were in trouble. Zero percent chance that they weren’t. They probably got caught in the same angelic nets. Would the elves, trolls, and the others also be stuck? They hadn’t gone to attack the humans. Adrael might have tied them up all the same.

Alyssa rubbed her fingers over her pocket again, wondering what Kasita might have said on the matter. She hadn’t hesitated to kill the shadow assassins in the city. But a lot of that had been life or death. Here and now? She would probably want to save them. Or the hellhound, at the very least. How long was that soul separation mist supposed to last, anyway? She couldn’t have been exposed to it for any significant length of time. Especially not when compared to the other monsters down in that prison. Alyssa couldn’t even ask Iosefael what was wrong with her.

Though maybe that was for the best. If Iosefael came back, Adrael might as well. The latter without the former was even worse. No, Alyssa thought. Best if all the angels stay far away. The only one she wouldn’t mind would be Tenebrael. Which was a weird thought.

She shook the thought from her mind as Irulon spoke again.

“Saving the monsters it is,” she said, slightly exasperated. Irulon flipped open her tome and pulled a few spells. “Do warn me if there is some trap I couldn’t possibly know about. Musca, Izsha. Find the nearest shadow assassin or hellhound. Living ones, preferably.”

Alyssa didn’t even get a single word out before both draken were charging toward the gouge. They sped straight past the one shadow assassin hanging from a roof that Alyssa had spotted earlier. Considering that it was visible now, that didn’t bode well. She thought for a moment about directing Izsha back to it, just to salvage its soul, but decided against it in the end. That would take time. Best to save those that could still be saved rather than worry over the ones that might or might not still have their souls decaying inside their decaying bodies.

Perhaps on the way out, she would test by sweeping a Spectral Axe through the bodies. There would be enough spells, hopefully. Alyssa cringed as she realized that she had forgotten to grab the cards from the two men that she had killed. Replenishing her Immolating Gloves would have been nice. Extra Spectral Chains couldn’t hurt either.

“Grasping Dead,” Irulon said in a calm voice as she rounded the corner of another building.

Izsha turned just in time for Alyssa to see the ground burst open near the feet of two humans. Skeletal hands jutted out from underneath, clawing at the legs of both. One of them, a woman, fell. But the hands didn’t switch to go after more vital areas. After ripping and tearing her legs beneath her cloak, the hands vanished in a bloody trail. The skeletal hands attacking her partner followed suit, leaving nothing more than red rakes in his skin from his knees down.

“Free the assassin,” Irulon said, moving another spell to aim at the still standing man. “Spectral Axe.”

Musca moved in complete synchronicity with Irulon’s outstretched arm. The draken completely ignored the closer man, moving past him just close enough for Irulon to sweep the scythe through his skull. Of far more interest to the draken was the downed woman. Musca quickly ended her life all on its own.

Izsha stopped a short distance away from them, right next to the shadow assassin.

Reaching out and grabbing hold of the angelic spell was a welcome distraction from the unpleasant crunch of bone. A sound Alyssa hated that she recognized without even needing to look behind her. “This won’t hurt a bit,” Alyssa said to the struggling assassin. She didn’t know if it understood her, but it did stop struggling. “Also,” she added as the spell started heating up her arms, “please don’t kill me. I promise I’m not going to hurt you. And don’t scream either.” Just remembering that these things had that capability was enough to make her shudder.

“They’ve had their vocal instruments removed,” Irulon said from Alyssa’s back. “These two would have otherwise killed themselves.”

“The ones that attacked Lyria could sure scream.”

“I assume that these were either unruly or used for experimentation. Or the ones in the city had been carefully handled only by those trained to resist such effects. Hm. Uncertainty.”

“Does it matter?”

“I suppose not.” Irulon fell silent for a moment before speaking in a louder tone of voice. “Assassin. Leave this place. Return to your hovel or… wherever it is you wish to go. We will handle freeing your surviving kin. Then, we will be destroying this village. You don’t want to be nearby when we do.”

So much for having the monsters handle the rest of the humans, Alyssa thought with a small scowl. It wasn’t really their fault. Were it not for Adrael’s interference, they probably would have killed everyone by now.

Because she was grabbing the spell far to one side of the assassin rather than the center, it wound up freed long before the spell had fully vanished. Its large hand gripped the rough brick that made up the building it had been stuck to. With a soft grunt, it used that one hand to swing fully up to the roof. The red haze making up the assassin vanished over the top, moving far past where Alyssa could see.

“Izsha, Musca!”

The draken didn’t need any further instruction from Irulon. Both charged straight toward the gouge. Feeling butterflies well in her stomach, Alyssa leaned forward and gripped Izsha with both hands. They were getting way too close. A few bits of loose gravel went tumbling down into the still faintly glowing pit.

Too close.

“Grasping Dead,” Irulon said again, clearly trying the same tactic on whatever was ahead of them. Alyssa had no idea what. Humans, presumably. But she had her eyes pinched closed as she leaned as far as she dared in the opposite direction, hoping that Izsha wouldn’t step on a rock that would carry them down to their deaths.

Alyssa grit her teeth and opened her eyes. It was one thing to die in combat—a terrible thing that she intended to avoid at all costs, but still… It was another thing entirely to die because she caught a fireball with her face while keeping her eyes closed. She took one glance around and sighed in relief. The gouge, while extremely long, wasn’t all that wide. With Izsha’s speed, they had probably only been near it for a few seconds.

They were well away, charging toward a sextet of humans, a hellhound, and the last remaining shadow assassin. The latter two were tied up in that angelic net. Grasping Dead had done its work, attacking at the legs of the humans in the area. It proved distracting enough to allow Irulon and Musca to close the distance. The ghastly scythe held out in front of them ran straight through the two closest.

Instead of biting into any of the people, Musca turned. Its tail whipped about. Another pair went flying from the impact. They weren’t dead, but any counterattack from them would be delayed.

Irulon, eyes black and face impassive, merely swept the scythe in a wide arc. She wasn’t near enough to actually hit anyone, but Musca was already moving to correct that.

They didn’t even need Alyssa. Even though she was right here with them, they were going to kill everyone before Alyssa so much as drew her pistol.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as something glinted in a nonexistent light at the corner of her eyes.

Irulon’s scythe was high in the air, swinging down to strike an older woman in the face. The old woman wasn’t doing anything of note. At least not in the way of defending herself. Her body was flinching back, but her eyes were wide open in surprise. As that scythe drifted closer, Musca’s mouth started opening wide. Bloodstained teeth were aimed at the sole other standing human. A man with a spell already forming on his tongue would never get it off with how close the draken was.

That glint shot forward like a bullet.

Everything started moving at its proper speed. The first thing that Alyssa heard was akin to an explosion. The sound of a firework being launched from a mortar tube. A hefty thump that resounded deep within her chest.

Wind followed. More intense than anything she had felt before. Alyssa squeezed her eyes shut to block it out, moving to grip Izsha tighter at the same time. It didn’t help. Despite her grip remaining steady, she could feel herself falling.

Alyssa screamed out as Izsha landed on her leg. Four hundred pounds of scaled muscle pinned her to the ground. With her free leg, Alyssa kicked at the saddle, trying to get the beast off her. Izsha did move. That only brought a new wave of teeth-clenching pain around her shin.

The dragon hide looked perfect, minus the dirt and dust. But her leg. With Izsha off her, she could clearly see that her leg wasn’t perfectly straight below the knee. Broken. A bad break at that. Gritting her teeth, Alyssa slammed a fist into the dirt at her side, trying to take her mind off the pain.

A low tone welled up from Izsha. The draken stomped off, moving away from Alyssa. She almost shouted at it until she heard someone else screaming. A man.

The Society. They were still around. Fighting.

Gritting her teeth, Alyssa fumbled about for her underarm pistol. The spell cards were gone, lost in the fall. She might be lying on top of them for all she knew. Pistol would have to work. She would just have to hope that none of them had Projectile Reflection active.

Using her arms, she pushed herself to a sitting position and got her first look of the scene.

The humans had clearly been blown back by the wind as well. They had been scattered well away from Alyssa. The angelic bindings kept the hellhound and shadow assassin from moving. Alyssa paid them little mind.

“I-Irulon?” Alyssa called out, voice catching in her throat.

The princess wasn’t moving. Neither was Musca. A single golden spear, topped with a ruby orb, was struck through Irulon’s back and Musca’s neck, pinning them to the ground. Musca’s head was flat on the ground, but Irulon looked like she was still seated properly. The staff piercing both held them in place. Blood dripped down its spiraled shaft, running from Irulon’s stomach down to Musca’s scales.

Alyssa crawled forward, crying out as she accidentally put weight on her left leg. But she didn’t let the pain stop her. She kept moving forward.

Irulon couldn’t be dead. Not yet. She had been skewered by a gaunt. Several times at that. What was one stupid spear compared to the gaunt’s fingers. All Alyssa had to do was get both of them under a Fractal Lock. Then she would have time. Behind the skewered two, Izsha was handling the other humans. One went flying with a twist of the draken’s neck. Izsha was giving her the time she needed to get to Irulon’s spell tome. She didn’t really know what Fractal Lock looked like, but that hardly mattered. Alyssa had cast plenty of spells without knowing what they looked like.

A familiar voice drifted in from the distance, barely loud enough to hear over the thumping blood in Alyssa’s ears. It was a voice full of fear, worry, and incredulity.

“Adrael! What have you done!”

Iosefael. The angel hadn’t swept down to remove Irulon’s soul yet, so clearly she was alive. Alyssa just had to keep moving forward.

“What is needed.”

Alyssa ignored the angels as she crawled. She put a hand on Musca’s scales, using the monster to help push her to Irulon. She grabbed at the tome and earned nothing but clanks for her efforts. It was chained to Irulon’s waist and didn’t come free. But there was a latch. Alyssa had watched the princess equip it in the past. Her shaking fingers took far too long to release it.

But she got it.

Tome in hand, Alyssa crawled a step away. She wouldn’t be able to help if she got stuck inside the effect.

Fractal Lock.

Alyssa sighed, only to freeze as she heard a soft exhale from the monster.

Blood still dripped down the staff’s spiral shaft, running along its grooves as it made its way downward.

The spell hadn’t worked.

Why? Why now? Fractal Lock!

Blood still dripped.

What was wrong? She knew the spell and its effects. She should be able to cast it! Irulon had to have more than just the one Fractal Lock that she had used on the fairies. What was wrong?

Alyssa’s eyes wandered, barely able to think between the pain in her leg and the thumping in her head. The staff? Adrael’s staff? Was it interfering with the magic? Alyssa grit her teeth. Was whatever pressure it might be exerting to keep them from bleeding out worth the lack of stasis?

No.

No it wasn’t.

They were going to die in minutes and Alyssa hadn’t the slightest clue how to save them. Stasis would give her time to think. Maybe time to find a healing potion. Or figure out what kind of spells Irulon’s book contained.

Alyssa climbed onto Musca behind Irulon. She put her back to the princess’ to keep her in place. With one arm over the top of the golden staff, she gripped it with both hands, took a breath, and apologized. “Sorry.”

Musca made a repeated clicking noise as Alyssa yanked. It was almost like a cackle, but it probably wasn’t finding anything funny about the situation.

Irulon said nothing. She didn’t make a noise. Her fingers remained limp. Not a good sign.

And Alyssa still had more staff to pull out.

Moving her hands back to her chest, Alyssa clamped down and extended her arms as far as they would go.

She almost lost her balance as Irulon’s body slumped forward, falling onto Musca. Another half-pull freed the staff. Using it as a crutch, Alyssa stepped away from the two bodies, turned, and tried casting the spell again.

The moment the thought of casting it crossed her mind, the spell took hold. A slight discoloration came over both Musca and Irulon. Blood stopped flowing from the hole in Irulon’s back, freezing in place.

It worked. Alyssa couldn’t help the nervous chuckle. It worked. They were frozen. Safe, if only temporarily.

Behind them, Izsha was cleaning up the last of the humans. Only the old woman didn’t have a growing pool of blood beneath her body. Izsha’s sharp talons turned toward the woman.

And it happened again. Everything slowed to a crawl. Things were still moving—Izsha’s mouth opening, the old woman moving her hands in front of her face as if that would act as a shield, even the impotent thrashing of the hellhound in the corner of Alyssa’s vision—but it all moved so slowly that time might as well have been stopped.

And again, a glint from far off in the horizon entered Alyssa’s vision.

Not again. With only one idea of what might stop what was happening, Alyssa looked to Izsha and cast a spell. Fractal Lock.

Izsha truly froze just in time for a ruby shield to strike its neck. Alyssa barely saw the shield bounce off Izsha’s scales before another blast of wind nearly knocked her off her feet. Only clinging to the golden staff kept her standing upright.

When the wind cleared, Irulon and Musca were still frozen in their spots. Izsha had toppled to its side, but was otherwise intact. And the woman had slid right up against the wall of a building that had lost its roof. Leaning fully against the staff, Alyssa found herself glowering at the confused old woman. What was so special about her that an angel had interfered, attacked mortals to keep her safe? Was this Liadri? Or just some leader of the group that Adrael wanted to protect.

Alyssa couldn’t see the angels in the direction that the armaments had flown from. How far away were they?

Gritting her teeth, Alyssa looked back to the old woman. The latter was slowly regaining her wits, even standing with the building as support. Alyssa felt her blood start to boil, just thinking that this woman might get away. She was clearly confused and probably knew nothing of Adrael, or very little at best. She definitely hadn’t ordered the attacks on Irulon and Izsha. Still, she had been the catalyst.

For a moment, Alyssa considered freeing the hellhound. That monster had already expressed a desire to end an old woman’s life. Two things stopped Alyssa. For one, she didn’t know that the hellhound wouldn’t immediately turn on her. Secondly, Adrael might just interfere again.

But could Adrael interfere with Alyssa? Thinking about it for a second, Alyssa decided that no. Adrael couldn’t. Someone who could pass through and demolish the angelic nets? Probably unheard of. According to those two that she had overheard, Liadri’s predictions had been faulty as of late. Which was very possibly Alyssa’s doing, assuming those predictions came from Adrael. Izsha had been caught in that first net because it had been moving on its own without direction from Alyssa. Had she been paying just a little more attention, it would have been perfectly possible to go around. Unlike Irulon, for instance, who couldn’t perceive the nets and would have always run into them.

Which meant that Adrael, so far away from Alyssa, wouldn’t be able to stop her.

Alyssa raised an arm, holding out the tome of spells toward the woman—who was shuffling away along the building. She didn’t know what spells were in Irulon’s book. She could make guesses based on spells she had seen the princess use in the past. But the tome was thick. Surely there were more.

Surely there were spells that would cause instant death. Just one that didn’t need her to walk closer, or to throw something, or to pull out her pistols. Just one spell that would kill a target.

The moment the thought crossed her mind, Alyssa felt her fingers squeeze inward as the total number of spell cards significantly shrank.

The woman took one more step…

And promptly turned to nothing but red mist. Even her cloak vanished. The wall of the building turned red, as did the ground around her previous spot. The human bodies on the ground received a coat of the paint. Izsha didn’t, neither did Musca and Irulon. The blood slid off them, staining the dirt.

Alyssa just stared at the rapidly thinning wave of red as it approached her. She winced a bit as it hit, but only bothered closing her eyes for a moment. More important matters were at hand.

Turning toward the horizon, Alyssa met the glowing red eyes of the rapidly approaching Archangel Adrael.

The woman… The being looked furious. One hand was hidden behind her ruby shield, but Alyssa could see how her other fist shook and trembled. Her face was twisted, lips parted and teeth clenched together. The muscles in her neck were pulled tight against her skin.

White wings spread fully, the angel stopped high above the carnage.

“You…”

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