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“You…”

Alyssa clung to the angel’s staff, using it to keep as much weight off her broken leg as possible. It wasn’t what she wanted to do. She wanted to flop to the ground, clutching her leg. Maybe crawl away from the angel as that old woman had crawled away from Izsha. Nothing in Irulon’s spell tome would harm the angel, not even if she knew exactly what spells it contained. She had little doubt about that. Angels were on another level entirely. The only hope she had was that Spectral Chains would work.

But Alyssa held her ground without flinching.

It was all she could do. If she did crawl away, there would be no one standing between the Fractal Locked Irulon and the angry angel. Fractal Lock might make them impervious to nearly anything, including the angel’s weapons judging by how that shield bounced off Izsha, but a simple Desecrate Spells could tear down the stasis. Adrael surely had that ability, or something equivalent. Adrael wouldn’t even need to do anything else at that point. She had done enough as it was.

Then again, perhaps standing between the angel and her friends would only get them caught in whatever retaliation the angel had in mind. Adrael’s eyes were firmly locked on Alyssa. They hadn’t strayed once toward anyone else present. And why would she look at anyone else? Irulon, Musca, Izsha, the hellhound, the shadow assassin—none of them had killed the old woman who this angel had clearly been trying to protect.

Alyssa had.

Suppressing a groan, Alyssa took her eyes off the angel for a moment, dropping her sight to the horizon. Where is Iosefael? If that angel had been defeated, then Alyssa might truly be in trouble. Spectral Chains hadn’t worked on Tenebrael. Not for any length of time. Iosefael was supposed to be stronger as a Principality than an Archangel, but Tenebrael had said that an Archangel might have more effective power in reality.

And where the hell is Tenebrael?

This was her stupid world. Couldn’t she sense the deaths? Maybe the ones Alyssa had collected wouldn’t register on her death-sense, but no one had come to collect the old woman and the people Izsha had just eaten. Was she too busy with something on Earth? Had she been detained by that Astral Authority she had been so frightened of? Or was she just being lax, expecting Iosefael to handle everything?

Adrael was still approaching. She was slowing, but she would arrive eventually. The time Alyssa had left to decide what to do was rapidly running out.

The angel was the biggest question. What was she going to do? Attack? Angels weren’t supposed to harm mortals, but she sure hadn’t hesitated to skewer Irulon and Musca. And that shield surely would have decapitated Izsha had it not been for Fractal Lock.

“Identify yourself.”

The words resonated. Ripples formed in the pools of blood. Dirt trembled. Even the hellhound at Alyssa’s back whined and the shadow assassin let out a clipped shriek.

Alyssa kept steady. The tremor ran up her leg, but she didn’t fall. She was more confused by the command, having expected either an attack or to be ordered to relinquish the staff. But identifying herself? That was easy. And maybe, just maybe, Tenebrael or Iosefael would come to her rescue if she delayed long enough.

So she promptly ignored the command.

“You’ve been an evil angel, Archangel Adrael. What would the Astral Authority say if they saw the mortal blood dripping from your weapons? The blood staining your hands?”

The angel flinched back as if Alyssa had slapped her across the face.

Which is great, Alyssa thought, clamping her jaw to keep from showing any expression. Turn this around. Make it about the angel. The longer she could go without answering the angel, the more time Tenebrael and Iosefael would have to get their ass in gear and do their jobs.

“And what of you? You have taken the lives of twelve souls today. Some with small bits of metal. Some with those miracles the people of this world have corrupted. All done by your hands alone. We are both lost, but the Astral Authority would cast you to the flames of the Inferno long before I.”

That was Alyssa’s turn to flinch. Right. Angels were real. Demons were as well. Tenebrael hadn’t said to explicitly, but she had implied that there were higher powers on both ends. A god and a devil, presumably. Whether or not they were exactly as the various Earth religions portrayed them didn’t matter, not so long as they got the fundamentals correct. And if a Hell existed…

Death was an inevitability. One possibly quite close by if she kept getting into situations like today’s events. But even if it wasn’t for a thousand years, she couldn’t exactly take back what she had done.

Perhaps it would be better to be eaten by Tenebrael when the time came.

But until then…

“I was already going to Hell. If my actions spare the entire society of ants and the population of Lyria from being forced to kill each other, then I’ll gladly kill a few more. But you’re the one organizing these people. You’re leading them by whispering in Liadri’s ear, aren’t you? Giving them a little Divine Inspiration? Every death they’ve caused because of your whisperings—”

“An Archangel is forced to make decisions that you cannot imagine!” Adrael roared, swinging her empty hand to one side. “This world is on the brink of destruction.” Her hand swept back, grasping the red dress, wrinkling it at the chest. “I am trying to save it. To save the lost souls within. And you…” She glowered, face twisting into a snarl. “You could never understand. No one can, except the Seraphim. And you, insignificant Guardian, are as far from a Seraphim as they come.” Wings spreading fully, she dove, shooting straight down.

Alyssa flinched until she realized that the angel wasn’t aiming for her. She aimed to the side. Adrael’s wings glided over the fallen humans, brushing just the tips against them. Gems formed between her fingers, identical to the manner in which Iosefael had collected souls. One more gem than there were bodies… because the old woman no longer had a proper body. Sweeping the wings through the blood-infused air must have counted for the soul collection.

But Alyssa was more confused with what the angel had said than with the way souls worked if the bodies were gone. “Guardian?” she said, hopping on her good foot twice to turn to face the angel over the top of Irulon’s unmoving form. It took a moment for it to click, and when it did, she couldn’t help the laugh. “Guardian Angel. Ahaha. That’s funny.” Everyone seemed to think that she wasn’t human. Why not an angel too? Was it the glowing eyes? “Well, it’s better than reaper, at least,” she mumbled to herself.

Though reaper definitely fit far better after today’s events.

“There are so few on this world who possess that which is needed to hear my revelations,” Adrael said, actually stroking one of the gems. “So many have been killed. I have taken to more drastic methods of protecting them. With Virtue gone, that number drops to a mere two.”

Virtue. So the old woman wasn’t Liadri? Or was it some codeword that the angel had for her minions? With a name like Virtue, it wasn’t easy to tell.

“What am I supposed to do?” Adrael spoke softly, almost whispering to the crystals in her hand. “I require guidance, but there is no answer. I’m running out of options.” Her voice hardened, growing louder as she looked to Alyssa. “And you… You are the cause of everything turning out wrong. I had thought that Tenebrael learned of my presence, of my designs. But it was you all along, wasn’t it?”

Alyssa didn’t have a chance to answer. The gems in her hand disappeared, floating into her wings. At the same time, Adrael thrust an arm out.

The golden staff lurched. The top leaned toward the outstretched arm. The only reason it didn’t fly out to the angel was Alyssa’s firm grip of the haft. She grunted, wrenching it back to its upright position, managing to keep her balance at the same time.

“I’m using that,” Alyssa ground out.

Adrael’s red eyes flared. “How? You are a lowly Guardian. Not even a proper member of the Third Sphere. Identify yourself so that I may log which angel I am forced to strike from the Eternal Record.”

Alyssa’s stomach clenched. Somehow, she didn’t think she would be able to delay for much longer. Gritting her teeth, she forced a grin. “My dad called me his little angel when I was younger. I don’t think he meant it in the same way that you do. I’m lower than that and proud of it.” There would only be one chance before the angel would retaliate. If the angel thought that she wasn’t a human, that retaliation would probably be instantly lethal to her. Clutching Irulon’s tome to her chest, she thought of the only spell that might show her a path to victory.

Fractal Mirror.

Shards of glass exploded around her, obscuring the angel, Irulon, Musca, Izsha, the hellhound, the buildings, the bodies, and everything else around. Yet each shard formed an image of just those things.

Clutching the staff, Alyssa stared, trying to focus. It wasn’t easy. There were so very many possibilities. Infinite, in fact. The pressure was worse this time. Perhaps due to mental stress, both of having to cast a spell that she hated and of not knowing how the spell actually worked. Was time stopped while she was inside this shield of shards? Would the angel care even if it was? At any moment, the angel could reach an arm through and pull Alyssa’s heart from her chest.

She had to think that it worked. It was the only way this would save her.

The first thing Alyssa noted was the surprise on Adrael’s face. In a vast majority of the infinite shards, the first thing she did was to float back with wide eyes, raising her shield as if to block any immediate attack. From there, things started to change. In several shards, Alyssa did nothing but gain her own look of surprise. Without knowing her thoughts in those possibilities, she could only offer conjecture based on what she thought she might do. She had probably tried to cast spells only for no effects to manifest. She couldn’t say whether that lack of effect came from the angel nullifying the magic or simply because she had tried to cast spells that didn’t exist in Irulon’s tome.

If she got out of this alive, she would definitely be browsing through it, hoping for labels or maybe an index page. Not knowing everything really wasn’t helping.

In the shards where nothing happened—or where nothing useful happened, such as casting the Rank Zero Light spell—the angel struck back. Usually by flinging her shield. Alyssa could only assume that she perished in those events. The shards going dark and shattering helped in narrowing down possibilities. From that point onward, shards kept winking out of existence. Every few instants, a percentage would simply obliterate themselves. There were still an infinite number left, but, somehow, it was a smaller value.

Alyssa could feel herself getting distracted. Grip tightening on the staff, she tried to clear her mind of all the impossibilities associated with this spell. She needed to focus on the results, not the hows and whys.

Filtering the shards, she searched through ones where she actually managed to attack the angel.

One caught her eye. Split Reality. The spell that had diced a horse and a human with one cast. The same spell that Irulon had used to destroy the fairy cage before locking it all in stasis. It had a distinctive look of a glass shard flying from the tome. Alyssa almost tapped that shard right away. If anything could harm an angel, it would be something that severed reality itself.

But Alyssa watched the bolt of glass strike the angel’s ruby shield. Nothing more happened. The shield remained glossy and whole. The angel didn’t fall to pieces. A moment later, the shard destroyed itself as the angel rushed forward.

Keeping the staff in the nook of her arm, Alyssa clutched at her chest, feeling a weight of despair settle in. Anything that even mildly resembled a projectile met the same fate as Split Reality. Nothing, from fireballs to ghostly daggers, managed to so much as scuff the domed mineral. Even a Spectral Chains failed to bind the angel. For whatever reason, the spell wrapped around the shield only. A yank did remove it from Adrael’s grasp, but Alyssa couldn’t get the shield to her before the angel flew forward with white magic dancing between her fingers.

Failure after failure. More and more of the shards were winking out, only to be replaced with another possibility an instant later. An oblivion was slowly closing in, reducing her options further and further to lead to that conclusion.

There had to be something else. Some way. Just one among the infinite shards that wouldn’t turn to a void.

Alyssa’s head snapped to the side, focusing on a shard that she had already dismissed. A simple fireball splashed harmlessly against Adrael’s shield. As with so many others, Adrael swung her arm back to fling her shield forward.

But this time, Alyssa dropped Irulon’s tome, gripping the staff with both hands. Shaking, trembling, she glared at the angel, lips curling back into a snarl. It was all that angel’s fault. Beings beyond mortals. No human could hope to face one and come away victorious. Not even with all the magic available in this world. But Alyssa had something of the angel’s. A staff.

A weapon.

It had to do something. It had to be for more than just smacking people… or skewering them. All she needed to do was figure out what it took to activate it. Some thought. Some miracle.

A miracle was what she got.

Adrael flung the shield straight at Alyssa. It flew through the air, moving as if in slow motion yet at the speed of light. It struck the staff right between Alyssa’s hands.

Her arms didn’t crumple. Her bones didn’t break. The staff didn’t even get a single scratch on it. Alyssa grunted as she pushed back against the spinning buzz saw of a shield.

It seemed like forever, but the spinning died off. Whatever kept it pinned against the staff died with it and it fell to the ground. Alyssa grunted, gasping, wobbling. She was barely cognizant of having touched the shard of Fractal Mirror.

But it wasn’t over yet. Adrael still stood before her.

She stood without a shield.

“S-Spectral Chains!” Alyssa shouted. Irulon’s tome was at her feet, but her deck wasn’t.

Ghostly bindings wrapped around the angel before she could do anything. Her eyes went wide as her arms were pinned to her sides. Long links wrapped around Alyssa’s extended hand, completing the spell.

Alyssa didn’t even get a chance to sigh in relief. The shield on the ground moved on its own, flying straight toward the bound angel.

A reflexive jerk of Alyssa’s arm made the angel drift forward just as the spinning shield tore through the chain.

The shield kept going, right toward Adrael. It didn’t change angles to adjust to her new position.

It flew straight through Adrael’s arm, slicing it off at the shoulder. There was no blood. A faint light emanated from her stump, but nothing more. The arm itself disappeared, turning to dust the second it fell away from her body.

Adrael stared down at herself with an open mouth. She didn’t look hurt. Just surprised. Her shield had flown off into the distance behind her, having crashed through the building the old woman had been near, but she wasn’t even looking toward it. When she looked up, she looked at Alyssa, gaping like a fish.

White wings wrapped around her. In an explosion of feathers, the angel vanished…

Just as the building behind her collapsed. The remaining three walls fell into a heap of debris.

Alyssa collapsed as well. She managed to avoid falling flat on her face thanks only to the staff. Her breaths came heavy, labored. Each sent a searing pain through her sides.

She stayed still, completely unmoving aside from her breathing, for several minutes. The angel didn’t come back. Or rather, the Archangel didn’t return.

“Iosefael,” Alyssa ground out, pivoting around the staff to stare at the approaching angel. She wanted to shout at the stupid, useless featherbrained idiot. Iosefael’s whole job had been to contain Adrael. And she had failed miserably.

But she couldn’t get the words out. It was clear that Iosefael had tried. The golden plates of her armor were scuffed and scratched. Her feathers, normally perfectly straight and glimmering with a golden light, were twisted and broken on the right side. The damage didn’t disrupt her movements in the slightest. She glided down toward Alyssa with the same floaty movements that she always had.

Except she didn’t look in Alyssa’s direction. Her eyes were locked on Irulon and Musca.

“Can you fix them? Heal them?” Alyssa asked through grit teeth as she watched the angel approach. If she saw even a hint that Iosefael was going to pull out their souls… well, she had a few Spectral Chains left. Leaving a soul in the body was supposedly torture, but they weren’t dead yet.

Instead of darting toward them to collect their souls, Iosefael flinched as if she had been struck. She put her hands to her cheeks and pressed in. “Th-they aren’t supposed to be injured. T-T-Tene’s book says… says that…” She jerked her head to the side, staring off to the north. “P-People are dying and Tene isn’t here. Tene isn’t here. She left me in charge, but she isn’t here. I don’t k-know what… Not Dominion Iosefael. I’m Principality Iosefael. I can’t—”

The longer she talked, the closer her wings pulled around her. She wrapped herself up in a tight bundle. Until it all exploded outward. Feathers flooded the area. More than Alyssa had ever seen at once.

And Iosefael wasn’t in the middle of it all anymore.

“You worthless bitch!” Alyssa ground her teeth, feeling like she was about to collapse. Had Iosefael just died? No. It couldn’t have been. That was a teleport. Her whole job had been to contain Adrael and undo things that affected mortals. So why not heal up Irulon and Musca?

And where the hell is Tenebrael. Iosefael was right about that, at least. This was that stupid angel’s world. Shouldn’t she be here to clean up her own messes?

Alyssa closed her eyes and tried to calm down. This wasn’t the end. Irulon and the draken were utterly still in their fractal lock. They were safe. No humans ran around the corners of the buildings to fling spells or attack with swords. For a few minutes, there was perfect quiet. A perfect chance to rest. Iosefael hadn’t ended up taking Irulon’s soul. There was still time to figure out a way to fix her. She just needed a moment to think.

Two heavy thumps in the dirt behind Alyssa had her breath hitching.

“You killed her.”

Alyssa curled her fingers around the staff, putting her weight on it to get back up. As she moved, she grabbed hold of Irulon’s tome. Getting back to a standing position wasn’t the easiest from kneeling. Just the thought of moving her leg so that her foot came off the ground hurt. Actually doing so? Alyssa grit her teeth and fought though it. She didn’t survive a rogue angel just to die to some monster.

Keeping the book clutched to her chest, she managed to turn around the staff. With Adrael gone, so too went her magic, apparently, for the hellhound stood just beneath where she had been caught up in the magical net. The red haze of the shadow assassin was still clinging to the wall of the building, but it was doing so under its own strength. The net around it had disappeared as well. If it wanted, it could easily jump forward and attack.

Alyssa kept her focus on the hellhound. She was the closer of the two. Hellhounds were the ones she knew less about. Their species was strong—or this particular one was, at least. Between how she had freed the monsters back in the prison and how she had tossed that man off into the gouge, there was no doubt that this monster had physical prowess. Defenses as well. A sword hadn’t managed to penetrate that thick fur on its arms and legs. With her luck, they would be another magic resistant species as well. The way the hellhound’s eyes burned with literal fire, she was probably immune to anything flame-based at the very least.

Despite Alyssa’s haggard state, she was considering using another Fractal Mirror just to ensure that she succeeded in taking the hellhound down before the reverse could occur.

“You killed the old woman!”

Alyssa raised the tome, only to hesitate in casting.

A smile was working its way across the hellhound’s face. She brought her hands together in front of her chest. “Did you see that? Just… pop!” Hands exploding apart, the hellhound doubled over in laughter. “Just—keheh—splattered the whole building in red.” She clutched at her stomach, still laughing. She even managed to snort.

Alyssa wasn’t laughing. Not even smiling. But she couldn’t help the relief she felt as she lowered Irulon’s tome. A monster didn’t want to fight her. That was… sublime. She was tired. It might have been using Fractal Mirror. It might have been having her leg broken. It might have been simply standing up to an angel. Whatever it was, Alyssa just wanted to flop over and lie still for three days straight. A nice and very long nap was well deserved. In her opinion, at least.

But such a rest would have to wait. Turning her head over her shoulder, she frowned. Irulon would hold for twelve hours, barring any strangeness because of how Alyssa interacted with magic. That meant that she had at most twelve hours to figure out how to keep Irulon from truly dying. Maybe she could cast a second stasis immediately after the first ended for an extension.

Sticking around in known enemy territory for too long would leave her worse off. Hadn’t one of those people she had overheard talked about reinforcements coming? There might still be people around at that. She could probably take one or two stragglers. Especially if the staff would protect her from magic the way it had kept Fractal Lock off Irulon and Musca. But did she want to? Or what if there were more than just a handful?

“I take it by the way you rode in here on the draken that you’re with the human over there? I knew I smelled another human around that one. You’re the one who set those humans on fire outside that prison, right? Nice touch. Not a pleasant smell though.”

Alyssa turned back. The hellhound had managed to get her laughter under control. It took her tired mind a moment to catch up to the words. In lieu of saying anything, she just gave a sluggish nod of her head.

“Hmm? Well. She’s the first human who’s done right by me—assuming she meant her words,” the hellhound added with a mumble to the side. Shaking her mane of a hairdo, she looked back up. “I’d consider letting you go just for that, but…” The burning eyes of the hellhound flicked to the side, proving that she could see the staff. After eying it for a moment, she tilted her head.

Alyssa turned to see what she was looking at just in time to watch some stacked rock from the building’s corner fall into a heap.

“You’re a little scary on your own, aren’t ya?”

Am I? Alyssa didn’t feel scary. Then again, considering what her battle with the angel must have looked like from an outsider’s perspective… It had probably looked like she had gone crazy, talking to the air, before deciding to blow up a building for no reason. “Right,” she said eventually, not really wanting to dissuade the hellhound of the notion while it was keeping her safe.

Apparently, her response had been humorous. Not to the point of doubling over with laughter, but the hellhound definitely gave an amused snort. Sparing a quick glance in the vague direction of the shadow assassin, the hellhound turned her back on Alyssa. “I’m just gonna leave. Killing the old hag was—”

“Wait,” Alyssa said, reaching out a hand. Realizing that she was now pointing Irulon’s tome at the hellhound, which might be seen as a threat, she quickly lowered her arm. “Would you mind doing something before you go? A favor for freeing you, you could call it.”

“I don’t mind at all!” the hellhound said, acting almost cheerful.

Alyssa hesitated in saying anything, half expecting to be ignored or argued with. A straight up agreement before even hearing what the favor might entail? Whatever. “Would you kindly run through this place, checking the buildings and streets for any humans other than myself and…” Alyssa glanced over her shoulder. Had Irulon mentioned her name? Did she want her name mentioned? Unable to remember precisely, she simply said, “her. Anyone left is almost certainly part of the group who captured you. And the one who trapped you up in the air is gone now, so you shouldn’t have to worry about that.”

The more Alyssa spoke, the more vigorously the hellhound’s fluffy tail whipped back and forth. “Is that all? Here I was worried you would have me do something unpleasant, but you just ask me to have fun!” Sniffing the air a few times, the hellhound… sneezed. “Got too much of the old hag up my nose,” she said, rubbing with a finger before taking another deep breath of air. “Smells good. Like revenge. But I guess I’ll just have to do this the funner way. I’ll be done soon. I promise.”

“Oh.” Deciding not to comment on most of what the hellhound said, Alyssa moved on. “Uh, thanks. I appreciate it.”

With a wave of her padded paw, the hellhound dashed off, running on all fours.

Alyssa wanted to turn back to Irulon, maybe to inspect the injury a little more. An angel had done the attack, so maybe it had managed to miss everything vital. Or so she hoped. However, one thing stopped her.

The shadow assassin hadn’t run off with the hound. Its red haze had hardly moved from its spot. Having it sit there, watching her, was more than a little creepy. Would it attack if she turned her back to it?

“We freed one of your fellows,” Alyssa tried, hoping it would listen. “We told it to get out of the valley here because we were going to blow up the town. But that’s on hold until I can get her moving again… If you wanted to find it, it’ll be somewhere outside here. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more about where it went. The other shadow assassin… died. Sorry. We didn’t get to it in time.”

The shadow assassin didn’t make a sound. Something which Alyssa was far more glad about than should be reasonably expected. The noises they made were horrid. She was also quite glad when it finally started crawling up and over the roof, out of sight.

As long as it didn’t come back.

Although she still wanted nothing more than to collapse where she stood, Alyssa turned and started hobbling toward Irulon. She was on her feet now. Might as well save the effort of having to get back up later. Climbing up onto the unmoving Musca, Alyssa grimaced as she actually looked into Irulon’s wound. The staff had punctured clean through the dragon hide. So much for strongest armor ever, she thought with a mild sigh. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell anything from the wound. Was it bad? Was it not? It looked bad. There was hole in her from back to front. She could see ribs, but everything else was just one big hunk of meat. For all Alyssa knew, it could have missed everything vital. It could have hit everything vital just as easily.

Closing her eyes, Alyssa leaned forward, using the frozen form of Irulon as something to lean against. Just a quick break. Thinking was difficult at the moment. Five minutes.

She would even set a timer on her phone.

Pulling it out, she hesitated with her thumb over the clock.

She changed her mind. Alyssa flipped to the contacts list. She scrolled down the few entries she had until she found the one number that she hadn’t entered.

Tenebrael.

It wouldn’t work, but no harm in trying once again.

Alyssa tapped the call button.

The selfie Tenebrael had taken popped up on her screen.

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