“Are you feeling quite alright? You’re looking a little green in the face.”
Alyssa shuddered. A fairly juicy slab of steak that had been expertly grilled sat in front of her. It wasn’t alone, having come with a side of potatoes and bread. Of all the food that Alyssa had seen in this world, it was by far the best looking. It might not have a slathering of steak sauce or an unhealthy dollop of butter and salt, but it should have looked delectable.
It didn’t. Staring at it, she felt queasy. Alyssa was not a vegetarian. She didn’t think she was about to become one either. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the reasonings behind the movement. Cows, chickens, and other livestock, as long as they were treated humanely, were just not that big a concern of hers. Even now, that hadn’t changed.
What made her queasy was the memory of the gaunt.
The guards had brought it a cow.
It had eaten a cow.
Watching it eat a person had been terrible, but she had been hopped up on adrenaline and had a thousand other things to worry about at the time. Watching it eat the cow had been… different. A cow was far larger than a person. Remembering how the animal had squeezed in on itself to fit through the small holes that covered the gaunt’s face… just…
Alyssa pressed a hand over her mouth and tried to think of other things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax. Of cabbages and kings.
“And why the sea is boiling hot— And whether pigs have wings.”
“I’m sorry? The sea is boiling hot? I’m afraid I do not understand.”
Humming to herself, Alyssa picked up her fork and knife. She considered shoving the plate away, but feared it would offend Decorous. Instead, she pictured a psychedelic wonderland to distract herself. “Sorry,” she said after eating the first bite. The steak was good. Couldn’t really go wrong with a nice juicy barbecued slab of meat. “I’m fine.”
“If you’re sure,” he said, gently piercing a dainty chunk of meat. “Return to the part where you freed the monsters, if you would.”
“There isn’t much more to it. We freed them, pointed them at the enemy, and they took care of the rest, more or less. Irulon and I hardly had to lift a finger after that.”
“I see. That would explain the sharp decline in the quality of the Princess’ report from that point on.”
It certainly had nothing to do with things getting angelic, Alyssa hummed to herself as she took a small sip of the grape wine. It was… better than most of the ale she had tried, but it wasn’t really her thing. Even if it was delicious, she couldn’t afford to get drunk and spout who knew what in front of Decorous.
“About the spell Princess Irulon used to distract the occupants.”
Case in point. It was a bit of surprise to find out that Irulon was claiming credit for the damage Annihilator had caused. Someone else might be upset by that. Not Alyssa. She was perfectly happy with attention being taken off her. Slipping up and saying that Irulon hadn’t cast the spell would ruin all of Irulon’s efforts. So she simply asked, “What about it?”
“The name of the spell is conspicuously missing. In addition, she claims she used it to destroy the majority of a hillside and several buildings. An exaggeration, surely. My scouts will confirm in time, but I would not refuse an earlier clarification.”
“I hate to disappoint you, but if Irulon hasn’t mentioned the name of the spell, I shouldn’t either.”
“But you know it?”
“I… yeah, I guess.”
Decorous clasped his hands together, humming. He had hardly touched his meal either, though it probably wasn’t out of horrifying memories in his case. “And the destruction.”
“I mean, I haven’t read her report, but destroying a hillside sounds accurate.”
Alyssa didn’t bother asking just what he found curious. She had been extremely vague in describing the events. The only things she said were things that she was sure he already knew, generally because he would ask about them in specific, such as monsters being freed or the size of the Annihilator spell. It was… rough. Tzheitza wasn’t around, she had gone back to the potion shop, so she had no one to help distract him. The room was empty.
Well, empty of people.
They were seated in Oxart’s office. Her old office? It looked nothing like Alyssa remembered. Oxart kept everything highly utilitarian. Her desk had been fancy, but covered in paperwork. The two chairs she had on the guest side of the desk had been simple wood and nothing more. No cushioning, no red velvet. The walls had been adorned with maps and the large scheduling of guards at various posts around the northern area.
The current desk was the same, but all the paperwork had vanished. It had been given a polish, the wood practically gleamed in the bright lights set about the room. A marble bust sat on one corner. No one Alyssa recognized. She was a little relieved to see that it wasn’t Decorous, that would have been just a little too gaudy.
Speaking of gaudy, Alyssa turned her head to the side. The maps were gone from the walls, replaced with long red tapestries emblazoned with a white symbol. Three swords pointing upward and five fanned out in an arc beneath, pointed down. The same iconography covered the backs of the chairs, which were far fancier than anything Oxart had kept.
Even the silverware fork, which was probably real silver, felt like it would put Alyssa into debt just because she had touched it.
“Are you through with your questions, Captain Decorous?” Alyssa said, drinking a drop of wine. “I’m sure Tzheitza is—” Alyssa’s breath caught in her throat.
A single feather was sitting on the table between her and Decorous.
A white feather.
Eyes wide, Alyssa lurched to her feet, whipping her head around fast enough that her neck cracked. Adrael had come back for her? The feather certainly would have indicated as much, but it was the only feather. The rest of the room was perfectly normal. Nothing had been molting inside. There were no angels, Adrael or otherwise, as far as Alyssa could see. Just her, a bewildered Decorous, and two hardly touched meals.
“Is something wrong?” Decorous asked. He had stood up as well, clearly on alert, though he hadn’t moved for his sword or his spell tome so far. His gaze followed hers as she kept looking around the room, but not nearly to the same extent. Out of the corner of her eyes, she kept noticing him look to her. If anything, he was more suspicious of Alyssa than the idea that something else might be in the room.
“I… I think we were being watched.”
“Watched?” His back stiffened. Whatever calm demeanor he had put on for her vanished in an instant as he narrowed his eyes and looked around the room. “Who? How do you know?”
Alyssa bit her lip, turning slowly, still waiting for Adrael to pop up and skewer her with a shield. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. What if Adrael was right behind her, slowly floating around the room to keep just out of sight? That would be… ridiculous. She didn’t have a reason to hide. Especially not after dropping a feather right on the table.
The feather was still there. Normally, angel feathers disappeared a few seconds after hitting something that wasn’t Alyssa. Had it brushed against her? That would explain why it was still here. Or—and she would feel awfully silly if this were the case—the feather could be a normal feather. There was nothing nearby that might have produced the feather. No pillows or the like. Maybe a chicken had been plucked in the kitchen and its feather wound up stuck to the plate.
No. The feather was perfect; it was smooth, unbroken, and free of stains or grime. There was no doubt in Alyssa’s mind. It was a feather of an angel.
Putting her finger on the wood of the table, careful to avoid touching any part of the feather, Alyssa looked up to Decorous. “Do you see anything here?” A test. If she had touched it, he would be able to see it.
Decorous turned his sharp eyes to the table and stared. And stared. And stared. His gaze roamed left and right, circling around Alyssa’s finger.
Test failed, Alyssa thought. He didn’t even need to speak. If he could see the feather, he would have said something by now.
“I see nothing,” he said after a moment, confirming Alyssa’s thoughts. “I’ll fetch someone capable of performing Unseen Sight.” He pulled out a spell card. Message, probably.
“No need. Wouldn’t help anyway,” Alyssa said before he could open his mouth. Sliding her finger forward, she nudged the white feather, barely disturbing it.
Decorous’ eyes immediately focused in on the feather. He definitely could see it now, but he didn’t look concerned. Only confused. “A feather? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Did Irulon’s report mention angels?”
“The… new monster species that hides from human perception?” His face remained steady, but a slight note of disbelief entered his tone. “She claimed they possessed destructive force on par with dragons.”
“Did she describe them?”
He opened his mouth only to hesitate with a glance down. “Feathered wings.”
Alyssa picked up the feather by the hollow shaft. “This wasn’t here when we started eating.”
“After knowledge of our plans? No. It left it behind,” he said slowly. “It wouldn’t leave behind such deliberately placed evidence if it were merely spying. A warning. Or a message? An omen?”
Biting her lip, Alyssa considered the same problem. If it was a message or a warning, it was probably for her. She couldn’t see why Adrael would have tried to warn Decorous. Had Alyssa not touched it, he never would have known. Then again, she didn’t know why angels did anything, especially not the one that was trying to ‘fix’ the world.
“Adjutant,” Decorous said in a raised voice. It wasn’t quite shouting, being far too… elegant for that, but it was intended for an audience outside the room.
And that audience swung open the door mere seconds after. “Sir?” a young man said as he popped in.
“Recall all guardsmen to the wall. Double the watch. I want men surrounding the city immediately, anything suspicious outside should be reported to me with all due haste. Spread the word to the Eastgate and the others.”
The adjutant didn’t need a dismissal. With a small widening of his eyes, he turned back into the adjacent room, presumably to set about with the given orders.
Alyssa didn’t think it was likely that the city would be attacked. The message was clearly for her. She just didn’t know what it meant. It couldn’t be a warning, could it? Why not just take off her head before she knew that Adrael was there? Unless it was some stupid programming that the angels had to follow. Or…
Maybe it was just a simple notice. A letter dropped by to say that Adrael had been around. If Alyssa were Adrael, she would be wanting her staff back right now.
A chill wracked her spine. “I need to leave,” she said, already halfway to the door. A spell card was in her hand. “Things I need to check on.”
“You said I would be able to leave. I have people I need to warn. If I find out anything else, I’ll send you a Message, but I will be leaving.” Her fingers brushed over the deck of spell cards she had. Would she kill him if he wouldn’t let her leave? No. Of course not. But she might have gone overboard in drawing up Spectral Chains over the past few days. With the amount she had, she could probably chain up half the city guard before she ran out.
And if he wouldn’t let her leave, she might have to do just that.
Decorous drew in a deep breath through his nose and held it. “One question: Princess Irulon’s report lacked a way to detect the presence of these angels. You clearly possess the ability to do so. How?”
“I wish I knew. But I do know a thing or two about angels. They… don’t like to get their hands dirty.” She couldn’t say that they didn’t harm humans. Not anymore. But she was somewhat positive that even Adrael would have an aversion to it. Adrael could have stopped the destruction of the outpost well before it began if she didn’t care at all. “They’ll manipulate others into doing their work for them. Look out for regular humans or monsters.”
Alyssa didn’t give him the opportunity to ask another question. She turned and fled from the room.
Decorous didn’t try to stop her. He didn’t shout out to the adjutant, who was in the middle of a Message to some other garrison of guards judging by the small bit of what she heard as she ran to the stairs. He had kept his word. She probably shouldn’t be so surprised, but something about him just made her suspect that he wasn’t on the level. Part of that might have been the redecoration of Oxart’s office.
The moment Alyssa was outside, she held up a spell card. “Message. Irulon. There might be a hostile angel inside the city. A feather just popped into being in front of me while I was talking to Decorous. I’ll fill you in later, just… try not to get stabbed in the back again.”
While running back toward the potion shop, Alyssa sent a similar Message to Kasita. As far as she knew, Adrael didn’t even know that Kasita existed. She had spent the whole time in Alyssa’s pocket during their previous encounter. Still, Alyssa wasn’t going to let her friends wander around without being at least the slightest bit aware of the danger. With Kasita’s ability to detect angels, even as difficult as it was, she might mistake Adrael for Tenebrael and try to follow or contact her.
Speaking of the dark angel… Alyssa pulled her phone out of her pocket as she ran. She probably should have called Tenebrael first, but her priority had been on her friends. Her thumb hovered over the call button, but she hesitated. Last time, Adrael had somehow blocked the calls. The blocking wound up fizzling out her phone for a minute or two, forcing it to reboot.
Alyssa switched to texting. Could Tenebrael even receive texts? She didn’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t work because of that. Maybe it would still fizzle out the same way calling did. She could always try calling afterward. For now, she slowed to a power walk, using both hands to tap out characters on the screen.
Head down, staring at the screen, Alyssa turned a corner around a building.
Adrael is ba—
She barely made it three words into her text before slamming into something. It was a hard hit, but she didn’t so much as stumble.
A little girl, half Alyssa’s height, went sprawling across the ground.
With how little force the little girl had hit Alyssa with, she almost suspected that Kasita was rubbing her elbow on the ground. But it wasn’t a form Alyssa had seen before on the mimic. Although light, the girl had been just a little too solid to really be a mimic. No. This was a human. Some kid she had just knocked to the ground.
Alyssa groaned. She didn’t have time for this. At the same time, she couldn’t just sprint off and leave her lying there. Tapping the send button—if Tenebrael couldn’t figure out the meaning of the text from what was already there… well, she would try calling later—Alyssa extended her other hand out to the girl.
“Watch it you bumbling blockhead!”
The girl shoved Alyssa’s hand away, proving that she really wasn’t a mimic in disguise. She got to her feet with the kind of enthusiasm only a child could muster, looking none the worse for the wear. Her clothes, a sort of aprony thing—she must be a servant—weren’t torn and, despite having landed on her elbow, didn’t seem to have so much as a scratch on her.
Excellent. Great. That meant that a quick, “Sorry about that,” should suffice. Stepping around the girl, Alyssa tried to leave.
A hand around her wrist stopped her short.
She turned, finding the girl staring at where her small hand grabbed onto Alyssa.
Alyssa felt a chill go down her spine. There was just something about the way the girl said that under her breath that unnerved her. The girl looking up with red eyes didn’t help. On Earth, hardly anyone had red eyes. Alyssa had never met someone with them. But here, it probably wasn’t all that strange. The entire royal family seemed to have violet eyes.
In fact, now that she was looking a little closer, maybe the girl’s eyes weren’t red, but just a dark pink. Was she… related to Irulon?
Great. Fantastic, Alyssa suddenly found herself thinking all sorts of terrible things about the girl in front of her. She couldn’t help it. The last younger relative of Irulon that she had encountered turned out to be a psychopathic assassin-worshiper. One that might have tried to kill her only an hour ago. This girl could have been the one who tried to kill her an hour ago, saved only by the intervention of a hellhound.
Alyssa tugged her hand back to herself. The girl didn’t try to keep a hold of it. For a moment, Alyssa thought to turn and run. She really didn’t have time for this. The staff could be missing. Tzheitza could have been caught up in Adrael’s burglary. Tenebrael would hopefully be popping into being any second now.
But leaving would mean turning her back on a little girl who suddenly felt far more dangerous than grown men with swords.
Maybe it was her imagination. Her paranoia. She had just been attacked and there was evidence of Adrael being about, so her paranoia wasn’t unjustified.
“You… are human, right?”
Alyssa blinked twice before shaking her head. What did I do now? Everyone asks that. Realizing that the shake of her head might be taken the wrong way, she quickly nodded. “Yeah. Human. What about you?” The question was out before she could stop herself. Alyssa took a step back, worried what the physical response might be regardless of the answer.
But the girl didn’t get angry. She sighed, putting on a deep pout. “Was it that obvious? What did I do wrong?”
“Uhhh…” She was a monster? Alyssa took another step back. It didn’t seem like she was about to be attacked, but who really knew. The girl wasn’t a mimic but she was a monster that looked human enough. Would she be strong? Weak? Would a gun work?
Was their meeting a coincidence or had she planned it out? That was the biggest question.
“Well?” She shoved her hands to her hips. “How did you know? Was it something I did? Or just something you do?”
Alyssa bit her lip before deciding to answer honestly. Maybe if she played along, the little girl wouldn’t turn into a giant cockroach from outer space. She did have a Spectral Axe that would probably work, but Alyssa wasn’t about to attack without knowing that the girl really was an enemy. Alyssa might have killed people. A lot of them, even. But she wasn’t a murderer. And that, she felt, was an important distinction to make.
“Human girls around your age don’t talk like you do.”
The girl waited, but when it became apparent that Alyssa wasn’t going to say anything else, she huffed. “That’s it? I didn’t talk right?”
“If you want to blend in properly, you should go find some real human girls and just watch what they do. Especially when they interact with strangers.” Alyssa stepped back again, just in time for a black feather to drift down from above, nearly brushing against her face as it wafted past.
She glanced up, relief flooding her as she spotted Tenebrael’s fully extended wings drifting down toward her. The angel came down, landing just in front of the little girl. Alyssa was pretty sure the girl wasn’t a mimic, but she must have been able to sense something. Stiffening slightly, the girl turned and ran off.
“I searched around some. If Adrael is present in my world, she is eluding me.”
Not the best news that Alyssa had heard, but it was close. “Considering how she had been around your world for quite some time before I found her, I’d say she has some practice in dodging you.”
“True. But I don’t like it.” The glowing white in Tenebrael’s eyes shifted around a bit, looking over Alyssa. “She stole the staff back?”
“I was just about to check on that. I had to leave it behind—it is too cumbersome to carry everywhere. All I saw of her was a single feather.”
“Very well. I suppose I can stick about for the time being. Not too long from now, I was going to come pick you up anyway.”
“Your presence is appreciated. Come on. The staff is at the potion shop. Unless you want to teleport me there?”
“I could,” Tenebrael said, looking down at her black fingernails. “Breaking time and space to save you only a few minutes of walking is kind of a pain.”
“You stop time on a whim.”
“True.” She extended the hand she had been looking at, placing it on Alyssa’s shoulder.
For a moment, Alyssa thought a ring of magic lights would pop up and whisk her off. Instead, Tenebrael dragged Alyssa in close. She barely knew what was happening before she found herself whisked into the air with a beat of Tenebrael’s wings.