Alyssa had to silence her phone. She was honestly surprised that it had taken two days. Chris Altrac, the man she had rescued from certain death, was understandably confused. Unfortunately for him, Alyssa was trying to sleep during the day so that she could travel at night. They were almost back to Lyria, so she could meet up with him then. She should have been back by now, but her party wasn’t making quite as good a time on the way back as they had on their trip out to rescue Oxart.
She blamed Irulon.
The princess had developed an obsession with… everything, basically. The staff. The food. Alyssa. And especially Kasita.
“It’s really getting annoying,” the mimic whispered as they rode along shortly after dusk. “She pokes and prods me constantly. Both physically and with magic.”
“I can understand the staff. And the food. But she has hardly bothered me, so I don’t know why she is suddenly interested in you.”
“Yeah. Creepy. I don’t know human magic all that well, but a few of the spells she has used on me seem to be trying to discover my recent history. Like that Retrograde Cognition spell.”
“If she wants to see Earth, I have a phone full of videos of the planet.”
“I almost feel bad for her. She was stuck in that stasis the whole time. Maybe we shouldn’t have told her. Spare her feelings and also spare me being experimented upon.”
Alyssa shook her head. “No. She would have figured it out.” Irulon might not have been able to guess exactly what had happened, but she definitely would have put a few things together. At the very least, she would have figured out that Alyssa had visited Earth during her stasis. Alyssa had mentioned that she and Kasita had been trapped in a single room the whole time and that it really hadn’t been that interesting, but apparently that didn’t matter.
The only thing that got the princess to settle down had been mentioning that Tenebrael had been the one who decreed that Irulon and the draken stay in their stasis for the duration. Having her god be the one to shut down her travel plans had to hurt, which was why Alyssa had added a ‘yet’ to the end of telling her that Tenebrael thought she wasn’t ready for a visit to Earth. It wasn’t even untrue. If Tenebrael ever did become powerful enough to fully ignore everything in her book or just to hold her own against Seraphim, Alyssa couldn’t see any reason why Irulon wouldn’t be allowed on Earth.
Of course, at that point, Tenebrael probably wouldn’t have any reason to keep Alyssa trapped on Nod. If Alyssa thought that time would come soon, even within a year or two, she might even be content to sit around and see if she could enjoy herself on this world a little more. Tenebrael had been at this for thousands of years. Which meant that Alyssa didn’t believe she would be ready to fight off the Throne for another few thousand.
Unfortunately for poor Tenebrael, mortals didn’t have that much time.
“Well, try not to worry too much,” Alyssa said. “I’m sure she’ll have princessly duties to attend to once we get back. Those will probably keep her from you for a time.”
“Are you going to let her keep that staff?”
Alyssa glanced back over her shoulder.
Irulon and Musca had led the way from the moment they had left Lyria, but the opposite was true on their return trip. If Musca moved too fast or started bouncing about, Irulon would let out a click of her tongue, stopping the draken nearly instantly. It was one of the main reasons they were traveling so slowly. Irulon had the staff in her hands, staring at it with her black and white eyes. Every once in a while, Alyssa would hear Irulon cast a spell. Diagnostic spells by the sound of their names.
“I don’t know,” Alyssa said quietly. She didn’t know what the princess hoped to discover by staring at the staff. While Alyssa didn’t want to stifle any discoveries, she kind of wished that the princess could hold off for a time. At least until they got back to Lyria. They would have been back by now. Surely the princess had better examination facilities and tools back in her laboratory.
As for letting the princess actually keep the staff… Alyssa would have no problem with it if she wasn’t worried about Adrael popping up to take it back. Of course, for Irulon, the staff going missing was the least of her problems. The dragon in her head was consuming her soul. Or merging with it, at least. And Adrael wanted to separate the two.
The archangel hadn’t shown up so far. There was no way it would stay that way. Without Iosefael or Tenebrael constantly hovering over them, Alyssa’s sleep hadn’t been the best. Alyssa had survived last time thanks to luck. The same might not hold true next time, especially not without angelic support. And Irulon had even less defenses against angels, being unable to see them.
Alyssa didn’t know what to do about it. But Irulon keeping the staff would only increase the likelihood that Adrael show up to take it back. And she would probably separate their souls while she was in the neighborhood.
She had mentioned the problem to Irulon, who had merely shrugged and said that she would think about it. She hadn’t said anything about her and the dragon souls merging, another thing that had Alyssa worried. Even after speaking with Tenebrael, Alyssa didn’t know what a soul really was or what it meant. Perhaps merging the souls wouldn’t even be anything bad. The angels didn’t like it, but screw the angels.
It was, ultimately, a personal problem for the princess. Other than fear of uncertainty, Alyssa didn’t have anything to contribute to that particular issue.
The only other immediate problem was the hellhound. Fela wasn’t anywhere in sight, but Alyssa had a feeling that the hellhound was still around. Her feeling stemmed from the previous night. Fela hadn’t been around then either, but still appeared just as Alyssa was unpacking some submarine sandwiches.
Then again, the palace was in sight now. Every step made it grow larger on the horizon. The towers around Lyria and even the much lower wall were all visible. They were almost back. And that might have scared off the hellhound.
Looking up at the palace, Alyssa couldn’t help but frown. There was something different about it. Taking a glimpse through her binoculars, she quickly found the difference. There were violet banners hanging from one of the highest floors almost halfway down the sloped sides of the palace. There was no way those banners had been there before. They were gigantic. A hundred yards, at least. She would have noticed them. They were identical, as far as she could tell, to the violet banners that stood outside the city near the gates. Each had a white eye with black designs mimicking the tattoos Tenebrael had on her face.
“Izsha, do you mind waiting for Irulon for a moment? Get us within talking distance, please.” She was tempted to tell Izsha to just rush ahead. At full speed, the draken could probably cross the fields and make it to the gate in ten minutes. However, Alyssa really wasn’t interested in trying to get past the gate without Irulon there to handle the guards. She could easily see them attacking, not realizing or not caring that Izsha belonged to Brakkt’s group of draken.
If Oxart had given them orders to do so, they might just try to arrest her anyway. Alyssa was really hoping that Oxart had taken some time to think about it and maybe decided that she didn’t need to throw a treason charge around. And in the case that Oxart did, she hoped that Irulon really could protect her. Alyssa had been raised to own up to her mistakes. But owning up to exile to the First City? Or worse…
Shaking her head, Alyssa waited for Musca to catch up now that Izsha had dropped its brisk run to a slow trot. As the princess grew closer, Kasita made a small noise. Just a little grunt. A moment later and the mimic was gone. Disguised as something. Maybe a rock in the bag. Maybe she had wrapped herself around the bag itself.
“We’re almost there,” Alyssa said, ignoring the sudden absence of the mimic.
The princess didn’t look up from the staff. Alyssa really had no idea what she was looking for. The golden haft had a spiral to it, but that was it. The ruby was a smooth gemstone, larger than any Alyssa had ever seen, but otherwise unremarkable as far as she could tell. Neither the gold nor the ruby had any markings or angelic text to them. “I am aware,” she said eventually. And then she promptly started mumbling under her breath. It was too quiet to hear everything, but Alyssa picked out a few words.
Curious. Gold too pure? Should be fragile. Soft. No magic detected.
“There are large purple banners hanging from the sides of the palace.”
It was slow, but Irulon finally looked up. Even as she tilted her head, her eyes lingered on the staff until the very last moment. Once those black and white eyes hit Alyssa, she blinked, turning them violet.
She immediately sagged in her seat, slumping slightly.
Alyssa started, worried that the princess would fall right off Musca’s back. But she didn’t. Irulon put a hand to her forehead, closing her eyes, but remained steady.
“Are you alright?”
“Not this again,” she grumbled. “Does your trinket say I’m going to keel over?”
“No. I just—”
“I am fine. Tired, is all. I’ve been abusing my companion to try to glean more information lately. It is taking its toll.”
“Don’t push yourself too hard,” Alyssa said, putting on a wan smile. “I’d hate for you to fall unconscious. It would mean that I’d have to wake you up again. Poor Tess. I don’t know how she manages.”
Irulon didn’t seem to find the humor in Alyssa’s little joke. She continued rubbing her forehead for a moment before flicking her eyes up to the palace. They twitched to their black and white form for a bare instant just as they had when Alyssa had first seen them, eliciting a wince from the princess. “Banners,” she said as if she had just remembered them being mentioned.
“Large purple ones hanging from the higher floors.”
“Father has returned.”
“No. My other father,” Irulon said in an irritable drawl. “Sorry,” she said, letting out a sigh. “I think I need to lie down for a time in a proper bed, rather than my travel bedroll.”
Alyssa nodded her head, feeling much the same way. Just sitting down on a modern couch had her longing for a proper bed too. Of course, her idea of a proper bed and Irulon’s probably differed, but the point was still there. Going from a taste of modern amenities to a sleeping bag on rocks was rough. They didn’t even have a tent. She had left hers at Tzheitza’s place, not wanting to lug around the extra weight when Oz said that they could use the larger hide tent.
But they had taken that with them.
She was just glad that it hadn’t actually rained while they were out there. The sky had been looking cloudy for the last day or so.
“So, Oxart mentioned some things about your father not standing for… me or my actions. That’s… uh, not going to be a problem, is it?”
“You’re a Rank Six arcanist. At risk of being laughed out of the Observatorium, I’d consider calling you Rank Seven. I’m not saying that I or my father couldn’t do what you did with Annihilator, but we wouldn’t have been able to do it with Annihilator. And it would have required preparation.”
“Doesn’t that just make me more dangerous?”
“More valuable. If Lyria does fall under siege by a million ants, or a million anything, having one more person around who can cut out a significant portion of the opposing army in one fell swoop is vital. You could probably decimate a million ants alone with the strange oddities you have. My father, myself, and Administrator Devo would probably cut down a hundred thousand each, provided we had a small window of preparation beforehand. After that, we would need additional time to prepare another large scale spell or we would have to join the rank and file with standard Rank Six spell cards.”
“That’s why you had Oxart tell your brother to prepare.”
“Hm. A force that large would require preparation no matter how we handled it, but yes. Thanks to us, we shouldn’t have to worry too much about it anymore. Not for a time at least. If the guild succeeds in destroying most of the fairy commune, the survivors will relocate. Hopefully to a position out of the Juno Federation’s immediate reach. Still, it would be best to increase military patrols throughout the desert. That the Society of the Burning Shadow was able to build a sizable outpost only a few days away is sure to shock even the nobles into action. I can’t believe we missed it.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Alyssa said. “Archangel Adrael almost certainly had been feeding her followers information on the future, likely keeping their own patrols out of sight of anyone who might have been looking for them. And she was protecting the outpost herself. It’s possible that she hid it when she foresaw people coming.”
“And she didn’t this time…”
“Because I seem to ruin the angels’ plans just by existing.”
“Hm.” Irulon fell silent for a moment, looking back down at Adrael’s staff. Her eyes flickered black, resulting in another wince. She held out the staff toward Alyssa with her eyes closed. “Take it,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to go insane if I keep staring at it.”
Coming from someone who studied magic that supposedly made everyone who studied it insane, that was probably saying something. Izsha, beautifully understanding context, drifted a little closer to Musca and Irulon, allowing Alyssa to take hold of the staff with both hands.
“I’m not through looking at it,” Irulon added once it was out of her hands. “I just need a rest first.”
“Well, let’s get you that rest,” Alyssa said, resting the staff over her lap. “What do you say we hurry back? Get the draken just a bit of exercise before we reach the palace?”
“Best to not approach the gates at high speed. We’ll find arrows and spells flung in our direction before we’re halfway through the fields. They’ll panic no matter what, but a vigorous pace should give them time to recognize just who they’re dealing with before anything unfortunate should occur.”
As soon as she finished speaking, both Musca and Izsha took off. They didn’t fly across the terrain. Not like they had when first freed from the confines of the palace. But Alyssa wasn’t sure she would call their speed merely vigorous. It was only because she had grown so used to Izsha that she managed to avoid being thrown out of the saddle. In fact, she was fairly confident that Izsha was doing far less to compensate for an unskilled rider now than she had been. Perhaps the draken was trusting her to know at least roughly what she was doing now.
It was almost a shame that they would be back so soon. She got the impression that the draken didn’t often get out of the palace. For creatures like the draken, she felt that they needed a wide open area to run around in. Being confined to the palace stables had to be a nightmare. Was it their loyalty to Brakkt that kept them there? Or were they afraid that whatever he had saved them from would come back for them if they were out of his presence for any length of time?
They could actually like it there. They probably didn’t get much exercise, but they were undoubtedly well fed and cared for.
Maybe that was something that she could change. She had been thinking of big grandiose problems. Free the slaves! Societal reforms! But those were really big. Even with half the royal family at least listening to her ideas, actually implementing anything might be impossible. But taking Izsha out for a run around the city every so often was a much smaller idea that would probably make the draken happy.
And, just maybe, if the people of Lyria saw monsters running around far more regularly, they could get over a few of their prejudices. That was a bit of a long shot, admittedly. They seemed pretty set in their ways.
Speaking of people set in their ways, the wall was fast approaching and the guards were scrambling. There were a good ten up on the wall itself. Just over half of which were armed with bows, the rest had tomes out. Twice as many were down on the ground around the gate.
“More of them than usual,” Irulon mumbled. “Something is up.”
Seeing all the armored soldiers made Alyssa tense up. And Irulon certainly wasn’t helping. They weren’t attacking. The archers didn’t even have their bows raised. But she could picture Oxart marching out of the main gate and barking an order to arrest her.
Izsha and Musca slowed down a great deal the closer they got until they were doing nothing more than walking. Irulon sat atop Musca with her back straight and her face set in stone, betraying none of the exhaustion she had put on display just a short while ago.
Attempting to mimic her, a job better left to Kasita, Alyssa sat up and even held the staff out just a bit in an attempt to appear a little more regal. She felt foolish doing so. It was almost embarrassing to pose herself. However it had happened, she wound up as part of the princess entourage. An entourage of one, unless one counted the draken. Alyssa might, but she doubted the guards would. Still, because of her association, she felt like she needed to present herself appropriately. Especially if it would help in not getting arrested.
Now close enough to see the guards’ faces beneath the wire face masks they wore on their helmets, Alyssa glanced about. She wasn’t sure if she hoped to recognize Ipo among the crowd or if she hoped they were all fresh recruits. The latter definitely wasn’t true. She had walked through a whole crowd of guards on her way to Oxart outside the palace. Even if she hadn’t glanced at any one of them for any length of time, they all would probably recognize her.
Just thinking about that made her wilt slightly. It took a force of effort to keep her feelings off her face. How did the princess manage? It was no wonder she was so terse with just about everyone if she had to keep up her princess facade at all times. Alyssa had lied a lot, or acted a lot, since arriving in Lyria. But never to Irulon’s degree. Never so much. She let her guard down plenty around… pretty much everyone she had spoken with more than twice.
“Stand aside, guardsmen.” Irulon kept her tone polite yet stern.
The guards did not follow her orders. There was a bit of hesitation before one of them stepped forward. It took Alyssa a moment, but she recognized him and his bushy mustache. Donovan of the Northgate Guard. He had been the one to lead her to Oxart and had been the one Irulon told Alyssa to warn about Oxart being under a fairy’s control.
“I’m sorry, Princess. With the recent infiltration, we have orders to search every incoming and outgoing party.”
“Do you now,” Irulon said. Her eyebrow twitched. It was a subtle thing, but it was there. “On whose orders? Captain Oxart?”
“N-No. Oxart has been temporarily relieved of her duties and is undergoing an investigation. I don’t know when or if she will return to her post.”
That got Irulon’s impassive smile to crack. It twisted into a deep scowl. One that made some armor jangle as a few of the guards actually flinched. “An investigation for what?”
“Among several other things, including desertion and conspiracy, she is primarily accused of treason, your Highness.”
Alyssa flinched this time. This was her fault. She just knew it. If not for her, Oxart never would have abandoned her post, never would have disappeared for a few days.
“Treason,” Irulon repeated, voice having lost any semblance of a good mood. “For being victim to a fairy during an emergency situation? Ridiculous. On whose authority is she accused? Not my father’s, surely. The nobles wouldn’t be quite so overt in removing one of their own guard captains.”
She might have been able to figure it out if left long enough, but she didn’t need to. Donovan spoke up again. “Captain Decorous has assumed control of the Central Garrison with Snopkin’s death as well as the Northgate in Oxart’s absence. He found letters written in Oxart’s hand within her office implicating her in the attacks.”
Irulon’s scowl reached its peak. She closed her eyes, wincing momentarily. “A ploy?” she mumbled, barely audible. “No. Too obvious. Planting them would be the first thing investigated. No. She’s loyal. Not to me nor to the nobles, but to the people. From our brief encounter, I’m positive of that. I disagree. Decorous is definitely using the situation to his advantage, but he didn’t place the papers.” She reached up and started massaging her forehead with one hand. “I’d need to see them. And speak with the cap—with Oxart. More information is required.”
“Princess?” Donovan said, taking a step closer. “We need to search your equipment before you can enter.”
“You will not,” Irulon thundered, snapping her violet eyes open. “I am the Seventh Princess… or maybe Fifth Princess—it’s all a bit confusing at the moment. Regardless, you have no authority to search my belongings. I would not submit myself before even the Royal Guard, let alone Decorous’ lackeys. Attack me if you dare or get out of my way. Musca! Izsha!”
That was all the warning Alyssa had to grab hold of Izsha’s neck. She almost dropped the staff doing so.
At being called out, the two draken started moving. Donovan and two others had to throw themselves to the side as the giant lizards flew through the air. In the blink of an eye, they were through the gate and charging through the city streets. She managed to glance over her shoulder. Despite still being in view of the arcanists and the bowmen on top of the wall, neither of them raised their weapons to attack. In short order, the draken had turned down a different street.
And the gate went out of sight.
“To the palace,” Irulon said. “No stops.”