Chris Altrac was a surprisingly diligent man considering his former homeless status. He had jumped into the world feet first and, after getting a few pointers from Alyssa, wound up doing well for himself. As well as someone could do in less than a week, that was.
He had moved into the inn Alyssa had invited him to during their little discussion. It was one of the places Alyssa had sought out for herself in case she ever had to leave Tzheitza’s potion shop. Not the nicest place around, but he had a private room and a lock on the door. The larger tavern area on the floor below served food and wines. Tasteless stuff, but everything was in this world. Having only recently eaten a bounty of Earth food, that fact was all the more apparent to Alyssa.
It was in that tavern that Alyssa found Chris, seated in a corner and surrounded by a small group of people. It had her momentarily worried. But the reason for the gathering quickly became apparent. Plucky notes from a stringed instrument—a lute?—filled the air. It sounded a bit… distorted at first. Bards didn’t seem as common as Hollywood might suggest, but she had heard a few. It didn’t sound bad, it just didn’t sound like how a lute was supposed to sound.
The first few notes sounded familiar, but it wasn’t until he started singing that she realized just where she had heard the song.
“She keeps her Moet et Chandon
In her pretty cabinet
‘Let them eat cake,’ she says
Just like Marie Antoinette…”
Shaking her head, Alyssa waved Jason toward an empty table while she went up to the bar to order two small drinks. Having just had French toast, she wasn’t in need of food. Jason hadn’t eaten anything, but with how he was staring at everything, he likely wouldn’t be hungry for a while. It also gave her a moment to speak with Gobbtop, the proprietor of the tavern.
“He’s not disrupting your business, is he?”
“Disrupting?” Gobbtop chuckled, sliding two pewter mugs across the smooth counter. “That’s my lute.”
Alyssa raised an eyebrow. Her first thought was that Chris had stolen it, but… that didn’t seem to be the case. Gobbtop wouldn’t be laughing about it if so. Chris probably wouldn’t stick around in the tavern either. Musical instruments were probably a bit expensive. Far more than what Chris could afford. Before coming over, Alyssa had called him to make sure that he was here. In that brief call, he had mentioned that he got an apprenticeship with a carpenter. Which had not been one of the jobs that Alyssa had pointed out to him, but it worked enough to afford him a room here.
But not a lute.
“A bard came in the other day. Your friend convinced him to let him try. Almost threw him out immediately after; the noise was unbearable. But he seemed to learn quick enough with a few tips from the bard. Now? More people in here tonight than I’ve had all week.”
Glancing around the room again, Alyssa slowly nodded. There were several empty tables. Maybe even more than when she brought Chris over here for their little meeting. But around him? It wasn’t quite a concert, but there was a definite crowd. If he kept this up, Gobbtop might just end up the most profitable tavern around.
The only thing missing was a piano accompaniment. But that might just be because Alyssa was familiar with the real song. None of the people sitting and chatting around him knew what it was supposed to sound like. They probably didn’t get half the lyrics either. Marie Antoinette? Kruschev and Kennedy? Laser beams? They only knew that the music was strange and different from what the bards usually played.
Without the exposure of television or radio, Alyssa doubted that he could become a true medieval rock star, but he could definitely get some fans if he kept it up.
The song wound down to a much slower end than Alyssa knew. While most of the others in the room probably hoped he would play another one, Alyssa hoped for the opposite. Grabbing the two mugs, she dropped a few coins on the counter and made her way back to Jason. He didn’t say a word as she slid one mug in front of him. His eyes were locked onto the crowd in the corner of the room.
Chris stood and, much to the dismay of the crowd, announced that there wouldn’t be any more songs for tonight. After a short trip to Gobbtop to drop off the lute with him, he took the seat opposite Alyssa.
“I didn’t know you could play the lute.”
“Me neither! But I played guitar in high school. Me and a few buddies were in a band. Played lots of covers—Queen, Pink Floyd. Lots of eighties stuff. The strings feel weird,” he said, rubbing his fingers on his surprisingly local tunic. “I think they’re parts of animals.”
Jason adjusted his glasses, pushing them up slightly even though they fell right back to where they had been the moment he moved his finger away. “That would be accurate. Historically, lute strings were made from sheep intestine.”
Alyssa grimaced a bit, but Chris just shrugged.
“Figured it was something like that. Who is scrawny here?”
“J-Jason. Jason Stiles.” He held out a hand to shake, but knocked into the mug Alyssa had slid in front of him.
Her hands darted forward, steadying it before too much of the ale could spill all over.
“Sorry,” he said, pulling his hand back before Chris even had the opportunity to shake. “I can’t believe it, but this really isn’t Earth, is it? I’m a little overwhelmed.”
“I bet. This bitch dumped me in the middle of the city without saying a word and ignored me for a week. Overwhelmed was an understatement.”
Alyssa raised an eyebrow, giving Chris a pointed look. Jason just stared with an open mouth, actually meeting their eyes as he looked between the two. But Alyssa shrugged. “I suppose I deserve that. But call me a bitch again and you’ll see just how bitch-like I can be.” Something in her gaze made Chris shift back and forth uncomfortably. It couldn’t be glowing eyes as Tenebrael had ended their connection—a mildly unpleasant experience but far less of an ordeal than making it in the first place. After drinking a bit of ale to give her words time to settle in, Alyssa nodded toward Jason. “He’s been here for barely more than a half hour at this point. I was hoping you might be so kind as to show him the ropes. Tell him the things I told you the other day. Maybe take him out tomorrow and give him a brief tour of the city if you can make time around your carpentry job and rocking out on the lute.”
Chris looked back to Jason, eying him up and down. “I barely remember half the monsters you named let alone all that other stuff you told me about. Wouldn’t it be better if you did it?”
“I would, but someone threw a dagger at my head yesterday.”
It quickly became apparent just how many people around were listening in on their conversation. In the time since Chris had finished his ballad of the killer queen, the crowd had disseminated, gravitating to the various empty tables. Several had left outright, but plenty stayed to get their nightly dose of food and ale. And the nearest three tables all went silent. It only lasted a moment, but Alyssa noticed a few of them looking right at her table… until they noticed her noticing them at which point they turned away.
“A dagger?” Chris said, pulling her attentions back to the table.
“Mhm hmm.” It probably didn’t matter that people were listening in. Not unless they were part of Waters Street. And if they were, they very well could know who she was even without mentioning something like that. “It was a sleek one made of dark metal. Pretty nice. I would have picked it up, but I was a little worried it might be cursed. It did have an enchantment on it to freeze things the blade cut, so something more dangerous didn’t seem so far fetched.”
“I accidentally made a few enemies. It is one of the main reasons I don’t want to hang around with you guys too much. I don’t want to rub my enemies off on you two.”
“I can appreciate that. Been here a week and I’m still learning my way around. Sometimes I wake up expecting to find myself staring at a brick wall in an alley. Getting my head around it all is going to take some work and I could do without daggers in my head while I work it out.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“B-But what are you going to do?” Jason said. He looked back and forth, maybe having noticed the extra ears listening to their conversation. In a far quieter voice, he continued, “Are there police in this world?”
“The city guard act like the police of this city, for the most part. I feel like they’re more concerned with external threats than internal ones, however.” Though maybe she should go to them for help instead of trying to deal with the Taker or Octavia on her own. If only she hadn’t both alienated Oxart and got her locked up for treason. Decorous rubbed her the wrong way.
Then again, the fact that Tzheitza hadn’t suggested going to the city guard when Cid first informed them that the Taker was after her probably said something about how effective they would be.
“As for what I’m going to do? Well, I already have a few ideas about who threw the dagger. I just need to find them and… encourage them to not throw another one. Permanently, if necessary.” Alyssa had increased her repertoire of spells since the last time she faced the Taker. A Projectile Reflection would stop his daggers. She wouldn’t hesitate to use Rigor Mortis again. And a Spectral Axe would rend his soul from his body. She just needed to watch out for his sword.
Maybe she could get Irulon to loan her that dragon armor again.
And maybe she had been a bit too intense in her roundabout way of speaking. Neither Chris nor Jason had said a word for a full minute now. Both were staring at her—though Jason averted his gaze as soon as she turned her head to him. She wanted to send a message to those people who were listening in, just in case they were spies or accomplices of the Taker and Octavia. A message that said that she was not afraid and that her enemies should be.
But now she scared off her fellow Earthlings.
Covering a small sigh by standing up, Alyssa stretched. “I’ll be in touch. Call me if there is an emergency, but try not to call me hundreds of times if at all possible.” She turned toward the door, hesitated, and turned back. “There will be one more person coming from Earth. He should be arriving in roughly a day. I’m not sure what he is like or who he is just yet, but I’d appreciate if you two—especially you, Chris—would watch out for him until he learns his way around the city.”
Just over one day was the timeline Tenebrael had given her. It seemed her murderer was getting panicky. But, after killing this person, her murderer apparently killed himself via hanging. Something Tenebrael should not require assistance with because the body was just a puppet. Hopefully, anyway.
One day out was also the date of their next lesson. Alyssa was looking forward to it, but in an apprehensive sort of way. Flailing through the void to connect to Tenebrael would be unpleasant, but the prospect of being able to cast magic the way angels did might make up for it.
“Just one?” Jason said, breaking her out of her thoughts.
“What?” Maybe because she had been thinking of something else, Alyssa wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about.
“You save people who were going to die, right? Why only one?”
“Ah. That’s… not quite accurate. I am… saving the people who my murderer would have killed. I can’t save anyone else and, after this one, he kills himself.”
“Wait,” Chris said, furrowing his brow. “Wait… what? You’re saving people who get killed?”
“Specifically by the person who the news reported as my murderer. Did I not mention that earlier?”
“You said that I should consider myself dead, but… I got killed?”
“Obviously not. You were sort of sleeping through everything. Then you spouted off a bunch of conspiracy theories that I didn’t really have the time to entertain. Sorry, forgot to clarify it. And I guess I didn’t really go into it last time we met.” Alyssa waved a hand at Jason. “He probably knows more than I do at this point. I hardly watched the news even back before all this happened. And I haven’t been in much of a position to keep up with current events over the past months.”
Jason, maybe because he had seen the full aftermath of his own poorly thought out actions, seemed to take the information better than the now-gaping Chris. “But how are you saving them? Does this sort of thing happen often?”
“As far as I know, we’re the only ones who have ever been saved in such a manner. How? That would require a lot of complicated explanations. To distill it, I’d say that I’ve got an angel helping me.”
“The angel that eats souls.”
“Well, yes. I figure I’ll worry about that later.”
“Look, would you rather be dead?”
“Me neither.” Alyssa glanced back and forth between the two of them, then did a quick sweep of the room. They weren’t speaking quietly. The people who were trying to listen in wouldn’t have a hard time of it and even some who weren’t might have heard. It made her wonder a bit about what they might think about all the talk of saving people from death and souls and such.
Probably not much, actually. They might be confused, but arcanists in this world could do some pretty crazy things. This being the big city with the Observatorium front and center, they might have a more or less accurate view on just what arcanists were capable of. From her travels, Alyssa knew that people in smaller villages didn’t put much stock into magic. Being able to turn a card into a flame was as natural as striking a match on a box, but viewing every possible outcome of decisions made in the next few seconds? They would stare as if Alyssa had grown three heads.
To be fair, most people who weren’t the princess of a medieval country would probably stare at the prospect. But random people from tiny villages would just stare more.
“Anyway, I’m out,” she said when neither of her two Earthling companions said anything back to her. “Try not to start too many musical revolutions while I’m gone.”
That broke Chris out of his stupor, at least. He still seemed a bit out of it, but he did wave a farewell as Alyssa left the tavern. Was finding out that he had been saved from the brink of death that much of a shock? Relative to finding out about a whole different world, one filled with magic and monsters, Alyssa didn’t think so. But maybe her perspective was a bit warped with her angel vision. Tenebrael’s presence certainly had distracted her from the gravity of the situation back when she first discovered a new world. And she had initially thought herself to be lost in some far-off corner of Earth.
Stopping just outside the tavern door, Alyssa glanced around. Night had fallen. Alyssa did not like to think of herself as being paranoid, but, as the saying went, it wasn’t paranoia when people were really trying to kill her. Fishing out two cards, she held them in front of her. Empty Mirror cloaked her in shards of glass, preventing anyone from seeing her presence. It was a spell she had used before and one that she had painstakingly copied from Irulon’s tome. She had scrapped a dozen cards while trying to draw it out, such was its complexity, but she had succeeded. And, if she dared to say so herself, she had gotten fairly good at it too. Her gradually thickening deck of cards now sported five Empty Mirrors.
Well, four now.
The other card she had drawn was not one she had used before. Tineye came from one of the books she had taken pictures of during her very first visit to the Observatorium. She wasn’t sure where its name came from, but the brief description she had written when she took the picture implied that it was a sensory enhancement spell.
And boy is it ever. The card disappeared, feeling like burning metal in her hands. She hadn’t thought it was windy out before casting the spell. Now, a chill breeze felt like pins and needles against the bare skin of her face and hands. And the view… it wasn’t like a spell dedicated to seeing at night. Night Vision basically completely negated the darkness, making it look like everything was washed in daylight. This must be how cats see. Everything had this crisp sharpness to it. Even in the dark shadows, hidden from even the moonlight, she could see the well defined edges of a water barrel next to the tavern wall. A fleck of movement made her snap her head to the side, only to find a rat scrubbing at its face.
Her hearing was a mess. Two dozen voices all talking at once was a lot more than she could decipher at once. Most of the voices were coming from inside the tavern, but there were a few from the surrounding buildings. Footsteps, heartbeats, the unpleasant gurgling of human insides, and plenty more noises that she couldn’t begin to identify all helped muddle everything. Someone like Irulon, who had a literal dragon to help process the information, might have been able to dissect and listen to all the conversations at once. For Alyssa, it was just noise.
Though she heard some familiar voices in all that noise. That gave her something to concentrate on. Focusing, Alyssa found it vaguely possible to listen to some of the conversation.
“—Trying to not think about it much. I might need another few drinks. Just try not to worry too much and take things as they come. That’s my method of dealing.”
“Worry? Worry! I’m in a whole new world! There are monster girls here! And magic!”
“Yeah. It’s rough, but not so different. I’ve been here a few—”
“How could I worry at a time like this? This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me!”
“I don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight. I’m just so excited. Oh! Do I need to get a room? She handed me all this—” Alyssa winced as some high-pitched clanking of metal against wood gouged out her ears. “—but she didn’t really tell me much more.”
Alyssa shook her head—she was almost positive that she could hear her brain jostle around and vowed never to do that again with Tineye active—and tried to focus on the surrounding conversations. She was slightly more interested in eavesdropping on the eavesdroppers, but she couldn’t make anything out. Lacking familiarity, one voice was just too hard to pick out from the rest. Resisting the subconscious desire to shake her head again, she decided to just leave. Tineye would help her spot anyone who might try to follow her and Empty Mirror would keep them from finding her.
The first footstep felt like an earthquake. The second didn’t get any better. By the third, she dismissed Tineye.
Relief flooded in as the relative silence filled the vacancy left by all the noise. What a waste. She had drawn up a dozen Tineye cards. They were relatively simple, but drawing up any cards at all was time consuming. After that brief usage, she was considering burning them all.
Activating a simple Night Vision, Alyssa looked around the street again. Nothing particularly stuck out to her. Just how she liked it. She would just have to watch for potential pursuers the old fashioned way.
Author’s Note: Hello everyone. I don’t often do this, but just a thing I’d like to mention really quick. If you are a Patreon supporter but you don’t pay attention to posts over there, I just released something you might be interested in. Duality, a super powered novel type of thing. Instead of just a single chapter, like I sometimes post, this is an entire arc, six chapters measuring up to around 25k words. Something I’ve been working on as a side project for a few months. I am very interested in seeing some feedback regarding what is posted so far. The post over there explains more, so I’ll stop taking up valuable space here.
For non-Patreon readers, thanks for reading! I’m just happy you’re here. I’ll be posting Duality over on the preview site (link in the sidebar) in a week or two. There will be another Author’s Note when that happens, so don’t worry about missing anything if you are interested. If you’re looking for a different method of supporting me, word-of-mouth goes a long way. Most new readers actually come from Top Web Fiction, so a quick two clicks on a vote for Vacant Throne is always appreciated.