The first thing that hit Alyssa was the noise.
Tenebrael’s world was quiet. Nearly silent, in most parts. A deserted military compound in the middle of a desert had no noise at all. Even the city, filled with people, didn’t have much in the way of sound. People talked, of course. Carriages bumped as their wooden wheels rolled along the ground. The horses carrying the carriages whinnied and their hooves clopped.
But none of it could compare to the sounds of a jackhammer tearing up the roadwork outside an apartment window.
Just hearing the sound of cubes falling from the refrigerator icemaker into the dispenser sent a pang of nostalgia through Alyssa’s heart. In the distance, a siren from a police car could just barely be heard in the pauses of the road construction. Horns on cars joined the cacophony. The low hum of air conditioned air coming from the vents only served to keep the sparse moments of silence from being… silent.
In other words, quiet in Nod was quiet. Quiet on Earth was deafening.
The second thing that hit Alyssa was the air itself. Again, it was nostalgic. The smell had something to it that she couldn’t quite place. Pollution, probably, as much as she didn’t want to think that. As much as their politics were barbaric and the society was backwards, Lyria really had little in the way of pollution. She wasn’t sure what the city did with its waste—there were public outhouse-style facilities, yet no modern plumbing—but it wouldn’t surprise her to find out about a whole guild of low-ranked arcanists who used magic to keep everything clean. A janitorial guild.
Here and now? Alyssa drew in a deep breath through her nose. It might be pollution, but it was familiar. Air that she hadn’t breathed in months.
After breathing in, she immediately shivered. Not only was the air cool in general, but coming from a desert hot enough to still be sweltering even at nights, she felt like she had just entered a walk-in freezer. Alyssa grabbed both arms at the elbows, rubbing up and down.
Only then did she realize that she was missing the golden staff. Her hands were empty. No staff. No spell book.
“Here we are,” Tenebrael said, voice sounding as jovial as could be. “There is food in the kitchen, hot water, and even a soft bed, if you wanted to take a nap. Naturally, you cannot interact with anyone—or leave this room—until we’re—”
“Where is my stuff?”
“Stuff?” Tenebrael cocked her head to the side. “What stuff?”
“Don’t play dumb, you stupid angel. Where is the staff? Where are my and Irulon’s spell cards? My guns!”
“Everything I took from you is in a safe spot. I can’t afford to let you cast magic around here, so you’ll have to make do without for now.”
“Everything?” Alyssa said, looking down. She still had the dragon hide armor on and her satchel. Having left her backpack at the cave outside the military compound, that was all she had been carrying. That and her pistols. Which were gone. Scowling, she shot a glare at the angel.
“Don’t worry. This place is effectively sealed off. You won’t be leaving and no one will be entering. You won’t need your equipment.”
“What if some other angel wanders past and wonders why there’s an apartment room sealed off from the rest of… where are we, anyway?”
Alyssa blinked, frowning. “That’s a bit far from home.”
“Your murderer started quite the manhunt. He has evaded so far, but they’ll catch up to him eventually. And, speaking of, I do need to leave to make some preparations. I’ll be monitoring this area for any angelic presences, so don’t worry about that either. Should any angel discover you, I’ll be here to rescue you instantly.”
Alyssa couldn’t help but scoff. “Like Iosefael was supposed to keep us safe from Adrael?”
“If there is something that I cannot handle, then we’re both… screwed, as you humans say.” Waving a hand, Tenebrael turned slightly toward the window. “Anyway, I’ll be back in six hours. Eat some good food, take a nice long bath, and have—”
“Wait!” Tenebrael paused at Alyssa’s outburst, turning a head to her shoulder. Somehow, her wings didn’t get in the way of her stare. Alyssa started slowly, still trying to form a plan as she spoke. “Since… this apartment is cut off from everywhere… why not free Irulon from the Fractal Lock? She wanted to look around Earth anyway. It, uh, can’t hurt. Right?”
True to her word, Tenebrael had brought all three of the stasis victims. Irulon was still on Musca’s back, both unmoving. Izsha was to their side. Both were piled up on top of each other in the middle of the room. A coffee table and couch had been shoved aside to make room for them.
Was this an actual lived-in apartment? Or some construct of Tenebrael’s? If the former, wouldn’t the people notice their food going missing or tables being out of place? Where were the people anyway?
Vacation, maybe. And if Tenebrael put everything back to how it was, it was doubtful that anyone would notice.
Tenebrael let out a soft chuckle. “Free the woman who has half the Observatorium’s library memorized?” she said, shaking her head. “Earth would be in shambles by the time I got back.”
“But… she wouldn’t be that bad.”
“I brought her here on your request. You promised that you didn’t have anything planned.”
“Then you’ll be fine on your own. See you soon!”
Black feathers exploded out from the angel, filling the small apartment until they started disappearing. Alyssa brushed a hand back and forth in front of her face to get rid of a few that had clung to her. As she did so, she sighed. While it was true that she thought Irulon might be able to learn something, maybe even how to get here from the other world, it was also true that Irulon had wanted to see the sights of Earth. Maybe being trapped inside a single room with only a window to look out of wasn’t the best way to experience it, but, given her propensity for being skewered through the back, Alyssa was a little worried about her chances of ever being able to come here again.
Which was a very morbid thought to have. Shaking her head, Alyssa approached the windowed door of the balcony.
The apartment she was in was on the third floor of a building, looking out over a road that was under construction. While the door didn’t open even after unlocking it, there wasn’t much of a balcony to speak of anyway. No real reason to go outside. Sure, she could try shouting at the construction workers down below, but what would she say? Probably something that would not only get her locked up inside a sanatorium, but also something that would definitely irritate Tenebrael. Plus any other angels who wanted the plan to proceed without her distracting some construction workers.
Alyssa thought to take a picture of them. Irulon might be a little upset if she knew that she had been to Earth without being able to experience anything. A picture might alleviate that. Except… her phone didn’t appear in her hand when she called it. Patting down her satchel and the dragon hide pockets in a hurry, she started scowling. It’s gone! Presumably along with everything else that Tenebrael had taken from her. Had it even managed to record any of Tenebrael’s transferal spell?
“Damn that bitch.”
Her pockets were not completely empty, however. Alyssa pulled out a smooth stone. The red haze was gone, but hopefully that was because the spell had ended during the trip to Earth and not because something bad had happened to Kasita.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I completely forgot. As soon as Tenebrael gets back, I’ll ask her what went wrong with you. It will be the very first thing. No getting distracted with talk of killing people or of going to other worlds. The first thing.”
It felt a bit useless, talking to a rock. Anyone who saw her would think she was either crazy or crazy lonely. Possibly both. But, if some small part of Kasita could hear her deep within the stone, she wanted the mimic to know that she did care.
Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do now. Without even a single spell card, she couldn’t try testing anything. Not that she would test random spells on her friend.
Gently setting the rock on the coffee table next to Irulon and the draken, Alyssa turned to explore the rest of the apartment.
She didn’t bother with the front door. Unless Tenebrael was the biggest idiot in the entire cosmos, it wouldn’t open. The rest of the apartment wasn’t all that large. It had two bedrooms. One had clearly been inhabited by a young girl judging by the decor and toys lying about. The other, as Tenebrael had said, contained a bed that looked great. Alyssa didn’t dare touch it. Her armor had come through the transportation spell caked with just as much dust and blood as had been on it beforehand.
So she moved to the bathroom. A nice place with stylish tile floor and a sizable tub. The apartment’s rent must cost a fortune. Lying on the counter across from the tub was a bathrobe. It looked soft, fluffy, and even had her name embroidered on the black fabric.
Looking up, Alyssa flinched. Like most bathrooms, this one had a mirror. The fact that it took her a full second to realize that she was looking at herself… Alyssa shuddered. She looked like garbage. Her hair would double as a nest for rats. Her face was covered in dirt with small streaks of red here and there. She looked thinner yet more muscular at the same time. With working out on the regular being a favorite activity of hers, she had always been well built.
Peeling the dragon hide off wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. With how much she had sweat from all the fighting and the sneaking about, it was worse than any other time she had removed it. Leaving the priceless armor in a heap on the floor, Alyssa stared at herself again.
Her breasts had shrunk. At the same time, her biceps looked a little thicker. Her abs had a definition to them that hadn’t been there two months ago. Touching at her shoulder, she inspected what had once been a deep gash. There should be a scar there. A reminder of how foolish she had been in challenging the Taker like she had. But Tenebrael had taken away her mistake, replacing it with smooth skin. Every other injury was the same, from her burned hand to her broken leg.
Flicking her eyes to her face, Alyssa scowled. There was something there that hadn’t been there before. Or maybe something missing that had been there. It was hard to tell which. Either way, something changed. Something she hadn’t noticed until now, looking into a modern mirror with a modern bathroom reflected around her. A hardness to her eyes. A frown where one didn’t belong. Or maybe it was her who didn’t belong…
Or maybe it was just the dirt and grime. Shaking her head, Alyssa felt a bit ridiculous. A bit overly melodramatic.
Cranking the water handle, she got the shower going. As much as she wanted to just sit and soak, she needed a shower first. Wash off all the grime and then fill the tub. No plan sounded better at the moment. She didn’t even bother stopping by the kitchen to see what food Tenebrael had provided.
Actually stepping into the steaming stream of water, Alyssa almost started crying. It had been… so long. Not just during her excursion through the desert. The public baths in Lyria, while something, just couldn’t compare. Running her fingers through her hair sent what felt like ten pounds of grease running off her body and down the drain.
And then she noticed the shampoo. Pumping a bit more than necessary and not caring in the slightest, she dug her fingers into her scalp, letting the suds foam up until she had a halo of apple-scented soap continually running down her shoulders.
Eventually, she decided to switch to a bath. She wasn’t quite sure that she felt clean despite spending twenty minutes under the steaming water, but she was tired and wanted to give her legs a rest. After angling the shower head to try to get all the dirt sticking to the walls to run down the drain, she used her foot to put the stopper in the water.
Sitting down with her head propped up against a small headrest, she let the shower beat against her bare chest. It was a poor man’s massage, but it was wonderful. Pure bliss. Only when the water level reached her neck did she reach up with her foot and turn off the water.
Alyssa closed her eyes, let out a deep sigh, and let the water soak in.
She didn’t know how long she remained in the water. The bathroom lacked a clock and, after getting fully relaxed, she might have dozed off a bit. Without the constant worry that something would pop out of the woodworks and bite her head off, now was the most relaxed she had felt in months.
But it didn’t last forever.
The door made a sound. It wasn’t a creaking as the hinges were well oiled. It was the click of the knob not being turned fully before the door pressed open.
And it sent a jolt of fear through Alyssa. All her relaxation vanished in an instant. Someone else was here. The door wasn’t locked. She hadn’t intended to stay in the bathroom, but the mirror and the clean water distracted her enough that she had forgotten. Who was it? The homeowner? A home invader? Her stomach sank. Alyssa was literally naked. No weapons. She didn’t even have the armor on. There wasn’t anything she could use within reach either.
Maybe the shower rod?
Alyssa scrambled to her feet, fumbling a bit with standing in the water. It was making a lot of noise, but she wouldn’t have been able to hide anyway. Arms above her head, inches from the rod, she froze.
For a moment, she thought she was looking in the mirror again. But she wasn’t. There were no tattoos down her arm. The breasts were larger. The face was shaped slightly different. It was familiar, but not her.
“Ufu~ don’t get up on my account.”
Alyssa closed her eyes. Still knee-deep in water, she just about fell over. A handle in the shower wall saved her. “You scared me half to death,” Alyssa said after a moment. “But… I’m glad you’re alright. I was worried.”
The smile on Kasita’s face slipped as she glanced off to the side. “Yeah. I’ve actually been fine for a while now.”
“Since you and Irulon were freeing the monsters,” she all but mumbled. “Thought I’d force myself to make an appearance before Tenebrael told you that nothing was wrong with me.” Turning away, she ran a finger over the silver sink faucet. “So this is your world, is it? Everything is so smooth.”
“And those orbs,” she said, looking up at the vanity lighting. “They’ve got little bits of hot metal in them. I can tell that much, but they’re so bright just from that?”
“Kasita,” Alyssa said again. She stepped out of the tub, dripping wet. Water would get everywhere, but what did she care? It wasn’t like this was her house. More importantly… “Are you alright?”
The mimic didn’t look back, instead reaching out to the faucet. She started, jumping a little as she turned on the water. It wasn’t until Alyssa put a hand on her shoulder that she finally stopped paying attention to her surroundings. Kasita didn’t turn around, but Alyssa could see the way her face fell in the mirror. “I was useless.”
“Don’t deny it. When you and Irulon asked if I would find as much information as I could, I was elated. It was something that I could do, that I was uniquely suited for, while you two went off to destroy buildings. I almost immediately found that basement, then… I don’t even know what happened. The next thing I knew, you had picked me up. Irulon was freeing the monsters. And you two killed everyone without me doing a single valuable thing. I might as well have not been there.”
Alyssa pressed her lips together. This wasn’t like Kasita. The mimic giggled and smiled and took everything with a lackadaisical attitude, finding amusement in everything. This… must really be bothering her. Tightening her grip on Kasita’s shoulder, Alyssa spun the mimic around, wrapped her arms around her, and pulled her in close. A hug. A hug hopefully more comforting than the one Tenebrael had offered earlier. Kasita did wiggle a bit, but Alyssa was cheating. The mimic lacked the strength to get away… although, if she truly wanted to escape, Alyssa had watched her phase through a metal fence.
But the wiggling only lasted a moment or two before they both fell still. With her head on Kasita’s shoulder, Alyssa couldn’t see her face. Not even through the mirror, which just showed Kasita’s back and Alyssa.
“Never think you’re useless,” Alyssa said. She wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to say, but it felt right. “I am so grateful that I met you. And not just because you saved me from Rizk or from those guys on the Brechen Overlook or a hundred other things—which you did, by the way, all on your own. I think that I can be completely genuine when I say that you’ve become my best friend.
“My only friend, really,” Alyssa added after a moment. “I mean, I’d like to be friendlier with Irulon, but, between you and me, I don’t think she actually has friends. Or wants them. I think I might have burned some bridges with Oxart and Oz over that whole fairy thing, though I never really considered them friends to begin with. Tzheitza probably isn’t going to be too happy to see me after stealing her potions and then leaving her shop half destroyed, even if that latter bit was really Lumen’s fault… and… now I’m just depressing myself. I don’t have much to look forward to when we do get back to Lyria.” Not that there was anywhere else to go. “But,” she said quickly, realizing how what she had just said might have sounded, “don’t think I would trade you up for them. You’re my friend on your own merits. Never doubt that.”
Silence hung in the air for a long while. Alyssa was almost afraid to let go of Kasita, worried she might disappear. But eventually, Alyssa felt a pressure against her chest. Kasita pushing her away. There was another moment of hesitation, but Alyssa relented, not wanting to cling overly much. She almost expected to see a tear-streaked face when Kasita backed up enough. But there was nothing. Just a blank face without a trace of a smile. Which was sad enough on its own. Then again, Kasita probably didn’t cry at all. She could probably make herself look like she was crying, but her form, Alyssa had to remind herself, was illusory. A construct built up to project herself onto the world.
“Those are all people from our—from my world. Surely you have someone here that you want to see.”
That question made Alyssa wince. “Not really. My family, of course. My parents and my brother, even my grandparents and Uncle Earl… but that’s family. I have coworkers—or… had coworkers. I was friendly with them, but I’ve never once interacted with them outside working hours. There were a few people back in high school, but we’ve all grown our separate ways. I haven’t spoken with one of them in… a year at least. I usually keep to myself while at the gym and I attended community college while living at home, going to mostly night classes. Night classes have an overabundance of older people that I just never connected with… So no. I’ve got no one apart from my family.”
Something in what Alyssa had said put a small smile on Kasita’s face. She wasn’t sure exactly which point caused that smile, but she was just glad that something had. Crisis averted for the moment, Alyssa took her eyes off Kasita. A large part of her wanted to jump back into the warm water and just soak forever. Pretty much all of her, actually. But she was already out. Just standing there had gotten her at least partially dry. Might as well finish up. The kitchen was calling and, she had to admit, she felt just a little awkward about standing around completely naked while Kasita wore that dragon hide armor. Kasita didn’t look wet at all, but she was at least somewhat illusory, so that wasn’t surprising.
Grabbing the towel off the rack, and after getting over the mild surprise that the towels were quite warm to the touch, Alyssa set to drying herself off. “What about you?” she asked. “Any friends or family? I haven’t seen you speak with anyone really. Just those Waterhole monsters.”
“Mimics don’t have much in the way of family. We reproduce without a partner and the ‘child’ is fully formed on birth, so a parent doesn’t need to stick around. None of that crawling around all helpless like you humans do for half your lives.”
Alyssa didn’t bother commenting on that snipe. She was too busy trying to wring out her hair. There was probably a blow dryer somewhere around, but that would be noisy and obnoxious, so she made do with the towel alone.
“There was a human, once,” Kasita said, turning back to the mirror. “Lexar was his name. He didn’t know I was a mimic, but I suppose you could say that we were friends. At least, we were as long as he thought I was a human.” She paused, frowning at herself in the mirror before giving a snide chuckle. Not like her usual giggles. The sad sound of it made Alyssa pause in her efforts to dry off. “I was naive,” Kasita continued, taking no notice of Alyssa’s lack of movement. “Thought it wouldn’t matter, that we could be friends despite me being a monster. I told him. He betrayed me, tricked me into getting myself trapped. Captured. A few years later and a long story cut short, I wound up at the Waterhole.”
“That’s… horrible,” Alyssa said, feeling like she should hug Kasita again. She refrained. In high school, lots of the girls often gave each other hugs, but they had always felt a bit awkward to her. Right now, so soon after she had just let go of Kasita, she felt that another hug would be more awkward than comforting. So she said instead, “I’m sorry you had to go through that. A few years… couldn’t you have escaped? Slipped away?”
“Probably. But I was a bit upset with everything. Depressed that all my efforts to be kind to a human wound up… well. I didn’t see a good point to escaping. By the time I was in the right mindset to want to escape, I had grown somewhat attached to some of the other slaves. Pho and I were sold to the Waterhole together. I didn’t really want to leave at that point.”
Slipping on the robe bearing her name, Alyssa looked to Kasita. “Do you miss her? Pho?”
With a wan smile, Kasita shrugged. “There was an attachment there, but only a mild one. Free, she’ll return to her hive. Even if I had followed her, I wouldn’t belong. Not even if I disguised myself as a bee for the rest of my life. She’s with her people and I’m happy for her, but I wouldn’t be happy to be with her, pretending to be something I’m not.”
“That’s… What about right now?” Alyssa waved a hand up and down. “Are you happy pretending to be a human? I don’t mind if you want to be that spider thing. That is your true form, isn’t it? You don’t have to pretend around me. And I’m sure Irulon wouldn’t mind—”
Kasita held up a hand. “Let me stop you there. I don’t have a true form. It certainly isn’t that spider thing, as you put it. I might look like that naturally, but the amount of time I’ve spent in it is probably less than ten minutes. Over my whole life. No. I might not be one, but, maybe because I’ve spent so much time as one, I identify with being a human far more than any creature. Even if they scorn me when they find out what I am.”
“Not all of us. I don’t. I don’t think Irulon does either. And I bet we’re not the only ones. There is no such thing as a unified mindset. I bet there are millions of humans who don’t like the treatment that monsters get. Especially ones like you. I mean, wasn’t Irulon talking about a village that worshiped a gaunt? If a whole village can worship a gaunt, I’m sure plenty of people can at least be respectful toward you, if not friendly.”
“They sure do a good job of hiding it.”
“Yeah. And that’s just the state of the world. Maybe it will change eventually. In fact, it might have already started to change, with Irulon and the Second Prince.” Though that was a fairly large might. Irulon didn’t seem to care about much on an empathetic level, basing her cares on how useful things were to her. Brakkt, Alyssa knew less about, but even if he deeply cared for the draken, he didn’t seem like he was much of a policy maker. That job probably resided with his older brother.
But that was neither here nor there… or, it was there, but Alyssa was here at the moment. It was still worth thinking about. She wanted to do something for the people and monsters of Lyria, and she found herself in a unique position. There was a philosophy about leaving the world better than how one came into it, and that was more literal for her and Nod than anything else. With her more modern sensibilities, she felt like she was more enlightened than the rest of the people of Nod.
Then again, she would have to carefully look over everything she did. Thinking that she knew better than all the people with decades of experience in dealing with monsters was how she wound up ruining her relationships with practically everyone except Irulon and Kasita. If she ever found herself in a position to make policies, she needed—vitally required an adviser.
Like that will ever happen, she thought with a mental scoff. “Let’s get out of here and go sit down. This is exactly what I was talking about the other day, getting to know each other. Since we seem to be stuck here for a while, talking more is a great use of our time.” Besides that, the kitchen might contain modern food. That thought alone had her stomach yearning to switch rooms to see what she might find.
“I think I’d like that,” Kasita said, nodding her head after a moment. “And you can tell me all about this world while you’re at it. I wasn’t wholly feigning my interest in all the smooth surfaces.” Her smile grew wider and wider. “Imagine that. I’m the first monster to ever set foot on this world. The first person to experience it. What a wondrous happenstance.”
“It isn’t that great. And we can’t leave the apartment without Tenebrael.”
“There is more than enough to inspect around here! Like this, for instance.” Kasita took a few steps to the side. “What is this? It’s so smooth all around and full of water.”
Alyssa blinked before shaking her head with a chuckle. “That’s a toilet.”