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Octavia didn’t know that Alyssa knew where she lived. How could she? Alyssa hadn’t figured it out through any conventional means. She had cheated. An angel had provided the information. Even if Octavia did move on from her hovel, Tenebrael could presumably point her out a second time. And a third. Tenebrael might not be able to act because of rules and regulations that Alyssa didn’t fully comprehend, but she could provide more information than anyone.

If only Alyssa felt like she could rely on the angel.

Tenebrael had not lied. Almost certainly. Alyssa still wasn’t sure whether she could lie. But Tenebrael was fickle. It would be just Alyssa’s luck to find out that Tenebrael didn’t want to tell her something or other. The angel might be compelled to avoid answering certain things. It was almost worse if she did answer.

Answering prayers breeds dependency.

It was such a simple thought. Too simple. Had Tenebrael not mentioned it all that time ago, Alyssa might never have considered it. Now that she had, it wouldn’t leave her mind. Every single interaction with the angel was tainted by those four words. From healing herself or Irulon to providing transportation. Every action the angel took had to be treated with suspicion. Was she trying to worm her way into Alyssa’s life, making herself necessary?

It was hard to say. Especially when Alyssa was the one to have asked about Octavia in the first place. That question hadn’t had much thought behind it. It had been a bit of idle chatter to fill dead air while waiting for Kenziel to return. Since she had the information, she was going to use it. But in the future, she might try to be a little more careful about leaning on an angel.

Although, looking around, Alyssa wasn’t quite sure how knowing an address wound up with the current situation. She was in shock. Breathing was difficult. She had an unpleasant sensation in her stomach. Her hands felt clammy. And she wasn’t the only one. To her side, Tzheitza sat in her chair with a stiff back. Her face was set in a scowl. On Alyssa’s other side, Kasita flickered. Just a bit. A sign of worry? Even Brakkt’s stern face betrayed a hint of nervousness.

Or maybe Alyssa was projecting.

The only one at the table who definitely wasn’t worried was Fela. The hellhound opened her mouth wide in a gaping yawn. The flames in the corners of her eyes were only slightly larger than candles at the moment.

“Could you repeat that?” Alyssa said, looking back to Brakkt.

“My father is on his way. A servant will be bringing my armor and Irulon will be arriving along with them.”

“The Pharaoh is coming here?” Alyssa didn’t know why she felt so nervous all of a sudden. Their father was just another guy. A powerful arcanist who could apparently stop invasions with a snap of his fingers, sure. The leader of a nation.

“He wants my sister under control.”

“Understandable,” Alyssa said after a moment. Had she done anything to offend the Pharaoh? Probably. And, looking to her side, she winced as she glanced to Kasita and Fela. The two of them were monsters and one of them had impersonated Irulon. “But here? Personally? Doesn’t he have people he can send to handle these things?”

“His daughter, his responsibility. I imagine that he doesn’t want to give more cause for the nobles to act against us. And he wants to stop Octavia from dragging the royal family through the mud.”

“So this is like a secret operation.”

“It is impossible for my father to go anywhere without someone being aware of it, but by taking care of this himself, he doesn’t have to tell people definitively what he is doing.”

Alyssa slumped back in her chair. She wasn’t sure if that made sense—people would probably see him dragging his daughter back to the palace in chains. Despite acting otherwise around Chris and Jason her actual knowledge of Lyrian politics was distressingly low considering how much time she spent around the royals. “What about Kasita and Fela? Do they need to hide? Run?”

Kasita bobbed her head in an enthusiastic agreement. “I was so careful to avoid him while in the palace and now he is coming here?”

To Alyssa’s surprise, Brakkt smiled. “If you think my father was unaware of your presence, you were fooling yourself.”

“Oh,” she said, sinking slightly.

“As for the hellhound, I doubt it would be possible to keep her at the palace for long if my father was against it. If she truly has my sister’s scent and helps us locate her, he won’t have a problem. My father is far more reasonable than the image of him I suspect you’ve built up in your head. He lets me keep the draken, after all.”

And I’m sure that’s because he is very reasonable and not because his son asked, Alyssa thought to herself. Still, he was probably right. Especially if he really had been aware of Kasita’s presence and hadn’t bothered to throw her out.

Mildly satisfied that he wasn’t going to attack any of Alyssa’s friends, she turned to her next biggest fear. Tenebrael hadn’t been lying. But, in the slightly tiny possibility that she had, or that she had simply been wrong, all this huge ordeal of bringing the Pharaoh down from his throne would become a waste of time. Alyssa did not want to be known as the woman who wasted the Pharaoh’s time.

She bit her lip as Tzheitza broke into the conversation.

“And why here? I’ve a business to run if yer done scaring off all my customers with yer haberin monsters.”

“You actually fought with my sister, didn’t you? I’d like to go over tactics she used, how you subdued her, and anything else of note. I’ll compensate you for your time, of course.”

Tzheitza grumbled, looking more annoyed now than worried. Perhaps because of the assurance that the Pharaoh wouldn’t be upset with a bunch of monsters being in the middle of his city. Alyssa could only imagine what kind of trouble she would be in if someone like Decorous found out about Fela and Kasita. Or even the Pharaoh, if he hadn’t first found out from his children. It was odd that the leader of the highly insular humans was so open to interacting with monsters. He had a son that kept draken as mounts and companions and a daughter with a dragon in her head.

It made her wonder just how much of the human policy of being so against monsters was his doing and how much was public pressure. Maybe he was more reasonable than Alyssa feared. It would certainly be interesting to meet him, though she still had butterflies in her stomach at the thought.

Brakkt and Tzheitza started going over Octavia. Her throwing daggers were enchanted with a variety of effects, from ice to fire, drowsiness to outright poison. She tended to use a spin throw at shorter ranges, rather than a straight toss, which had failed a number of times when she had been fighting Oz and Tzheitza. Whether because she had misjudged the distance or because she was just bad at it, Tzheitza wasn’t sure. The straight tosses had longer range, but were far more inaccurate. Aside from the daggers, she was quick and agile but with a poor grasp of tactics, as evidenced by her attacking two experienced mercenaries and one experienced mercenary accompanying a Rank Six arcanist and a hellhound.

Alyssa remained silent for the discussion. She had really only seen Octavia fight once. Oz had put her down quick enough that she wasn’t even sure that she could call it a fight. The only other time she had actually seen Octavia had been in Irulon’s laboratory. And she had been chained up and immobile then.

A thump outside the building made everyone tense. Even Fela. They were in the back room, away from windows that people might peer through, but there also weren’t a lot of exits if something went sideways. There was the door in Alyssa’s room, but it was blocked off pretty well. They could make one, but Tzheitza would probably not be too happy.

Brakkt drew his sword. He didn’t have his armor, but he still had that glowy sword with him. Alyssa had her cards. Tzheitza’s bandoleer was never far away. Fela was a weapon all on her own. Kasita… Kasita…

Kasita was missing. Again. She usually disappeared during times like these.

Though she didn’t stay missing for long. Before anyone could so much as move toward the door, it opened. Kasita walked through pointing over her shoulder. “The Pharaoh is here.”

Tension dropped drastically, though it didn’t quite fall to zero. Brakkt sighed and sheathed his sword. Alyssa and Tzheitza both lowered their implements, but, after sharing a glance with each other, neither saw fit to completely put them away. Fela turned to face everyone in the room in sequence, looking like she had no idea what was happening.

“Perhaps you all should stay here momentarily,” Brakkt said, walking up to Kasita and the door. “I’ll ensure that there are no surprises. Wouldn’t want any accidents happening.”

“That sounds like a good idea.” If it came down to it, Alyssa could probably Spectral Chains the Pharaoh to allow Kasita and Fela time to escape. But she absolutely did not want to do that. Assuming she survived the encounter, she would have to go on the run without a doubt.

He nodded, closing the door behind him as he left.

“I don’t know how to meet a Pharaoh,” Alyssa suddenly realized. She looked to Tzheitza. “Do you bow or kneel?” She wasn’t sure how she felt about kneeling. But when in Rome… She hadn’t done anything similar when first meeting Brakkt, but she had met him in combat, basically. Irulon had been in a classroom setting when they first met. A classroom setting where Alyssa had been trying to avoid drawing too much attention to herself. Bowing then would have stood out even more than just bumbling about.

But a pharaoh was like a king. Not bowing to a king was probably a good way to get executed, or something.

“Calm yerself. This ain’t a formal setting. If this were the throne room, you’d best be kissing the floor.”

“So I… don’t have to worry?”

“Just try not to offend him.”

“I’ll try?” Alyssa glanced to Kasita then to Fela. Hopefully they were listening too.

The door slammed open. Everyone jumped, but Alyssa breathed a sigh of relief when she saw who was standing at the threshold.

“Irulon,” she said with a smile. A familiar face was always good to see in stressful situations. She looked much better than the last time Alyssa had seen her. Last time, she had barely been able to keep walking. Her exhaustion from their trip had taken its toll at the time, but she looked good now. And she was all armored up as if she were heading to battle. Which she might very well be. It had been cleaned, clearly. The black scales gleamed in the light. There wasn’t a speck of dust to be seen.

As she waltzed into the room, offering a nod in Alyssa’s direction, someone else filled her vacancy at the door.

Tess carried a wooden crate the size of a washing machine. It had to be heavy, but she didn’t even look strained. She dropped it on the floor right in front of Alyssa.

“You left these at the palace,” Irulon said, hopping onto the table and crossing her legs. “And with how overbearing my father has been, I haven’t had an opportunity to see them delivered. You make one little insinuation to some of the Observatorium’s administrators and suddenly you’re an irresponsible, foolish little girl.”

Alyssa opened her mouth, hesitated, then decided not to comment on Irulon’s problems. Instead, she looked down to the wooden chest. “The food?” she said. It was the only thing she could remember having left at the palace. Flipping up the latch—there wasn’t a lock on it—she opened the top.

It wasn’t food.

“I went through all that effort to pick out clothing for you and you just left it behind.”

“My arms were full. And I wasn’t sure if I was just borrowing it or if you were giving it to me.” There were five full outfits inside, including footwear and a pair of gloves. Three of them were elegant enough to be on par with the black dress that Alyssa had on at the moment. One looked like fairly utilitarian working clothes that had not been among the clothes that had been presented back at the palace. The last…

Alyssa pulled out a black scaled armor suit identical to the one Irulon was wearing. Tzheitza sucked in a small breath as she saw what it was. When Alyssa had been in the potion shop before leaving, Tzheitza hadn’t been around and Alyssa had been out of it before coming back. Just like Irulon’s suit, it had been cleaned thoroughly. Far better than Alyssa’s makeshift job of it back on Earth. The scales practically sparkled.

“Isn’t this extremely rare and valuable? Can I accept this?”

“I destroyed incredibly rare clothing of yours. In fact, it was clothing from your…” she trailed off for a moment, flicking her eyes to Tzheitza. “Homeland,” she ended up with. “That possibly far more rare than dragon hide. It is only fair that I replace it.”

“Yeah, but that was a cheap shirt and pants. They probably cost the equivalent of a few meals at a cheap tavern.”

“In your homeland, yes. Here, they were irreplaceable. And this will protect you, hopefully. What you represent is even more valuable.”

“Well, unless I can convince my angelic friend to bring me more. The clothes, that is, not mes.” She would probably tell Irulon about Jason and Chris sooner or later. Maybe after the third Earthling arrived, she would want to meet with them. Analyze them or whatever.

“Ah yes, angels. Another topic I wanted to discuss with you. And the staff. You still have it, correct?”

“It’s in my room,” Alyssa said, nodding to the back.

“Excellent. After this business with my sister, I would like to see it again. For now, go change into the armor. It would be unfortunate if you caught a poisoned blade in that flimsy dress.”

“I’m coming with you guys? I thought I would just point out where Octavia was then leave it to you.”

“Of course you’re coming. And my father has been… most interested in meeting you.”

“Oh.” Tess had left the door ajar when she entered. No one had followed her in yet, so Alyssa leaned to the side, trying to peek out and at least get a glimpse of the man who ruled the city before she had to meet him. Unfortunately, the angle was all wrong. She could hear voices, Brakkt and another’s whose voice was similarly deep, but she couldn’t hear their exact words.

“Go change.”

“Right.” Sighing, Alyssa slipped into her room with the scale armor in hand. Moving across the room didn’t help the angle at all. With her room in the very back, it actually made it worse. But there shouldn’t be anything to worry over. Irulon would have warned her. Or Brakkt. And Tzheitza didn’t look too worried. All her effort of putting on the detached sleeves was going to waste, but having armor back definitely made up for it.

Unfortunately, the armor had not been readjusted for Alyssa’s body size. It still had that gap right in the chest. Projectile Reflection would keep her mostly safe as long as she stayed away from anyone, so she went ahead and applied that spell. She considered keeping a shirt on underneath, but the armor was tight enough without.

As she dressed, Alyssa looked over to the staff. Irulon had wanted to see it and it was just gathering dust. Maybe she would have a good idea of who could create a holstery sheath for it. And maybe it wouldn’t be bad to bring along with her. It blocked magic. Or it blocked Fractal Lock, anyway. She hadn’t really gotten around to testing it thoroughly. The Taker could use magic. She wasn’t sure about Octavia, but Octavia had vanished from Fela’s senses back in the maize.

And maybe it would make her look slightly more impressive in front of the Pharaoh.

When Alyssa finished, she stepped back into the room with everyone else, staff in hand. If it turned out to be unnecessary, she could always go put it back. More people were inside the room now. Brakkt stood to one side, holding his arms out in a T-pose as two other men helped him equip his heavy armor. His bedsheet toga was folded up on the counter. Alyssa caught sight of the ridges of his stomach before one of the servants let an undershirt cover him. Shaking her head, Alyss switched her attention to the man who had to be the Pharaoh.

He looked younger than Alyssa expected. A lot younger. He could have been Brakkt’s brother, but that clearly couldn’t be the case. He did have a deep widow’s peak in his dark hair, which was quite long, hanging down to his shoulders. The only facial hair he had, aside from his thin eyebrows, was directly beneath his lips. It was a beard that stretched down to a sharp point a few inches under his chin. His robes were scarlet, looking fairly plain. Maybe there was some yellow trim, but it didn’t look like it had gold woven into it like some of Irulon’s clothes. The most notable feature was a strange collar-like article that went over the robes. It was black with gold trim. From the high neck, it went halfway down his chest, and was the same in the back, but the shoulders curled upward. They were stiff and, frankly, it looked like he had to be careful not to gouge out people’s eyes as he walked around.

Alyssa, frozen in the doorway, felt her stomach flip as he turned his violet eyes to her. Apart from the length of his beard, he looked remarkably like Brakkt. But where Brakkt kept a fairly neutral expression on his face, the Pharaoh had a gaze like a laser beam. It was like he was staring through Alyssa, analyzing her very being. For all Alyssa knew, that was exactly what he was doing. Spectral Sight didn’t work on her, but who knew what other similar things existed that did work.

He did not have a tome at his side, Alyssa couldn’t help but notice. He was supposedly a Rank Six arcanist, one of only four in the city, including Alyssa. Did he use a deck more like that of the Society of the Burning Shadow? A simple thing with only a metal ring holding it in place? That would be easier to hide in his robes.

“So this is the woman my daughter has been traipsing about with. A Rank Six arcanist that showed up out of nowhere.” He didn’t smile or smirk. He didn’t frown or glower. He just stared. “She doesn’t look like much.”

“I assure you, she is quite capable,” Irulon said, stepping a little closer to her father. She carried herself with a formality that Alyssa had only seen at the Observatorium. Once again, she had put on a regal mask. “I have personally witnessed her perform feats of magic I suspect even you would have difficulty replicating.”

Alyssa winced, wishing that Irulon would just shut up. The Pharaoh might be a hardened man, but he might also have an ego as fragile as a glass doll. Alyssa didn’t want to see which if at all possible and comparing their magical prowess seemed a good way to test it. But Irulon wasn’t done yet.

“As Brakkt can attest to, she single handedly disrupted the plans of the Society of the Burning Shadow on three separate occasions. She survived an encounter with the Taker and likely would have killed him had I been a little more trusting with which spells I offered her. Within the palace, she managed—”

The Pharaoh held up a hand. Irulon fell silent instantly.

His form flickered. “Chronosphere,” he said.

Alyssa tensed. A card that definitely had not been in his hand a moment ago expanded outward, turning into a transparent bubble.

“Fath—” was as far as an indignant Irulon got before the bubble encompassed her. Irulon stopped moving completely. The bubble didn’t stop there. A resounding thrumb reverberated through the building as Tzheitza, Kasita, and Fela were encompassed. Even Brakkt and his servants wound up caught in its expansion.

The bubble washed over Alyssa, carrying a chill with it.

But she was fine otherwise. She looked around. It was dark all of a sudden. None of the light potions were actually putting out light. The sun still came into the main room and, with the door open, she could still see, but it was far more difficult.

Until she activated Night Vision.

“Continuum Split,” the Pharaoh intoned. He was the only one moving apart from Alyssa. Everyone else might as well be statues.

And he was attacking?

“Accelero.”

In the blink of an eye, he had moved around the table in the middle of the room and crossed the distance until he was standing right in front of Alyssa.

She didn’t wait to see what he might do. Spectral Chains wrapped around him, binding his arms to his sides and keeping him from moving.

“Shift.”

He vanished. The empty chains fell to the floor before crumbling into nothingness. Alyssa gaped. Even angels couldn’t escape from her Spectral Chains. But he had.

“Continuum Split,” he said again.

Alyssa snapped her head up, finding him standing right back where he had started.

“Disturbance Field.”

Golden light filled the area around Alyssa, creating a ring of shifting sand. The staff. It took a second to remember, but it blocked incoming magic. It might have been why his first spell hadn’t affected her. Had he known? Or had he been planning on doing something without her being able to fight back. She wasn’t sure what the golden sands were supposed to do, but waving the staff’s head through the grains caused the sand to fall to the ground, inert.

Empty Mirror sprung up around her at the same time. She dashed to the side as soon as she was invisible. Thankfully, the staff didn’t block magic that she cast on herself. If it did block it, her Fractal Mirror while fighting Adrael would have failed and she probably would have died.

“Paradox.” Nothing happened. The Pharaoh’s face turned to a frown as he looked around the room. “Rewind,” he tried.

Alyssa breathed a sigh of relief. She had a second to think while his spells weren’t doing anything. What was this? A test? A fight? Had Irulon shattered his ego? Spectral Chains hadn’t worked and that was really her only non-lethal incapacitating spell. Immolating Gloves might burn him to death and Spectral Axe wouldn’t work out any better.

He had to be using Time magic. She knew it existed from the Loophole spell and the names he was prattling off sounded like they fit. But it wasn’t quite as good as Tenebrael’s ability to stop time. Now that she had a moment to breathe, Alyssa was noticing movement. Irulon’s hands were making their way to her spell tome. At the rate she was going, it would be morning before she actually drew a spell, but it was proof that she wasn’t utterly inviolable like what Tenebrael did.

“You had best stop,” Alyssa said, trying to make her voice as firm as possible. As soon as she spoke, he turned, but he didn’t attack. She still moved around the room a bit more, but not attacking was a good sign. So far, she had been treating him as a real enemy. If this was just a test, then maybe he would listen to reason. And she had a pretty good reason why he should stop. “I don’t have many ways of nonlethally stopping you if you’re going to ignore my Spectral Chains.”

She might be able to Fractal Lock him, but getting him out would be an ordeal. Besides that, she didn’t want to waste harder to draw cards on what might just be a spar.

“I have died many times. You will not be my end.”

That… was some arrogance. She could see Time magic being able to fix injuries easily enough. The real question was whether or not it could put his soul back into his body after it was torn out with a Spectral Axe. Alyssa wanted to say that no, it wouldn’t. But surely Irulon had mentioned that Spectral Axe was a spell in her deck. She made a note to ask Tenebrael later.

For now… “I’m not going to try to kill my friend’s dad. If you insist on this… nonsense… I’ll just leave. It isn’t like you can stop me.”

He turned slowly, trying to keep facing Alyssa even as she hurried around the room, not wanting to stand around talking in one spot. “You are immune to a surprising number of spells. The typical counter to Chronosphere is an Accelero before you find yourself engulfed. You did not do so. You did nothing. So how are you moving at a proper speed?”

“Lots of magic doesn’t work on me.” Even less with the staff. “It’s just an inherent trait I grew up with.”

“Hm. Interesting.” He raised a hand again. “Very well. I will call this off.”

“Oh good.” Alyssa didn’t relax. If anything, she was more on guard. She kept moving around the room despite his words. Until things started moving again, Alyssa wouldn’t be letting her guard down.

“But you must understand my concerns when a powerful arcanist arrives in my city and begins making overtures toward my daughter.”

“I, uh, what?” That stopped Alyssa up short. “Overtures? Our meeting was a complete coincidence. Not one I’m unhappy about, but still a coincidence.”

“And entering my city?”

“If I wanted to hurt your city, I would have done it while you were gone. As Irulon said, I did stop a few plots by the Society of the Burning Shadow. Not quite as single handedly as she might believe. Tzheitza and Kasita helped me out a great deal.”

“Ah yes. The mimic. I considered disposing of it when I first noticed it in the palace. Only its relatively harmless nature stayed my hand.”

“Well, thanks. I appreciate that. And I’m sure she does too.”

“You have a proclivity for monsters rivaled only by my son.” He moved away from his position in the middle of the room to leer at Fela. One of his hands stroked his beard while the other found a place at the small of his back. Fela’s eyes were locked onto the now empty doorway leading to Alyssa’s room. She didn’t notice the Pharaoh standing over her. If he so chose, it would likely be a simple matter to snap her neck.

No wonder Tess had said that the Pharaoh could have cleaned up an invasion in seconds. It didn’t matter if time was stopped or just very slow. With time on his side, how could he possibly lose? None of the decks Alyssa had seen on the Society of the Burning Shadow members had anything that could stand up to this one spell. Even if they had a Spectral Axe out, it wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t perceive him fast enough to hit him.

Alyssa glanced out the main door, wondering just how far the effect spread. Was it just this room? Was the whole city moving like it had sunk into a sea of molasses?

He didn’t actually touch Fela. Thankfully. He turned and looked toward Kasita, this time. Where Fela was slowly turning her head to where the Pharaoh had been standing when time had slowed, Kasita wasn’t moving at all. Her head stayed perfectly still. Even the brown hairs dangling freely from her head were locked in place. It was a bit odd, but it must have been because of her nature as a mimic. Some interaction that Alyssa didn’t fully understand.

“I simply believe that not all monsters should be judged because some of them are less than friendly toward humans. Kasita has been a good friend. She has saved my life in the past. And that of your daughter.”

“You heard, I’m sure, but I was just at the Fortress of Pandora. I wonder if you would say the same had you been able to see what I saw there.” He sounded almost solemn.

The Fortress of Pandora, Alyssa knew, was a human fortification built on a little isthmus that separated Lyria and the rest of the human cities from the monster infested ruins of the First City. A vast and unnatural desert created by the use magic on par with weapons of mass destruction. But she hadn’t heard too much about what life was like down there. She assumed that nothing went on for the most part. That the guards and such would be more of watchmen than actual fighters.

Things suddenly started moving before Alyssa could finish her thought.

“—ther. Don’t you dare…” Irulon trailed off, looking around. She scowled when she saw him standing over Fela, who had stumbled back, sticking her tail right in the fireplace. It was a good thing that she was fireproof. “If you’ve harmed her, I will be exceedingly displeased.”

“Calm yourself. She is fine,” he said, waving a hand directly at Alyssa. Coincidence? Had he been toying with her? That Accelero spell had let him move extremely fast, yet he hadn’t actually attacked her. And if he had anything that destroyed the environment around Alyssa, her staff wouldn’t have done anything to stop the house from collapsing on top of her. Maybe she was a little lucky that he wasn’t an enemy. “We just had a small discussion.”

As he spoke, Alyssa let her invisibility drop. She gave a small nod to Irulon, who narrowed her eyes and nodded back. Maybe she was suspicious about what really happened, but she could probably figure it out. Kasita, Alyssa was glad to see, was moving again. If she had suffered yet another negative and unintended effect from magic being used around her, she might need to get away from arcanists entirely.

Alyssa’s fingers curled tightly around the staff. She now had yet another reason to keep it close on hand at all times. It was a Time magic countermeasure. And who knew what else.

The Pharaoh turned to Alyssa and… did he just wink at me? She wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. But he turned away quickly enough, looking first to Irulon then to Brakkt, whose servants hadn’t stopped equipping his armor despite the commotion.

“Let us make haste, my children. I would like to collect your sister before she has a chance to flee.”

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