Not wanting to spook Octavia, Alyssa, Brakkt, Irulon, Fela, and the Pharaoh—whose real name Alyssa still didn’t know—were all under an invisibility spell. Irulon had handed over a larger version of Empty Mirror that encompassed them all for Alyssa to cast. The reason why Alyssa had to cast it instead of Irulon was because of the staff. When Irulon tried it, it had failed. Just like everything else that failed when directed at the staff. Alyssa could have stayed alone and cast her own Empty Mirror while they were under the larger one, but that would have left her bumbling around them. It was nice that they didn’t have to all guess where each other was walking, as Alyssa and Irulon had to do when they first went into the Society of the Burning Shadow’s church.
However, they did have to watch out for pedestrians. Because the bubble of fractal shards was so large, it would be too easy for someone to walk right inside and see them.
More than once, the five of them had to duck into a side street or even an alley. Getting so close to the others, mostly the Pharaoh, was an awkward affair. And it was unfortunately necessary. Kasita, in a perfectly average disguise, was walking ahead of them to provide warning of anyone that might pop out of a building or alley. Her heightened awareness of everything around her made her uniquely suited to the task.
It wasn’t perfect. A door opened right as they were walking past. Alyssa froze as a man stepped out. He froze as well, apparently not having expected to find the Pharaoh on his front porch. But none of the others seemed worried. The Pharaoh, dispassionately, held up a card. “Rewind,” he said.
The man flickered and vanished. The door was shut. It didn’t close. It was shut as if it had never been opened in the first place. A few seconds later, after the group had moved on from the house, the man stepped out again. He looked more confused than last time, but didn’t stop for long before continuing on with his day.
“He’ll feel a weird sense of having exited his house only moments ago,” Irulon said as if reading Alyssa’s confusion, “but he won’t remember exactly what happened.”
“What if there was someone else in the house? Wouldn’t they notice him suddenly pop back to where he was a few seconds before?”
“The entire building reset. Everyone and everything within would have jumped backward in time several seconds.”
Alyssa shook her head, hardly believing what she was hearing. Magic could do plenty of crazy things, but this all seemed more like something Tenebrael would do. Not mortals. Why was Irulon even studying Fractal magic when Time magic existed?
The answer, as Irulon had said a long time ago, was because Fractal magic dealt with theoretical other worlds. A topic Irulon was interested in. But still, that was just Irulon. “Why does Lumen, or anyone, bother with anything else? Why settle for a little laser beam when you control time?”
“Unless you are capable of Rank Six Time magic, you won’t find it very useful,” the Pharaoh answered instead of Irulon. He walked with his hands tucked into the small of his back, both in clear view. Alyssa still didn’t know where he kept his spell cards. Even watching him closely as he drew one from nowhere, she still had no clue.
Him drawing a card did make her tense, but the tension died off as he held it out to her. She accepted it and looked it over, feeling slightly faint as she saw just how many lines covered the small sheet of paper. Her hand cramped up just thinking about it. The design was on par with some of the worst Fractal spells Alyssa had tried to copy down over the past few days.
That didn’t stop her from snapping a picture of it.
“There are a few lower ranked spells, but nothing particularly outstanding. There are so few Rank Six arcanists that it isn’t a properly researched school of magic. I advanced the art by leaps and bounds on my own, much as my daughter is doing to the branch of Fractal magic.”
“Which spell is this?”
“Accelero. Rank Six.”
“You used that one earlier,” Alyssa said, typing down the spell name in her phone. “It… made you really fast?”
“That would be a simple way of putting it, yes.”
Alyssa was perfectly fine with simple. Maybe she shouldn’t be, but Tenebrael was already working on complex magical things. One day, with the help of Tenebrael and Irulon, Alyssa might feel more confident in delving into higher ranked magical theory. But she didn’t even know how a simple Light spell worked.
As soon as she finished logging the Accelero spell in her phone, Alyssa eyed the Pharaoh, wondering if he might part with a few more spells. With her current deck, she thought she might be a good match against the Taker. But if she had that Chronosphere spell? He would be dead before he knew what hit him.
Fela let out a low growl before Alyssa could ask. “I smell it again,” she said, flaring her nostrils.
“We are getting close,” Alyssa said, almost relieved that Fela was backing her up. She had been just the slightest bit worried that Tenebrael’s information would have dragged everyone out of the palace for nothing. “It should be just… over… Fela? What are you doing?”
The hellhound had stopped in the gap between two buildings, looking down the alley. “The smell is this way.”
“But…” Alyssa had her finger pointed in the same direction they had been heading. “Did she figure out we were coming?”
“Perhaps my daughter is not as foolish as we might believe. Brakkt, Irulon, continue on and secure the home your young friend pointed out. If Octavia is there, capture her. I will follow the monster’s sense of smell.”
The two nodded. Brakkt started walking, but had to pause before leaving the bubble of fractal glass. Irulon hadn’t followed despite her nod. “Alyssa? Are you coming with us or will you go with my father?”
The answer on Alyssa’s lips was to go with Irulon. It really hadn’t been a choice in Alyssa’s mind until she said that. But, now that she was thinking about it, that would leave Fela alone with the Pharaoh. He probably wouldn’t hurt her. After that impromptu spar, if that was what it was, Alyssa just wasn’t sure how much she actually trusted him.
Had Irulon asked that on purpose? Did she suspect her father of foul play? Or was the paranoia just getting to Alyssa.
“I’ll stick with the Pharaoh. It will keep the groups even. Just keep Kasita safe.” The mimic had noticed that the group had stopped moving. She was disguising her own stalling as simply being interested in a rusted sword that was leaning up against a house. Every few seconds, she would glance back. From having asked, Alyssa knew that seeing through Empty Mirror was a lot like trying to see angels, though slightly less straining.
Irulon nodded, probably having expected the answer. She stepped away from Alyssa, moving right next to Brakkt, and cast another Empty Vessel. The two of them faded from view, leaving Alyssa alone with the Pharaoh. Kasita didn’t move. A few moments later, she disappeared as well. Alyssa glanced about, wondering if anyone had seen, but the few people that were on the street didn’t seem alarmed in the slightest.
Of course they weren’t panicked. Irulon wouldn’t have moved forward if people had been watching Kasita.
“Alright Fela,” Alyssa said, turning away from the main street. “Lead the way.”
After passing through the alley, Fela continued straight across the street. Without Kasita walking ahead of them, Alyssa had been a little nervous about stepping out into a new street, but her confidence was bolstered by the presence of the Pharaoh. With time control, what did it matter if someone saw them?
Though he was strangely silent. As they crossed into another alley, back behind a building, twisted through a poorly designed section of the city, and came out on another street, he kept to himself. His eyes were thin slits, focused straight forward. Never once did he glance to Alyssa. She wasn’t even sure that he was really watching Fela.
But, after another two back alleys and a street, Fela stopped. Most houses were nothing special to look at. They tended to be single room buildings. Maybe two rooms. Down in the markets, the buildings were more like Tzheitza’s shop with a public area and private living quarters all under the same roof. Here, however, most home occupants were likely farmers.
“It is strongest here,” Fela said. “I don’t like it. The smell burns my nose.”
“Well, she probably hasn’t had a bath since Irulon caught her since all the guards are keeping an eye out for her.” Between the Waters Street gang being under heavy attack by the city guard and her own part in their activities coming to light, she couldn’t have been having a fun time of it.
“Filthy humans are everywhere. This doesn’t smell like the rest of them.”
“But you’re sure it is her?”
“It’s the same as the field. Much, much stronger, but the same.”
“How do you want to handle this?” Alyssa asked, looking up to the Pharaoh. He was pinching the tip of his beard between two fingers, staring at the house Fela had pointed out. “Unless she can reset time like you, my Spectral Chains should be able to hold her. But if you have something better…”
“She may not be alone. The Taker has not been found yet either. Follow behind me. Chain anything that moves.”
Six cards just appeared in his hand as he spoke, fanned out like… a fan. It was the same hand that he had been stroking his beard with. He hadn’t drawn them from anywhere. He hadn’t activated a spell through speech. His beard was not nearly so thick that they could have been hiding inside, but that really was the only explanation.
Alyssa wanted to learn that trick. Irulon did something similar, though she had to pass her hand near her tome at the very least. It probably wouldn’t be that useful for Alyssa, seeing as she could simply hold out the entire deck and cast individual spells like that, but still.
“Fela,” Alyssa said. “Stay right outside the building. Watch our backs and make sure no one sneaks up behind us.”
“Have the hellhound follow us inside,” the Pharaoh said.
“If any part of it becomes visible, even accidentally, I will not protect it from the repercussions should people spot it. Keep it under your shroud or send it out of my city.”
Alyssa scowled, but nodded slowly. “Better do as he says,” she said to Fela. The bubble of glass shards that surrounded them did not pass through walls, so he was probably right. That did not mean that she liked the way he phrased it. ‘Will not’ implied that he could protect Fela and was choosing not to. He was going to let her into the palace, wasn’t he?
He didn’t give her a chance to ask. With the cards at the ready, he headed straight for the building. Instead of opening the door using any method a normal person might use, he lifted a foot and kicked. The entire door crashed to the ground with him on top of it.
Alyssa followed after him, cards in one hand and staff in the other—yet another reason to get a holstery thing for the staff. Being unable to draw her pistols left her feeling strangely vulnerable. But she could consider that later. For now, she stared, looking for anything that moved.
What she found made her gasp.
Bodies were strewn about the floor of the building. Contorted, bloodied husks. One had been dismembered. Its legs and arms were in neat rows next to the torso. The head was nowhere to be seen. Another looked mostly normal except for the chest. There was no skin around the chest. The rib cage hung in the air, displaying the torn remains of its internals.
The heart was still beating, though the body wasn’t moving.
One was pressed up in the corner, knees huddled up with its hands pressed to its chest. She might have thought it was just scared if not for the face. The eyes were rolled back so far that only whites could be seen while the jaw hung clear to the notch between the collar bones, far lower than any jaw had a right to hang. The skin was a grey color. Almost like it had a fine layer of ash coating the flesh. A milky-clear liquid was pooling in the ground underneath the body.
Aside from the three bodies, there were brownish red markings all around the room. Drawings. Characters of some language. On first glance, Alyssa would have guessed Enochian. But they weren’t quite right. Like someone held up a sheet of Enochian to a funhouse mirror and copied down what they saw.
Fela let out a long growl at Alyssa’s back.
That broke the spell. The Pharaoh snapped into motion, spinning around and grasping Fela by the shoulder. “Is this what you smelled?” His voice, which had been calm and collected every other time he had spoken, was filled with a worry and nervousness that made the hairs on Alyssa’s neck rise.
“It’s the same smell as the field,” Fela said, batting his hand off her shoulder. “I don’t like it. We should leave.”
The Pharaoh didn’t seem to notice that she had smacked his arm away. The cards in his other hand flickered and the designs on them changed. Alyssa recognized the pattern on a few of them.
“Message. Brakkt. Stop! Do not approach Octavia. Grab Irulon and keep her from doing anything foolish. The hellhound led us to a plague house.”
As soon as the words were out of the Pharaoh’s mouth, Alyssa felt a chill wash over her. The day was hot, but she felt like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over her head. Her hands were clammy and the tips of her fingers were tingling.
The body in the corner… had it moved? The jaw didn’t seem quite as gaping. And its eyes were shifting.
“Message. Setesh. I need a plague containment team readied and—”
Alyssa swapped her spells for her pistol and fired.
The bullet slammed into the body’s head, right between the eyes.
The burning red eyes. They weren’t like Fela’s eyes, who had literal flames constantly emanating from the corners. The irises were a deep, burning red. Like the embers of hot coal being blown on to coax them into a smoldering fire.
Snapping and cracking filled the air as the body’s fingers stretched and flexed. Its arm stretched out, grotesque fingernails clawing for purchase against the shoddy wood that made up the floor. One of the fingernails snapped off, leaving the nail sticking straight upward.
Alyssa fired again. And a third time.
The body lurched to its feet, moving more like a marionette on strings than a person.
Spectral Chains lashed around the body, binding its arms and legs tightly. It toppled forward, but that didn’t stop it. Its feet were free. They dug into the ground, pushing the body forward a few inches. There was a slight pause while the feet reset before they pushed the body forward again.
A ghostly scythe appeared in Alyssa’s hands. She slammed the tip of the scythe down into the ground, piercing the body through its back. With a heave, she dragged forward. The body stayed where it was, stilling. Thick black smoke stayed attached to the tip of her scythe. It clung to the body like resinous pitch, fighting against her.
A second heave tore it free.
Alyssa took care to keep far from the cloud. Even if an angel didn’t show up to collect it within the next few minutes, she would not be sticking her hands into that. Just the sight of it gave her a queasy feeling in her stomach that she couldn’t quite explain.
Looking at the other two corpses, Alyssa decided to not take chances. Her scythe passed straight through the decapitated man’s head without resistance. No smoke or mist came out with it. The same could not be said for the ribcage corpse. It wasn’t the black smoke of the first body, but it wasn’t the almost luminescent white of proper souls either. More of a greyish cigarette smoke type of color.
“We are fortunate,” the Pharaoh said, rubbing at the ear closest to Alyssa. “It must have just barely become a demon. A young one. They normally revive themselves even with a Spectral Axe.”
Alyssa could believe that. The way its soul had clung to its body, it surely would have put itself back had Alyssa not dragged it fully out. Someone who couldn’t see souls the way she could would probably not have known that more effort was needed. Even with the soul fully separated from the corpse, Alyssa was still keeping an eye on it. The grey smog of a soul wafted in the air listlessly. The pitch twisted and pulsated in the air. She held no doubt that, should it manage to contact the corpse, it would try latching on again.
“How do you normally deal with them?” Alyssa asked, taking a step back. She put a hand on the Pharaoh’s arm, gently pulling him back with her. Fela hadn’t moved closer. Her fur was bristled out as much as possible, making her look far more bulky than normal.
“Starvation. When isolated, the infected won’t attempt to escape. They wither away until their body can no longer support them at which point disposal is simple. We are not sure why they act like that. When presented with people, a single infected can easily overpower even well trained groups. It is a subject of debate and research at the Observatorium.”
An acrid stench cut off another question Alyssa had about the plague. It was like rotten eggs. Like the mudpots and sulfur pits of Yellowstone Park.
A blinding flash of light left behind a burning circle on the floor. A circle with five lines inside. A pentagram. Those warped versions of Enochian wrapped around the outer ring. Alyssa used up another Spectral Axe, only to find herself face-to-face with another scythe wielder.
A woman, just slightly taller than Alyssa. The only patch of skin visible was right around the burning ember of an eye. Shiny black leather covered absolutely everything else. A tight mask wrapped around her face at a sharp angle, hiding her other eye behind it. Heavy boots stretched up to her thighs. A dozen buckles held her boots together, with the excess strap looking more like hooks digging into the air. Her jacket looked like strips of leather had been sewn together. The only color on her, aside from her eye, was on the silver clasps that made up buckles on her boots and jacket.
Where Alyssa’s transparent scythe had a bluish hue and faintly glowed, the creature in front of Alyssa held a scythe made of shadows. She could tell from the way the woman held it that it had substance to it, but Alyssa couldn’t see any definition. From her perspective, it looked completely flat. The way it moved when it… turned. It looked like the scythe blade was just growing and shrinking out of a thin bar.
So stunned was she at the sudden appearance of the woman that she didn’t have a chance to react before the woman kicked out. It was a short kick. Barely more than a few inches. The tip of the woman’s black boot connected with the bottom of the scythe’s haft. With her hand right at the midsection, the scythe spun, leaving a trail of darkness behind it. It scythed through the black tar of a soul. A burning pentagram, identical to the one underneath the woman, opened up beneath the soul and sucked it downward.
The woman didn’t seem to pay Alyssa any attention. Nor did she look at the Pharaoh or Fela. She did turn the gaze of her uncovered eye to the grey soul, but she shook her head, sending her dark ponytail swishing back and forth behind her head.
The faint flames of the pentagram underneath her feet flared, burning bright.
And she was gone.
No trace of her remained. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds at the most.
But Alyssa stared at the vacancy. Right before she had disappeared, the woman had looked to Alyssa. Right at her. And the woman had winked.
Alyssa’s hand tightened around the ghostly scythe. That… had been a demon. It had to have been a demon. A real one, not whatever the plague did to humans. A counterpart to Tenebrael. Possibly even Her? At least a subordinate.
And if that wink had been anything more than a blink—it was hard to tell when the woman had one eye covered up—then she had definitely taken notice of Alyssa.
“Did either of you… see anything?” Alyssa couldn’t help but ask. Fela was growling, a low constant noise from the back of her throat, but that had been going on since the corpse first woke up. The Pharaoh hadn’t reacted to the demon’s presence as far as Alyssa could tell. In fact, he was looking at her with a wary expression.
“That right there,” Alyssa said, pointing at the mark on the ground. Although the flames were gone, the pentagram had been completely scorched into the ground among all the distorted Enochian. “Do you see a mark there that hadn’t been there before.” There were two of them, actually. The larger one that the demon had appeared within and the smaller one that the soul had been sucked through.
“A sign of disaster,” the Pharaoh eventually said. The darker tone of his face paled a shade or two as he stared at the mark on the floor. “Excuse me, I need to ensure that a containment team arrives as soon as possible. This building must be cleansed before more form, lest the entire city fall to despair.” He stepped just outside the building, pulling out Messages. But he paused before he actually started casting the spell. “Brakkt has not responded to my Message,” he said. “As Pharaoh, I must put my city first. I cannot leave this infection unattended until the containment team arrives.”
Hesitating, Alyssa almost said that nothing more would happen here, but she couldn’t be sure of that. The grey soul was still floating where she had left it. Tenebrael hadn’t shown up for it yet. Maybe she would, maybe it wasn’t to her tastes. The demon might return for it later on, after it had a chance to fester.
“I’ll find them,” Alyssa said, hoping that they could handle themselves against one of those infected things… “But if Octavia smells like this…”
The Pharaoh breathed in deep through his nose, held it for a moment, and let it out with a nod of his head. “Do what you need to. I am trusting you to ensure that Brakkt and Irulon are safe.”
“Right.” With one last look at the horror show of a house, Alyssa took off. The Pharaoh stayed behind, falling out of her Empty Vessel once she walked more than a few feet away. Fela remained hot on her heels.
As she ran, she pulled out her own Message. Hopefully, she wouldn’t distract Irulon at the wrong moment.