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I stood over Alto’s body, watching the light fade out of his eyes. Something that nobody ever tells you about opening someone’s throat is how messy it is. There was blood pooling under his head, flowing over the wooden floor, and I had to step back to keep myself from getting dirty. Alto gurgled and gagged, convulsing as his life faded away. It was a disturbing sound, but one I’d grown used to long ago. I knew that he would soil himself eventually once his bowels failed him in death, but that was a concern that could be left for whoever discovered his body.

When I was sure he was dead, his eyes glassy and unfocused, I left. I could have killed him quicker and easier with my oath, but this had been personal on a level I couldn’t explain. There was a visceral feeling that came with ending his life with my own hands. I didn’t want to call it satisfaction, but it wasn’t far off.

Now that Alto was dead, though, I had other concerns. As much as I’d been panicking about his failsafes earlier, there were still steps I could take to prevent disaster. If his contingencies ran on a normal basis, it was pretty likely that they would only check in once or twice a day at most. That meant that I had a window of time. If I could find them and kill them before that window expired and they shared that damning piece of information, then I wouldn’t have to flee.

Where would I start, though? I was running through the halls, the palace an opulent maze that I didn’t know how to navigate. I couldn’t go back to the ballroom—there would be questions there, and those weren’t questions I wanted to answer, especially if Orchid was going to be the one asking them. I couldn’t regroup with the jester and Green because I had no idea where they were.

The place was a labyrinth. I’d gone in the opposite direction from the ballroom, not wanting to deal with the nobles there, and now I was well and truly lost. The halls seemed to stretch on to infinity, and though I had fairly decent spatial awareness, I had not even the faintest idea of how this place was laid out.

I slowed as I rounded a corner and heard the sounds of people. Servants, it looked like, a young pair of men sweeping the marble floor in this hallway. I couldn’t see any dirt here, but I supposed that was the reality of living in the royal household. Everything had to be better than perfect.

“Excuse me,” I called to them. “I was looking for the restroom and got lost. Could you lead me out?”

They turned their heads towards me, still sweeping at nothing. One of them looked me up and down, taking in the dress, my face, and my hair. Even though I’d messed all of those up a fair bit while fighting, I had managed to avoid getting dirty for the most part, and I still looked the part.

“Of course, Lady…” one of the janitor servants trailed off, bowing his head.

“Uh, Rayes,” I said, scrambling for any name that they would recognize.

“Lady Rayes, of course,” the servant said. “This way.”

He left his partner to sweep with a pat on the back, and he pointed the way down the hall, guiding me down it much like the servant who’d led me and Jasmine to the ballroom did. The servant was silent as we walked, which I was thankful for. I had thinking to do.

Where to start, where to start? My main problem was that I didn’t know who to look for. Alto had been remarkably resistant to giving up information even at the end, so I didn’t have any leads.

No, that’s not true, I realized. He’d not given me anything voluntarily, but there was the slightest hint when he’d stated his information source.

Alto’s songbird. Strike Team Leader Faye. Last I’d seen of her, House Alzaq had been heatedly arguing against House Rayes borrowing their prisoner.

Orchid was House Alzaq, and he’d shown no love for House Tempet. Neither had the investigators they’d had, though I wasn’t totally sure on whether or not those were from the Alzaq household as well.

So how had Alto talked to Faye? Igei’s Principle suggested that the most obvious answer was likely the true one. I defaulted to thinking about infiltration, but the more I thought about it, the less it made sense that Alto had broken into the Alzaq jail just to have a chat. He wouldn’t have known who had been captured or why, and even if he did, the chances that he would randomly ask about a grey-eyed adventurer were beyond slim.

In the likely case, that meant that House Alzaq had been working with Alto. The same people that would be paying me were the ones who had given Alto the all-clear to fuck me over.

Shit. If that was true, I probably couldn't rely on either the jester or Green for support. I wanted to ask Jasmine to help me, the desire an ache in my heart, but if I told her that we were going out to silence nobles then she would have good reason to question my motives.

Gods damn it all, I was well and truly alone here. That thought was accompanied by a tinge of sorrow, but with that sorrow came a cold wave of familiarity.

You’ve been here before, Lily, I told myself. For twelve years, you were all you had. Longer than that, even. You can handle yourself. It’s better this way.

The words rung hollow even in my own mind, but they worked. I refreshed myself, directing my hatred towards the Alzaq noble that might’ve allowed all of this to happen, and I did my best to ignore the Jasmine-shaped hole in my heart.

“Here we are,” the servant said, shaking me out of my thoughts. “The exit is here. Will you require assistance returning home, Lady Rayes?”

The name caught me off guard, and I stumbled over my words as I spoke. “I—I, uh, yes, I would appreciate assistance, but I shall not be returning home.”

“I’ll go call over one of the drivers,” the servant said with a bow. “Please remain here.”

We were in a different foyer than the one that Jasmine and I had entered in earlier tonight, but this one was just as unnecessarily grand, great paintings and pillars decorating the walls.

The ‘driver’ in this case was an aging man old enough to be my father. He led me through another set of doors—these were less flamboyant than the ones at the other entrance, at least, being regular wooden doors that anybody could open—and walked to a horseless carriage that looked similar in design to the one Jasmine and I had taken here. Made by the same oathholder’s company, most likely.

“Where would you like to go, my lady?”

“The Alzaq manor,” I requested, forcing a lilt into my words. I’d forgotten to, earlier, and if the other servant had been more observant he could’ve easily noticed that I wasn’t truly a noble yet. “I have business with them tonight.”

“Of course, my lady,” the driver said.

He didn’t go all the way into the carriage, instead indicating that I should sit inside. The man took a step inside and opened a small steel panel next to the door. He fiddled with it, clicking buttons and flipping switches. I couldn’t fully tell what he was doing, but I didn’t really care. My mind was elsewhere.

“All set, my lady,” the driver said.

“Thank you,” I said, a dismissal implicit in my tone. There was a lot to be said about the noble lilt, most of it negative, but I had to admit it was pretty good at carrying second meanings.

He closed the door, and the carriage started moving.

I looked down at my hands, at the knife that I’d folded back up and palmed. I’d been clenching them this whole time, and now that they weren’t, I could see that I hadn’t been wholly successful in keeping myself clean. My palms were red with Alto’s blood, and a reddish brown stain on the blade indicated that blood had begun to dry up and and crust on the gift that Jasmine had given me.

If I was a different girl, someone with a better upbringing, maybe I would’ve felt horror at the sight, at the reminders of the violence I’d just inflicted.

I felt nothing. What was one more life when I’d already taken so many? Most nobles had caused the death of another at some point or another, directly or not, so I wasn’t violating any special taboo. Life was precious, I knew that rationally. Depending on which school of thought you subscribed to, killing someone was either a way to send their soul into its next life or eternal destruction, but either way it was generally regarded to be a pretty bad thing. After a certain point, though, I had stopped caring.

I supposed that on some level, Lord Byron had truly instilled his beliefs in me. It was disgusting, probably, but I had to face the facts at some point. One of the most major reasons I still hated my family wasn’t that they’d tried to indoctrinate me with their values, nor was it that they’d attempted to make me their good little murderer.

It was that they had succeeded.

I turned my thoughts away from that. Introspection was healthy, but it wasn’t something that I should be focusing on right now. I had a secret to protect and a noble to confront.

Lord William of House Alzaq hadn’t been at the ball. I’d barely registered that fact, even when I’d been talking to Orchid, but thinking back on it, the Alzaq patriarch cut a distinctive figure, standing tall above most other grown men. I didn’t recall seeing him, and Orchid had never mentioned whether or not he’d be going. If I was wrong here, and he was in fact somewhere that wasn’t his manor, I wasn’t totally sure what I would do. Return to the ball, perhaps? Beg Jasmine to help me, no questions asked?

No. If he wasn’t here, I could assume it was over already. News would be spreading soon, news of Alto of House Tempet’s untimely demise, and once that reached William Alzaq he would know to release my name. Assuming I was right about his involvement, that was.

The carriage rolled to a stop outside of the same manor where this entire debacle had started just a few days ago. I knew consciously that nothing had changed, but the manor felt more menacing somehow, even less welcoming than it had been when I had first arrived.

I wiped my bloody hands on the plush cushions of the carriage, and then I walked out. Oathlights illuminated the majority of the manor’s numerous windows, so there were people home, at least.

I felt a little awkward walking through the fields of flowers that led up to the manor proper, like I was a kid trying to sneak a cookie while my parents were asleep. I drowned out the awkwardness with the all-encompassing cold hatred that had grown to be my trademark.

The manor’s great double doors were locked, predictably. No matter. I built unstructured magic, my oath feeding it with surprising ease, and then I blasted the doors open, carving out a hole large enough for me to walk through.

That was odd. My magic was coming at a slightly faster rate than usual, and I was having an easier time manipulating it.

Oath alignment. It hadn’t been too long since the incident at the Sinlen Pass, and I still remembered well the emotions I’d been feeling back then. It was that same cold hatred, that same feeling of wanting to find someone to kill. Perhaps Inome liked it when my mindset was like this.

That was an academic question that I could figure out later. For now, I had a noble to hunt. I stepped through the ruined door, noting how expensive the material looked. That was going to leave a mark.

Whatever. If I was right about the traitor, then House Alzaq was going to be my enemy anyway. If I was wrong, then my heritage would be released to the public by someone else and I was going to be vilified whether or not I committed several counts of gratuitous property damage. There was no reason to stop now.

In the foyer where we’d received our mission three days ago—gods, had it only been three days since this had begun?—there stood a pair of terrified servants. I recognized one of them. He was a few years younger than me, I was pretty sure, still a teen yet, and Orchid had been speaking to him when the former had been introduced. I couldn’t remember this kid’s name, though.

“Hey, kid,” I said, pointing at the one I recognized. “Is William home?”

“Will—Lord Alzaq, you mean?” The servant was actively quaking as he spoke, and the shakiness of his words reflected that.

“Yes, that one,” I said. “I have business with him.”

“You can’t do that,” the other servant said, having recollected himself. “If you’re here to attack him—“

“He’ll punish us,” the first servant finished, more scared now. He was more fearful of his master than the girl with annihilation magic, huh?

“A dead man can punish nobody,” I said.

“Then I cannot allow you to pass,” the calmer servant stated. “I—“

“It’s not worth it,” I sighed. “Look, you can show me the way or die. Do you truly want to die for someone like the Lord Alzaq?”

The two servants exchanged a glance, and some understanding passed between them during that time.

“Lord Alzaq is home,” the young boy said, resigned. “He is here.”

“I would ask that you leave the rest of us alone,” said the older one. “I don’t know how Lord Alzaq wronged you—“

“I can imagine,” the younger one muttered.

“Quiet, Chris,” the older one admonished. “He is right, though. There’s no love lost between us and Lord Alzaq. Please don’t kill anyone else.”

“You came around to that awfully easily,” I said. “I won’t ask why. Can you direct me to him?”

“He’s on the third floor, in his study,” the younger one—Chris, apparently—said. “He told us that he was not to be disturbed.”

“I don’t know where that is,” I said. “Guide me.”

They winced at that, so I summoned magic. They flinched at that, and I tilted my head. “I would advise that you listen to me.”

I had no qualms with threatening children, if I had to. I wasn’t planning on killing these servants afterwards, so long as they didn’t get in my way or report on this to somebody who knew who I was.

“I can take her,” the older one said. “Chris, just… stay here.”

“No,” I said. “Leave the manor. Tell no one of what is happening. If you must say something, explain that a commoner mob has made its way to this manor.”

“A—a what?” Chris asked.

“Look, I don’t have much time to spare,” I said, extinguishing the magic. “Can I trust you to do this for me?”

Chris looked at me, his gaze terrified, but he nodded.

“I’m sorry about this,” I sighed. “Just—just don’t make this harder for me than it has to be, okay?”

“Wait,” Chris said, trembling. “Aren’t you that adventurer girl? I remember, I think. I saw you—“

“Who I am isn’t important,” I said. “A tall, cloaked man came in here and threatened you. Got it?”

“I—I understand, ma’am,” he stuttered.

“Understand that if you reveal who I am, Lord Alzaq is going to hear of it,” I said, dead serious. These were innocent servants, victims of the nobility as much as I was, so the reaction was immediate.

“I won’t,” Chris promised, conviction in his voice. “Please don’t report us.”

“I will not, so long as you keep quiet about this,” I said. “Now leave us.”

He obeyed, bolting out the ruined door.

“Now you want me to guide you to my boss,” the other servant sighed. He was older, maybe in his early twenties, and he looked a lot more resolute than the boy had.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “Unless you’ve suddenly grown cold feet.”

“When I say there’s bad blood between us and Lord Alzaq, I mean it,” he said, equally as serious as I had been. “Chris here is my little brother, and the number of times the Lord has beaten him within an inch of his life… I’d be glad to see that fucker buried.”

“I get the idea,” I said, genuinely sympathetic but too focused on my current task to provide any. “Listen, can you find me a changing room of some sort? One with a change of clothes?”

The man looked me up and down, apparently only now realizing what I’d come dressed in. I caught his eyes lingering, and I snapped my fingers in front of his face, annoyed.

“Oh, uh, yes,” he said. “Why?”

“Don’t question the scary lady with the magic and the knife,” I said. “Just take me.”

The house had been oddly quiet, given that I had just broken the door down, but then again I had tried to minimize the sound of the blast and the Lord Alzaq wasn’t anywhere near the entrance. Still, there should be guards in any noble household, and I wasn’t keen on fighting them while in this beautiful dress. Through some miracle or another, it had remained intact through the brawl at the ball, only a little worse for wear where some blood specks had landed on it, but I wasn’t going to rely on its ability to stay undamaged if I was fighting actual trained enemies. Its mobility, though quite decent, was still limited by the fact that it was a dress.

The servant led me through the manor, the halls eerily empty.

“Why is nobody here?” I asked.

“Many of them are in service at the ball, lent out by the Lord himself,” the servant said. “We’re running on a skeleton crew tonight.”

That was convenient. He led me to a bedroom that was just as massive as Jasmine’s was back in Yaguan. Closets covered the walls, and a quick search through a few of them turned up a loose grey tunic in my size as well as a pair of leather pants that looked about right.

“Face a corner,” I ordered.

“I can just go out—“

“Face a corner. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

The servant obeyed my order, turning towards a closet. I couldn’t risk him running off while I was in here, calling for help. What I’d seen so far indicated that he probably wouldn’t, but panic did things to a lot of people.

First, I took off the jewelry that had been gifted to me, placing it on a nightstand by the side of one bed.

I reached around my back, feeling for the laces of the dress. It was a little complicated to do without a mirror, but no way in hell was I going to ask the servant to do it. A minute of frustrated fiddling passed, and I finally got the laces loosened up.

Changing was a quick affair. Stepping out of the dress was a slow process, going carefully to ensure it didn’t rip or tear, but I was able to toss on the tunic and pants in a matter of moments. The tunic was a size or two too big for me, but I could deal. I grabbed the necklace from the nightstand where it sat and put it back on, finding a tiny bit of comfort in the reminder that Jasmine had truly cared for me.

“You can turn around now,” I said. While the servant did, I folded the dress and picked it up with one arm. “Take this.”

“Sorry?” He seemed genuinely bewildered at the suggestion. I wondered if he’d never had to do this before. Maybe not, given that Lord Alzaq didn’t seem to trust him with anything, let alone his wife’s garments. “You want me to take the dress?”

“Return it to House Rayes tomorrow or whenever this blows over,” I said. “Tell them it’s for Jasmine. She’ll understand.”

“Okay,” the servant said, sounding unsure. “I can do that.”

“Please,” I said. “I don’t want to threaten you to do this. It matters to me.”

“I can understand that,” he replied, giving me a sad smile. “I’ll do it.”

He took the dress from my hands and made for the door. I followed, walking at a brisk pace, and then we were off again.

The halls of the Alzaq manor were full of paintings of its patriarch and matriarch. Both of them wore severe expressions in all of them, their sharp features seemingly designed to do that.

“A little narcisstic, aren’t they?” I said, not expecting a response.

“Very much so,” the servant replied with a chuckle, turning left into a narrow staircase that I would’ve missed if I hadn’t been paying close attention. “We’re almost there.”

We ascended one set of stairs, then another. These were not stairs meant for nobles, I was fairly sure—they were poorly lit, cramped, and steep.

The servant opened a door after the second flight of stairs, revealing yet another carpeted hallway.

Notably distinct from the last one, though, was the presence of two guards wielding shotguns. The door opened into the hallway a little behind them, so they hadn’t seen us yet. I readied my magic.

“He’s very close to this staircase,” the servant whispered. “Turn left here, towards those guards, and it’s the fourth door on your right.”

I looked at the guards again. They were chatting right now, not paying attention to their surroundings. Something about a sports game that had taken place yesterday? I didn’t care.

I fired my magic, sending out two unstructured spheres of oath power. The guards never saw it coming. The blasts penetrated the back of their heads and detonated silently, reducing their brains and skulls to nothing but a fine red ash before they could even scream.

I looked back, noting that the servant hadn’t seen what I’d just done.

“Good luck,” he said, not noticing the sound of the bodies hitting the carpet.

“Thank you,” I said. “Get along now. Leave the manor. After all, there’s a commoner mob breaking down the door.”

He nodded and started sprinting away, still carrying my dress in his hands. Good kids. They knew enough to hate nobles, at the very least, and I hadn’t detected any lies from them when they’d been speaking. They wouldn’t betray me, I knew that for a fact.

I stepped out into the hallway. Aside from those first two guards, there weren’t even other people in my immediate field of view. When the servants had said that they were running on a skeleton crew today, they’d really meant it.

I picked up a shotgun from one of the headless bodies and continued on my way.

Fourth door on the right. I had to walk a fair bit to get there, the doors large and spaced apart. The door in question was a surprisingly simple one, an undecorated wooden one that would’ve been at home in any midrange tavern. It was locked, of course, and so I summoned a minute amount of magic, just enough that I could create a fist sized hole where the lock would be and ease the door open, shotgun in hand.

The door lead into another, narrower hallway, barely wide enough across to fit two people standing shoulder to shoulder. There was another door at the end of the hallway, and in front of that stood a person in a familiar suit of armor.

“Strike Team Leader Faye,” I said. “I had believed you a prisoner.”

“Not Faye,” a man’s voice grunted from Faye’s armor, preparing for battle. “Just a—“

I shot him in the chest. It wasn’t enough to kill or even down him, the armor too damned strong, but it gave me time to cast a chunk of my magic at the ground. I knew from experience that the armor would be able to take any of my hits just fine.

The floor, however, wouldn’t. I fired another blast, and then another, alternating between using purely unstructured magic and hastily constructed magic missiles. To cap it all off, I used a classical fireball, and the floor collapsed underneath the man’s feet under the force and heat. He wasn’t as experienced as Faye had been, and his failure to react to my barrage reflected that. My armored opponent fell straight through, the ground a floor below me cracking as he hit it.

The hole I’d made didn’t cover the entirety of the floor, but it was going to be a bit precarious finishing the walk down the hall. I made my way to the edge of it and glanced below. The armored man was on his back in something that vaguely resembled a dining room, having landed awkwardly, and he was ever so slowly getting back up. I wasn’t sure if he would have the movement capabilities to make it back up to me, and I didn’t plan on sticking around to find out.

I inched around the hole, placing every step carefully to ensure I didn’t fall, and then I was at the final door. Deep breath in, out.

This door was unlocked, and it opened up into a massive circular room that didn’t really deserve the title of ‘study’. It was more of a small library than anything I would’ve associated with a study, bookshelves arranged in rows that radiated out from the center of the room. There at the center was a prominently placed desk, decked out with ancient tomes and gilded furniture and behind that desk…

I calmed myself, the grip of hatred a familiar friend.

“Lily Byron,” Lord Alzaq greeted me like it was the most natural thing in the world. “What brings you here?”

Behind him, in the wings of this room, between the bookshelves. Guards. Oathholders. I could see or sense them all, feel the intense pressure in the air.

I’d found Lord Alzaq, killing and blasting my way through to get here, but he’d barely reacted.

And he wasn’t alone.

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A note from Slifer274

Shouting out Edge Cases by SilverLinings today! He writes an excellent, thought-provoking fiction that takes a unique look into LitRPG! Highly recommend it.

Rare classes and powerful skills are helpful. Unfortunately, it turns out that the system isn't really built to handle that kind of raw abuse, and it starts to break.

It also turns out that they don't help you deal with society? And when your team consists of a transmigrated cleric that isn't really interested in religion, a lizard-wizard that refuses to do magic the system-directed way, a half-orc tank that can literally block any attack, and a 'monster' trying to figure out his place in the system, you need all the help you can get.


Volume 1 of Heretical Oaths is out on Amazon here!

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Slifer274

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