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“Oh please. There is nothing to worry about. You should have seen Octavia try to fight that Knight. Even with medusa venom extract, she failed miserably. And I didn’t even see him as being that skilled. Compared to you? Night and day, brother. Night and day. This will be pathetically easy.”

Brakkt wasn’t so sure. No matter the situation, blades flying through the air always presented a danger. All it took was one lucky, or unlucky in this case, hit. The slats on his helmet were thin, but a blade might still be able to pierce an eye with the right angle and the right force. And if the blade was poisoned, he would be relying on Irulon’s magic to save him.

Would such a situation happen? Unlikely. But that didn’t mean he would be lackadaisical in dealing with Octavia.

Still, his mind was not as focused on the prospect of fighting Octavia as it should be. He had a great many things to concern himself with. The investigation into Oxart was slowing down. It was… not looking good for the former captain. Irulon wanted to see the evidence, but the city guard was interfering, claiming that it was an internal matter that the royal family should stay out of. Brakkt had a few friendly contacts among the nobles. Through them, he might be able to get access to the evidence.

Oxart’s situation was only vaguely on his mind, however. It was a sort of background thought, thinking about what he might need to exchange in order to get access to the evidence. More on the forefront was the hellhound. He wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about the prospect of one living in the palace. Some might call that hypocritical. His draken lived in the palace, after all. But that was a false comparison. His draken were dears and they wouldn’t harm a fly without his okay. Even if they did go on murderous rampages, the palace was not exactly accommodating toward draken. The stairs and the doorways were not designed with nonhumans in mind.

Hellhounds could fit through doors designed for humans. They were notorious for their fiery temperaments and their extreme strength and agility. An unprepared platoon running across even a small family of hellhounds would find themselves in a lot of trouble. Brakkt had only run across a pair once, before he had come to find the draken. Of the twenty men he had been traveling with, only four survived. One of whom had lost a leg.

Seeing that hound in the shop had been an odd experience. Where he had expected spectral chains keeping at bay bared teeth, snarling, and sharp claws, he had instead seen a… sleepy dog. Naturally, he had expected its ferocity to show once it woke up and became more alert, but it hadn’t. Irulon had shown up and it wagged its tail back and forth in excitement. Alyssa had asked it if it could help pinpoint Octavia and it nodded eagerly. Not once did it show signs of discontent or aggression.

That was something of a relief, he supposed. He felt much better about sleeping in the same building as the hellhound knowing that it wasn’t likely to randomly start tearing people to pieces.

Which, he well knew, was a common complaint about the draken. It was one of the reasons he was seriously considering Alyssa’s proposition. She might be only the third person in the entire city who didn’t mind being around the draken. Irulon didn’t mind either, but she didn’t exactly seek them out. If Brakkt were down in their stables when Irulon wanted something, she might pat one on the head a few times. Otherwise, he was the only one who ever visited them.

It was actually a little exciting, knowing that Alyssa didn’t mind monsters to the degree that most did. There were always going to be the odd groups of elf sympathizers, but even they did not look at draken with smiles and kind hearts.

Were he not the prince, he would grant Alyssa permission to take the draken out in an instant. She was right. They would enjoy it. Unfortunately, he was the prince. While that was the only reason he was able to keep draken inside the city walls in the first place, it meant that he had to be constantly on guard toward how others perceived him and his actions. If there was one accident, one slip up, one cart of cabbages tipped over when his draken were even remotely involved, everything would come crashing down.

Yes. Such things required careful thought and consideration.

Kasita stopped in front of them, making Brakkt and Irulon stop too. She was another monster in Alyssa’s entourage. At this point, Brakkt was wondering just how many other monsters Alyssa was hiding. At least Kasita was relatively harmless. Her human disguise kept her from causing panic as well. If only his draken had a human form… Ah well. No sense wishing for the impossible.

“It’s that house,” the mimic said. She pointed toward an old shack. A crumbling building that really should have been torn down to keep its crumbling walls from presenting a hazard to anyone walking near it.

Brakkt could only shake his head. Maybe things had been better for the gangs prior to the incident at the palace, but he couldn’t imagine his little sister trading the comfort and wealth of proper housing to run with such lowly criminals. Even if she wasn’t considered in the slightest for possible ascension to the throne, she still had status and influence. Had was the key word. By this point, the entire palace guard was well aware of Octavia’s involvement with Waters Street.

“Well?” Irulon said. “Shall we kick down the front door and drag her out?”

“The Taker may be with her.”

“And that is why we’re both here and not just one of us. I’ll watch your back.” Her eyes narrowed to a dangerous glare as she pulled several cards from her spell tome. “If anything comes near you, I will ensure that it regrets ever being born.”

“Shall I check for other entrances first?” Kasita asked. “Wouldn’t want you two making a lot of noise at the front only for her to slip out the back, would we?”

“I suppose. But be quick about it. I want to get back to Alyssa and have a look over that staff as soon as possible. I had some good ideas to test with you that—”

“Alright, alright. There may be elvish engineering involved if this building is a dedicated hideout for any of Waters Street. I know what to look for, but it might take longer than you are hoping.” As she spoke, Kasita’s form shimmered, turning her into the form of an elderly man. She didn’t so much as glance around before hobbling out of the invisibility.

Brakkt could only shake his head. “Strange times,” he mumbled.

Of course Irulon picked it up. She glanced at him, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow. “What? You are surprised that we’re trusting a monster to assist us?”

“I’m more surprised at the hellhound’s presence than the mimic. Beyond that, you are somewhere other than your chambers or the Observatorium.”

Irulon shifted her weight. “I can be found in other places on occasion.”

“Battlefields to collect your corpses. And… that’s about it.”

“Precisely,” she said with a pleased nod.

“You haven’t done that in a year at the very least.”

“I used to think that the answers I was looking for could be found in death. Then I thought that they might be in the pages of the Observatorium’s books.” She shrugged slightly. “Some answers might still be there… or clues, at least. But being confined to its walls limits other avenues of discovery.”

“Such as this Alyssa girl?”

Irulon didn’t respond, turning to stare at the building they were standing in front of.

“I don’t know her well,” Brakkt said. “But she feels dangerous. The way she interacts with people… with creatures around her is unusual. It is clear that she doesn’t think like a normal person. Both attacks on the city, your excursion with her, and what else that I don’t know about, she has managed to come out on top. At the same time, she doesn’t capitalize on whatever it is that makes her different. From my perspective, it looks like she is floundering. The dissonance is staggering.”

Hands now behind her back, Irulon shrugged. “How long do you think it would take Father to destroy the city? Through magic, not through policy changes or ordering the guards to attack the citizens—if they would even follow such an order.”

Brakkt blinked in confusion. “What?”

“I know how long it would take me. Six months, three weeks, two days, and seventeen hours. Most of that time would be spent in preparations: power amplification, carving spell circles into the ground, and, of course, spending time hiding what I was working on. Even with my attempts to hide it all, I imagine I would be noticed by the fourth month, between the second and third week.

“With his mastery of Time magics, I suspect that Father would be able to cut that time down to three months, if he used the same method I have in mind. And even that might be noticed sometime toward the end of the second month.” Irulon shook her head back and forth. When she stopped, she looked straight at Brakkt. “And to clarify, I mean totally destroy the city. Both Father and I could easily cause havoc with far less time and preparation. Eight well placed Split Reality spells would topple the palace, causing more than enough destruction to grind the city ecosystem to a halt.”

“Am I going to regret asking what your point is?”

“Alyssa, if she gains the correct knowledge, might just be capable of turning the entire city to sand. And not just the city, but everything north of Pandora. She wouldn’t need months of preparation to do so either. A snap of her fingers could repeat the incident of the First City.”

Brakkt stiffened momentarily before narrowing his eyes. Irulon couldn’t see his face, of course. His helmet was in the way. But his sister was perceptive enough that she likely realized just what kind of speculative glance he was giving her at the moment. “I may not be the arcanist that you are, but I have studied history. That only came about after the king ritualistically sacrificed the majority of the people in the city to power the ritual. He didn’t snap his fingers to cause the destruction.”

Irulon looked up to him. A faint ghost of a smile played across her face. “Ah. Of course. How foolish of me to have forgotten.” Her tone came flat and plain.

But Brakkt didn’t get a chance to comment. Kasita popped up again, almost out of nowhere. She was back to the female form that was an eerie mirror of Alyssa.

“No entrances aside from the obvious one. At least none out here. There may be tunnels like a few other Waters Street hideouts. Shall I try slipping inside?”

“The Eighth is a fool, but I’d rather not risk her noticing and fleeing. If the Taker is inside, he will surely notice. On the other hand, if we break in and surprise her, I should be able to stop her from fleeing through any hidden passages they might have.”

Kasita’s face fell, flickering to disappointment momentarily before shifting back to a neutral. “If you are sure.”

“Thank you for your assistance so far,” Brakkt said. “We’ll handle it from here.” As he spoke, he pulled his sword from his side. His hand gently wrapped around its hilt. The faint yellow-orange hue lit up from the crescent-moon hand guard to the tip. It spread the other way as well, enveloping his arm up to his elbow. Ignoring the armor in its way, the light pricked at his skin. It was a warmth. A comforting glow that should never leave his side.

With his sword in hand, Brakkt felt he could take on armies. The Taker and his younger sister would… not be a problem.

Irulon said something, but he no longer had the ears for it. Brakkt marched to the door, lifted a foot, and planted it against the wood with force. The cast iron hinges burst into pieces as the door flipped end over end, eventually winding up embedded in the far wall.

He looked around, turning his head from one corner of the room to the other. It was a small building. One room. There were no hiding places.

A cot had been set up in one corner. Scattered remains of food littered the floor. There were no bugs. No maggots feasting on the scraps of meat left on the bone. It was recent. Not too old. His father had broken off with the hellhound. Had his sister fled?

With his helmet on, his field of view was restricted. But his sword felt it. Movement. Above.

Brakkt pivoted, taking a step further into the room as he brought up his sword. Metal clanged against its blade, but he kept the momentum behind the thrust. The glowing tip of his sword penetrated one of the horizontal beams of wood that supported the roof. It sliced clean through as if it were nothing but a cloud.

But he missed his target.

Octavia, in the rafters, twisted her body like a snake. His blade scraped the air touching her skin, but left her unharmed. She didn’t stay still for long. The beam was already falling, but Octavia was fast. Pushing off from the beam, she launched herself forward, over Brakkt, to land against the floor near the opposite wall.

He batted the falling beam out of the way with his fist, sending a flurry of splinters toward his sister.

She didn’t even flinch. Kicking off from the back wall, she flew toward him, thin blade out in each of her hands.

Like a sheet of paper, the ground under her folded out. The ceiling and walls moved to match. Wood planks split into two, growing until they were back to their regular sizes. Then they split again. The distance between Brakkt and the far wall compounded out exponentially until it was like staring across the Grand Hall of the palace. The tiny building wasn’t small anymore.

Irulon. He hadn’t heard her shout out a spell, but it had to be her work.

Octavia’s flight only carried her a short distance through that vast space. She landed in the distance, stumbling with the lack of expected resistance from meeting an opponent.

In the midst of her stumble, the room collapsed again. She rushed toward him despite her unmoving feet.

Brakkt, against his sword’s desires, twisted his wrist. The flat of his blade faced his sister rather than the edge. He used his opposite shoulder as a brace and slammed forward, intending to knock Octavia further off balance. But she slipped around him, flowing like water to get behind him. She jumped on his back, using her legs to bind herself to his waist.

Metal pinged against his helmet. At the same time, a pressure on his mind welled up. He grit his teeth, ignoring it completely. Octavia wasn’t striking repeatedly, slamming her daggers into his helmet. She was just pushing against him. And he could feel his helmet deforming.

There was no possible way that she could be that strong. Tzheitza’s description of their battle had not mentioned that she would move like this.

He would have to change tactics.

“Chaotic Warp.”

His sister—his other sister—spoke. This time, he heard it. As the words registered with him, his sword reminded him to close his eyes. So he did so. Just for a moment. A brief instant.

When he opened his eyes, he was not standing in the doorway. The cot was right next to him. Octavia wasn’t on his back. He quickly located her lithe form as she crashed to the ground near where the door had landed. Her feet twisted in the air, spinning the rest of her body around with them. Before Brakkt could take more than a single step forward, she was back on her feet.

But he was expecting that now. He was adapting to her unexpected movements. His sword was adapting. They were figuring out how she fought.

She would not be able to get behind them again.

Her head tilted upward and Brakkt froze solid.

The thin strands of Octavia’s once beautiful sand blond hair parted enough that Brakkt could see her eyes clearly for the first time. He expected to see violet. An eye color given to them by their father. A unique eye color that stayed with the royal family. It was an ancient magic. A sign that they were chosen to rule.

Although her children would not have had the violet eyes of royalty, Octavia’s eyes would maintain their hue for her entire life.

Or they should have.

The person before him was his sister. He recognized that round face and those childish features. But her eyes… burned brightly. Embers of a fire replaced the violet completely.

As shocked as Brakkt was, his sword didn’t care in the slightest. It urged him to move. To slip to the side. Years of training kicked in and Brakkt complied.

Octavia, lashing out in an attempt to get behind him again, missed entirely.

“Strange Attractor: Unconsciousness.”

Off balance from her lashing out, Octavia slipped on a patch of loose dirt. Her head came down on the wooden leg of the bed. It was a knock that would have anyone else sprawled out and unmoving for hours. But Octavia got right back to her feet. If there was any sluggishness to her movements, Brakkt couldn’t detect it.

Brakkt shifted his grip again. It was an almost unconscious movement, one directed by the sword. The sharp edge was once again facing his sister. Even that might not be enough. As much as he didn’t want to admit it to himself, his sword knew what his sister now was.

They clashed. Octavia was on him in an instant. His large blade moved faster and faster to meet with her tiny daggers. Wary now, he only allowed glancing blows to strike his armor. Everything else, he caught with his blade. She kept trying to get behind him, but they wouldn’t allow it.

“Finite Subdivision.”

Octavia threw herself back as a glass shard flung from Irulon’s position toward her. It struck the wall, which immediately started splitting into pieces. Octavia landed feet on a wall. She didn’t even touch the ground before pushing off it.

Thankfully, she is still focused on me, Brakkt thought as he pivoted out of the way. His fist came down, slamming into the back of Octavia’s head. The force took her to the ground, where her head struck a jutting board. His punch carried the same strength that had shattered a beam of wood not too long ago, but Octavia shrugged it off as if he had given her a light shove. She got back to her feet, snarling as she faced him.

Though she got to her feet, she didn’t stay there for long. Another of the wooden beams fell from above, striking her on the crown of the head. She faceplanted once again, this time with part of the roof collapsed on top of her. Even still, she started moving it out of the way.

This was his chance. Yet, even with the whisperings of his sword, Brakkt hesitated.

“Finite Subdivision.”

A shard of glass pierced Octavia’s elbow, stopping her efforts at getting back up. The arm split into pieces over and over again, only stopping at the shoulder.

But Irulon wasn’t done.

“Finite Subdivision.” Irulon said again as she moved into the room, taking Octavia’s leg. “Finite Subdivision. Finite Subdivision.”

Octavia screamed as the last of her limbs dispersed into nothing but slivers of meat. It was a feral, agonized scream. She didn’t plead. She didn’t beg. Was there anything left of his little sister in there? He clenched his teeth as he watched her squirm beneath the partially collapsed roof. Even without limbs, she was still managing to move it. Just how strong had she become?

Blood was getting everywhere. Dark colored. Evil blood. Any normal human would have perished by now. Octavia didn’t seem bothered by the blood loss. She struggled and glared with all the ferocity that she had fought with.

And Irulon dropped to a squat, keeping a short distance between her and Octavia. More than enough to avoid even a lunging bite, as if Octavia could manage such a thing. Maybe such distance was prudent when dealing with… something like Octavia.

For a moment, Irulon just stared. Her eyes had turned to those of the dragon once again. A small smile played across her face as she nodded to herself. “I wonder if Father will let me keep you,” she said. “Fractal Lock.”

Silence filled the room. Brakkt hadn’t fought hard at all. Not compared to wading into battle. And yet, he felt drained. He wanted to drop his sword.

But he didn’t. It was warning him that this might not be the end. That he needed to stay vigilant. Infected were dangerous and had many surprises.

“Could you not have done that from the start?” he said after a moment. Irulon hadn’t even acted for a large portion of the fight. She had probably been watching and gathering data. Trying to learn whatever she thought she might be able to learn. And then she had… “Did you have to destroy her arms and legs like that?”

“I don’t have much knowledge of infected and their demon masters. I know that they don’t play by the rules. You saw that Strange Attractor wasn’t working on her… although I’ve never conclusively proved that Strange Attractor actually does anything at all, but that’s beside the point. If she does manage to escape from Fractal Lock, at least she will be easy to contain like this.”

Brakkt opened his mouth, but he couldn’t actually argue with that. Without her arms and legs, she wouldn’t be half the threat. Father would likely want her disposed of. Quietly, even. Dropped down to the depths of the Pit with the other bodies.

“It is a good thing the Taker wasn’t here. Octavia was an idiot and a fool, and I assume that carried over through her infection. I’ll know more if Father lets me toy with her a bit. But the Taker was not. I don’t like the idea of fighting an infected version of him.”

Nodding, Brakkt felt a chill go up his spine. Where was the Taker? The theory had been that Octavia and the Taker had been together. Assuming that the Taker hadn’t killed her, which was a theory posited by Irulon after talking a bit with Tzheitza and some guild knight. Perhaps he hadn’t been infected, or had fought against it and become one of the more lethargic ones.

Brakkt quickly glanced around, including up at the parts of the roof that hadn’t fallen, double checking that the building was truly empty. It was, but he still had that chill.

“We should leave,” he said.

“Agreed. I will just…”

Irulon trailed off, perhaps having sensed the same movement that he had at the door. They both tensed. Cards appeared in his sister’s hand while he brought his sword to bear.

Alyssa appeared in the doorway, breathing like she had run straight here from the palace. “I’m glad you are—”

She cut herself off as she caught sight of Octavia’s unmoving form.

“Yes,” Irulon said. “I got your message. As you can see, we found out for ourselves. It wasn’t an issue in the—”

Alyssa’s eyes flicked to the side, widening. She raised her arm to shield her face.

A black nail of a dagger pierced her open palm.

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