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Grunting, Alyssa planted her elbow on the seat of a chair, using it to hoist herself to her feet. Black feathers floated through the air, visible against only a faint light coming from a window high up on one of the walls. The mild disorientation of being transported to another world was made all the worse by not knowing where she was.

The last few minutes went by in a blur. Alyssa had barely opened her mouth to talk to her mother when Tenebrael burst into the room. For the first time, Alyssa had seen a truly unhappy Tenebrael. Not angry. Her teeth weren’t grit together. But not even the ghost of a smile could be seen on her face. It was strange. Far different from the usual Tenebrael. Alyssa didn’t know if it was her fault or a result of Iosefael’s arguing, but she didn’t get much of a chance to ask.

Without a single conversational word, Tenebrael raised a hand and cast her back to Nod.

Into a large, dark room. Alone?

“Mom?” Alyssa called out.

“Here.”

Not alone.

Alyssa snapped her head over, finding her mother standing, silhouetted against the window. Rising to her feet ruined the silhouette effect, but Alyssa didn’t care. She stared, watching, not sure what she should say or do. Although she yearned to rush forward and hug her mother, she didn’t know what was running through her mother’s head. Things were strange. Different. The last thing she would have seen was the murderer pointing a gun at her. She probably thought…

“You aren’t dead.” Alyssa kept her voice firm and steady, making sure her gaze didn’t waver. “And neither am I.”

In the dark of the room, Alyssa couldn’t see her mother’s expression. Her face was entirely cloaked in shadow. The moonlight from the window just wasn’t enough. Facing the window, Alyssa’s face was probably far more visible. So she tried to smile.

“I saw your body.”

Alyssa’s smile faltered.

“Stabbed over and over again. Your face… you were barely recognizable. They called me in to try to identify you.”

The faltered smile turned into a grimace.

“That… wasn’t me. It was a fake body created by an insane angel that… uh, saved me. Saved us. You were supposed to die tonight. That man was going to kill you.”

Finally, her mother moved. She pressed a hand to her face, placing her palm right over her mouth. “This can’t be real.”

“It is, and I need you to understand that as soon as possible. We might not be in a safe place.” Alyssa’s hand dropped to her waist where she felt an empty holster. Shifting her hand to her satchel, she dug around for her spell cards. Both were missing. “And that stupid angel didn’t give me back my stuff.”

It took some effort, but Alyssa tore her eyes off her mother. Tenebrael probably wouldn’t have dropped them somewhere dangerous. But the fact that she had been upset and then dropped them into a dark room… Alyssa couldn’t let her guard down.

Though looking around, Alyssa quickly recognized where she was. The large round table. The chairs set about it. The high ceiling and, of course, the life-sized statue right behind the Pharaoh’s throne. This was the meeting room they had been using earlier.

She was in the palace.

Alyssa wanted to sigh and relax. However she had managed it, she wound up friends with two royal children and the Pharaoh… well, he had attacked her, but she didn’t think he wanted to kill her. They probably weren’t actually friends. However, there was an entire contingent of guardsmen in the palace. She was technically trespassing. Would they attack first or ask questions first? Alyssa just needed a chance to explain herself, to get Irulon or Brakkt or even the Pharaoh to vouch for her. But she might not be afforded an opportunity.

If she were a guard in a palace that had just been invaded and attacked not so long ago, she would probably be far less willing to hear a potential enemy out.

“Your father…” Lisa started, then stopped.

Alyssa turned her head back to her mother. For the time being, it looked like they were safe enough. There weren’t any lights in the room, so this place probably wasn’t used all that often and especially not at night. This meeting room was supposedly about halfway up the palace, even though she had only climbed a single flight of stairs on her way up. The royal family had some control over the stairs and probably hallways of the palace. Alyssa doubted that she would be able to descend quite so easily.

Still, unless there were guards overhearing them right now, they could sit and talk for a few minutes.

“Your father insisted that we would see you again. I’m not sure that this is what he meant.”

Forcing a smile didn’t feel good, so Alyssa stopped trying after only a few seconds. “I hope he can keep that positive attitude. The police will get home first, so he won’t walk in to see your body, but… we did leave a duplicate behind, one that had been shot twice. And that guy who would have killed you went on to hang himself in my room.”

“We?”

“The angel. Dominion Tenebrael. We’re not on Earth right now. Tenebrael calls this place Nod, she is in charge of it. It’s where I’ve been since… uh… I died.” She waved a hand around her. “We’re in one of the meeting rooms of the palace of Lyria, a city. There are monsters and magic spells. It’s a medieval society, but the magic has almost modern conveniences in some aspects while other aspects seem almost prehistoric. They can’t even light fires without using magic. It’s like something out of a fairy tale… but watch out for the actual fairies because they’re mind controlling bastards who will probably try to eat you and… and…” Alyssa clenched her fist, trying to stop her hand from shaking as she stepped closer. It didn’t stop her voice from cracking. “Can I just… hug you?”

“Oh, Alyssa…”

Something in her mother’s voice tipped Alyssa over the edge. The almost whispered voice, so much softer than the tone normally used by the hardened military veteran. Tears welled up in Alyssa’s eyes as her mother, with only a slight hesitation, wrapped her arms around her.

“I’m sorry,” Alyssa squeaked into her mother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“Shh… It’s alright.” Her mother reached up, putting a hand on the back of Alyssa’s head as she ran her hand through her hair. “I don’t understand what is happening. What is going on. But I’m here now. We’ll get through this.”

“It’s been hard. So hard. Constantly on edge. Constantly on guard. I’ve fought… I’ve killed so many people—I lost count. Always justified. Always… a reason. I try to avoid thinking about it aside from affirming to myself that I was in the right. But I don’t…”

Alyssa trailed off, exhausted. Her body felt worse than after any fight she had been in. Drained. Tired. She just wanted to stay, holding her mother.

Kasita was a good friend. Tzheitza and Irulon as well. They supported her and, at least in the case of Kasita and Tzheitza, comforted her during some of the more trying times. But they were different. Being from this world, they just thought differently. No one had stopped Alyssa and morally warned her against killing people. If anything, all three encouraged it. Tzheitza had harped and criticized a few times, but that was more her complaints about Alyssa putting herself into danger than anything else.

Modern society had a lot of problems—societal, political, economical. However, compared to here, Earth and America might as well have been a utopian wonderland.

She had been avoiding Chris and Jason. Not totally, but she hadn’t interacted with them much aside from a brief meeting or two. They didn’t seem like bad people. True, she hadn’t interacted with them a whole lot to really find out. Her excuse to them had been a simple worry for their safety. And that wasn’t a false concern in the slightest. This world was dangerous and Alyssa seemed to find herself in the thick of it more often than not.

But had that really been the only reason?

Here and now, having just confessed to her mother, even with as vague as the confession had been, Alyssa feared what the response would be. How would someone from her enlightened reality react to hearing about her having killed a small town’s worth of people? Chris and Jason didn’t have that familial pressure that her mother had. They would have been free to judge her and she would have been free to ignore them as near strangers. At the same time, maybe that familial pressure was what Alyssa was counting on. A pressure, but a love as well.

Alyssa’s whirling thoughts screeched to a stop as she felt it.

Her mother’s embrace tightened, pulling Alyssa closer, if that was possible.

For a long while, they just stood in silence, holding each other in a long hug. Alyssa’s thoughts almost completely shut down. Perhaps it was naive to relax so soon, but that tightening of the hug just made her worries melt away.

“I’d like to talk more, to find out… everything, really, but especially what has been happening to you. But you mentioned that this place wasn’t safe. Even if it was, talking in the dark like this isn’t the best, is it?”

Alyssa sucked in a shuddering breath. She had completely forgotten where they were. That was her mother, always so level headed. If the situation had been switched to have her father standing here, they would have been talking until the Pharaoh walked in for his next meeting—which might not have been for a week from now. Of course, the image Alyssa had of her father in her mind would have been panicking for the first few hours before she even got to this point, but that was beside the fact.

Reluctantly, Alyssa pulled away. Nodding at her mother, she wiped her face on her shoulder. “We’re in the palace. I’m actually friends with the prince and princess, but the guards might not recognize me. Normally, I’d just call Irulon—the princess—up and ask her to send her servant over to retrieve us, but that stupid angel didn’t give me back my spell cards.”

“Spell cards? Are you into witchcraft?”

“What? Of course not. I mean, I don’t think it counts as witchcraft. All the magic is basically fueled by an angel, so I think that runs counter to the definition of witchcraft, right?”

“You’ve mentioned an angel a few times now. I don’t—”

“Tenebrael is a real angel with wings and even a halo when she wants to blind everyone. Also, I’m the only one who can see her. I was kind of hoping that you might, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. We were standing right in front of you before…” Alyssa shook her head. Reaching out, she grabbed her mother’s hand. “Come on. Let’s get out of here before we get arrested.”

Alyssa pressed a hand to the door. A slight push opened it just a crack, enough to see down the hallway to one side. It was empty, but lit. On this particular floor, the hallway wrapped around in a rounded triangular shape, following the contours of the exterior of the tower. Rooms provided a buffer between the actual walls and the hallway. The staircase that Alyssa had used to get to the floor had been set into the inner ring. But… she hadn’t been paying perfect attention to exactly where it was. Even if she had, she wasn’t sure that it would have mattered.

The palace was like a maze and only the royal family had the map. Having walked with the Pharaoh to get here, left or right might not have mattered at all. She hadn’t forgotten the maybe-joke maybe-serious comment from Irulon and Brakkt. It was entirely possible that some people wandered for days before they were found. Or so they had said.

But… that had to have been a joke.

All she had to do was find a staircase and keep going down. Eventually, she would have to hit the ground floor, right? Unless there were basement levels to the palace. Actually, now that she was thinking about it, the basement was probably where they kept their torture chambers. The thought of being trapped down there made her shudder.

Maybe heading upward would be the better choice. Irulon had an entire floor to herself. So long as she looked at every floor, she would eventually have to run into Irulon’s area. Not only that, but the floor sizes got smaller with the pyramidal design of the palace. There would be less room to spread out and a higher chance of finding someone. As long as a guard didn’t attack immediately, finding anyone might be better than wandering aimlessly.

With that in mind, Alyssa started walking around to the left. There was no real rush. Not now that she had decided that getting caught wouldn’t be the worst thing ever. But she still tried to avoid making a lot of noise. She wasn’t creeping about, but she wasn’t trying to draw attention to herself either. After all, one of the best ways to get around places where you weren’t supposed to was to act like you belonged. It would be easier and not even all that dishonest to say that she simply got lost in the palace.

Together with her mother, Alyssa walked. She felt like they should be talking about something, but she wasn’t even sure how much her mother believed. Obviously, they were in a brand new place. That was hard to ignore. Magic and monsters were a different story entirely. If she could just get some spell cards or find Kasita, that would help a lot. Kasita especially. She could help show off various monsters and maybe even reenact some things.

But, as Alyssa went around and around, she came across an open door. A wide open door that led to a dark room with a round table.

Back to where I started? Alyssa might have been absorbed in her thoughts, but she couldn’t have missed the wide open staircase that she had climbed with the Pharaoh. She didn’t remember opening any doors, but then, she hadn’t been at the forefront of the group.

“Something wrong?”

Alyssa shook her head. “Just distracted. I haven’t been in the palace all that much. The times I was here, I had the princess or one of the servants to lead me around.”

“We’re lost.”

“If we can find the stairs, we should be fine.”

“If?”

“When. I mean, there are a limited number of doors. I don’t think this place moves around unless one of the royal family is doing something. Look, it was probably those large doors we passed a while back.”

“What do you mean ‘moves around’?”

“The palace is about half as tall as a modern skyscraper,” Alyssa said as she started walking again, this time to the right. “I don’t exactly know how many floors, but Irulon’s room is almost at the very top. Last time I was up there, I only had to climb a single flight of stairs. From the ground floor.”

Her mother opened her mouth, but paused and shook her head.

“That’s actually one of the least crazy things about this world, but I can show you all that later.”

This time, Alyssa focused. She paid attention just in case she actually had missed a giant staircase the first time around. It was unthinkable, but she had been beyond distracted.

Instead of finding a staircase, Alyssa heard a familiar voice. It was heavily muffled by a door, but Alyssa could recognize that speech easily. The egotistic tones of Decorous managed to escape from one of the side rooms.

Decorous. Alyssa didn’t like him. Not nearly as much as she had liked Oxart. Just thinking about it made her clench her fists. But, he was someone she knew. Someone who wouldn’t attack her on sight and would likely know his way around the palace well enough to lead them around to wherever they wanted to go.

Alyssa stepped toward the door, about to push it open. But getting closer, Alyssa could listen better. Actually hearing the words rather than just the sound made her freeze stiff.

“—must be done soon. Let a hellhound run around unchecked in my city? He looks young, but the effects of old age are clearly taking their toll on his mind.”

“The plague is an insidious killer,” a new voice said, one Alyssa did not recognize. It wasn’t nearly as pompous as Decorous’ voice, but it was clear and well spoken. Somewhat deep as well. “It eats away at the edges of our society. We’re lucky if it only kills a few. When ones go unnoticed like those today, it gets far worse. There aren’t always Rank Six arcanists around to deal with the mess. Your men would have been torn apart.”

“You’re advocating for the monster?”

“If this monster can remove even half the danger—”

“It is the fault of monsters that the plague exists at all! If not for them, we wouldn’t have this problem! I cannot believe you are agreeing with him at all.”

“I am a pragmatist, young Decorous. I do not like the Pharaoh. I do not like how he leads and how he treats the nobles. But that does not mean that I cannot respect a wise decision when I see one. If this hellhound can truly sniff out the plague and lead a containment team to infection before it becomes a real problem, I support the action. I will never say such publicly, of course. When, not if, that hellhound causes an incident, I will be the first to decry his actions. The royal family will not be sitting on the throne forever. They’ve made too many other mistakes. Too many other unpopular decisions. Too many concessions.”

Alyssa squeezed her mother’s hand tighter. As quietly as she could, she started running away while Decorous started responding. Something about wondering how long it would take. Her mother might not understand what was going on, but she at least had the presence of mind not to make noise after hearing all that.

The large doors they had passed earlier, it turned out, were the stairs.

“Up?” her mother said as she started on them without hesitation.

“Up.”

“Is this about what we just heard?”

“I was thinking about finding Irulon anyway—it’ll be easier to search for her upward than to find an exit downward. But after that…”

“A coup?”

Alyssa quickly shushed her mother. “Sounded like it,” she said quietly after a moment of silence. “This place is… feudalistic, I think. Vaguely, at least. There are other large cities around that all operate under the Pharaoh’s umbrella. The leaders make up the nobles. And I don’t think they like him much.”

“Didn’t sound like it.”

“No. It didn’t. There are ways to listen in on conversations without having to stand on the other side of a door. Let’s wait to talk about it for a bit longer. Irulon has a whole floor to herself, so we can’t miss it as long as we keep ascending.”

“I don’t know. All these stairs. Not good for an old woman like me.”

Alyssa forced her smile. That was definitely a joke. She well knew that her mother maintained a strict workout regimen. Her mother was where Alyssa had gotten her own love for going to the gym. “You’re not that old yet, Mom… I—I’m glad you’re here.”

A long pause stretched between them. It lasted to the point where Alyssa feared she had said something wrong. Of course Mom isn’t happy to be here. Not without Dad. Not without Clark. All the worries she had managed to shrug off earlier came rushing back.

Only to be stopped by an arm resting on her shoulders.

“I’m glad I get to see you again.”

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