Alyssa carefully measured out a thimbleful of nightmare dreams. Literal dreams. From a monster called a nightmare. A nightmare was apparently a horse-like creature about as scary as a gaunt. How they got its dreams into a bottle was a question that Alyssa had long since stopped caring about. There were so many potion ingredients like that in the storage room that Alyssa had started simply nodding her head and saying nothing more. Seeing Tzheitza bottle flame from Fela was one of those oddities that she would shrug her shoulders at now.
With the thimble filled full of black syrup—that, if Alyssa listened close, might be screaming at her—she poured it into a flask above a fire. The screams died down as it mixed in with all the other ingredients. Soon enough, the liquid concoction turned a healthy green, opaque like paint. That was exactly the color it should be, so Alyssa felt fairly pleased with herself. Normally, she would smell the potions as well. Some were not really good to breathe in, however. This one wouldn’t kill her if she did, but it would have her passed out over the open flame.
After stirring the potion with a little glass rod to ensure that it was fully mixed, Alyssa corked it and handed it over to the man across the counter.
“That should last you a week,” she said with a smile. “Take one deep breath of the fumes before you go to sleep at night. Make sure to cork it afterwords. You’ll have a few minutes before you actually fall asleep, so you’ll have time to get in bed however you want.”
“This is a life saver, Alyssa,” he said, handing over a few coins. “You know, I wasn’t sure about you when I first saw you here, but at least these potions turn out alright.”
“Thanks. I think.”
He leaned over the counter, dropping his voice to a whisper. “And you’re a whole lot easier to understand than that old maid.”
Alyssa gave him a slight nod of her head. That, she could agree with.
He turned to head out, but Alyssa called after him.
“You’re a noble, aren’t you Saraak?”
Between the gold in her hands and how frequently he came in to get more, he had to be. No regular farmer or innkeeper could afford so many sleep aids. Not with how much nightmare dreams cost. She supposed he could be an incredibly wealthy merchant of some sort, but something about him gave off airs of nobility. It was the same feeling she got from Decorous.
Mostly, it was how he dressed. He was a tall man with a pencil-thin mustache who wore fine yellow robes. Peasants and merchants tended to wear earthen tones. His yellow was more like a canary than spicy mustard.
Sure enough, he nodded his head. “I am. Eldest son of House Bwickly.”
“Bwickly,” Alyssa repeated. It was a weird sounding word.
“It is a moderately sized town in the Elder Tree Forest. We have the honor of supplying the best lumber to Lyria and its associated city-states. Sure, there are trees everywhere, but our trees are special,” he said with a wink. “Why? Need some wood?”
Not entirely sure if that was a euphemism or simply bad phrasing, Alyssa ignored it. “Actually, I was wondering about the nobles and the royal family. How they’re getting along lately and such.”
He pressed his lips together for a moment, making Alyssa think that he wasn’t going to answer. Some kind of realization crossed his eyes as he quickly nodded. “You’re wondering about that dog they’ve got running around the city, aren’t you? It might not have happened yet, but an incident is inevitable. Don’t worry though. My father is leading the petition to have it put down before such an incident can occur.”
Beneath the counter, Alyssa clenched her fists. Like hell she would let that happen. She would fight off the entirety of the city guard before she let Fela get hurt doing something that Alyssa had practically suggested. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that. Irulon was keeping tabs on such things. If anything did get close to happening, Alyssa would hear about it well in advance. She could run off, flee with Fela down to Teneville or somewhere else where they wouldn’t be bothered.
Unaware of Alyssa’s change in demeanor, Saraak continued in what was likely supposed to be a calming voice. “I can assure you that he is making progress. We and several of our close allies have already withdrawn the guards and workers we have sent here in protest.”
Well, Alyssa thought, that explains why I’ve noticed less guards around lately. “What if the Juno Federation attacks again? Or…” Alyssa momentarily grit her teeth. “What if the hellhound goes on a rampage and there aren’t any guards around to stop her?”
Saraak sighed, still taking no notice of her agitation. He walked back up to the counter, leaned against it with one elbow, and tried to put on his most conciliatory tone. “Unfortunately, that’s just the way things have to be. When we nobles send the fine men of our cities and fiefs to Lyria, we expect them to be put to good use. And sometimes they are. The outposts that keep watch on the roads between cities and lands are manned primarily by our soldiers. The roads themselves are built and maintained by our men. The wood they used to build those outposts comes from Bwickly. And that’s all well and good. The work they do benefits everyone.
“But then the Pharaoh starts making poor decisions. He invites those monsters into his palace, but at least he keeps them locked away. That hellhound runs around the street like she rules the place. That elf constantly pumps black smoke into the air while treating humans like we are the slaves. Abysmally poor decisions. How can we entrust our people to the Pharaoh when we can’t even trust him to make decisions that benefit humanity?” He shook his head sadly, sighing at the same time. “We haven’t pulled everyone. So don’t fret too much. But it is a thing that is being considered. If we can’t trust the Pharaoh to keep our security in mind, we will have to withdraw fully and look after our own interests.”
Alyssa felt sick, stomach twisted into a knot. This was her fault, wasn’t it. A large army had moved out of the city to engage with the trolls and goblins her first week in Lyria. But now, that large army was diminished. Not just because some people had died, which they definitely had, but because she had thought it would be a good idea to get Fela into the palace. And she had suggested to Brakkt that he show off the draken more.
That would probably only make them pull everyone back faster. And it would probably get more people to join their protest.
Could the city guard as they stood today hold up against another army of trolls and goblins? Alyssa could. Completely on her own. All she needed was an Annihilator. But what if she wasn’t around? The Pharaoh and Irulon were both Rank Six arcanists. But they weren’t around constantly either. The city needed its guard to hold up when the big arcanists weren’t there.
It was clearly not the Pharaoh she needed to convince to give monsters a chance.
“What about the Juno Federation?” Alyssa quickly said—Saraak looked like he had been about to leave. “Say you do end up pulling everyone from Lyria. And many other nobles do as well. What happens when the city falls and the Federation continues marching its armies toward Bwickly? Can you stand up to them on your own?”
Saraak went silent for a long moment, as if giving her question serious consideration. Eventually, he looked her in the eye. “We have our allies. They wouldn’t let us die alone because they know that they would be next.”
Alyssa wanted to shout at him that the same held true for Lyria. And that Lyria was a better defensive spot with its position right at the border of the northern desert. Any approaching army would hit Lyria first. If they tried to bypass the city, their supply line would be cut as soon as they were noticed. But if Lyria fell and the armies got access to the rest of the continent, they would have much more freedom of movement.
But Saraak didn’t give her a chance. “If you’re worried, maybe you should get out of Lyria. Bwickly is always looking to grow and talent is always accepted. And you do have some talent,” he said, swinging the sleeping potion back and forth. “Think about it, hm? I could even arrange you transport if you wanted. Not everyone gets an offer a noble’s carriage,” he added with a wink as he walked toward the door.
He waved and left. Alyssa wanted to call out to him, stop him and maybe try to get him to change his father’s mind about the protest, but the words just wouldn’t come to her. She slumped into the chair behind the counter, feeling drained and sick. Mentally sick. It was a distinctly familiar feeling, though one she hadn’t thought about in years.
In elementary school, she had believed her guitar-playing father was distinctly uncool. So she told everyone that he was actually Pink from Pink Floyd. After a few days, one of the other kids said that they told their dad. There was no one named Pink in Pink Floyd and the Rock Band Police wanted to talk to her.
She had gotten so sick that she had gone home, curled up in her bed, and waited to be arrested.
Obviously, it was something to look back on with a mild cringe now, but that feeling of wanting to go home and curl up in bed was the exact type of sick that she felt right now.
Only a hundred times worse.
Her only solace came in knowing that she had personally ended the immediate threat of the Juno Federation. It wasn’t much comfort, but at least there would be time to fix something. Surely Lyria would bolster its guard by recruiting directly from the populace. It probably did already, but…
Two more customers came in over the following hour. They proved welcome distractions from Alyssa’s woes. She wasn’t so good at potion making that she could afford to let her mind wander while mixing things up. Tzheitza only let her make things that shouldn’t be dangerous no matter how badly she screwed up, but things could still get iffy. There were several ingredients that Tzheitza wouldn’t even let her look at let alone touch. Some of the more complicated potions might explode if left on a burner for even a few seconds too long. Some had awkward crafting steps, like the one that had to sit out under the moon, that were impractical to craft right in front of a customer.
She supposed that she should be glad that that particular potion still worked even after scarring the moon.
But she had grown a small repertoire of potions that she could make. Sleeping potions. The light potion. One called a frostbite potion that was used to kill unwanted plants. A weed killer, basically. There were a few other things, but nothing particularly life changing. No healing potion. No dangerous potions like what Tzheitza kept on her bandoleer.
Although, the sleeping potion could probably be tossed into a room to make the occupants drowsy. The correct usage was to smell the fumes straight out of the bottle, so too large of a room would diffuse it too much, but it might still work. Something to ask, she supposed. There were probably better room-wide incapacitation potions anyway.
“Couldn’t find anything.”
Alyssa jumped, spilling a spoonful of sugar all over the workbench. She tensed, watching every single grain as they bounced around until they came to their final settling point. Only when everything returned to absolute stillness did Alyssa sigh. She was extremely grateful that Tzheitza had drilled into her the importance of closing jars of reagents immediately after using them. Otherwise, sugar might have just mixed with extract of troll toenail.
“You’re lucky,” Alyssa said, glaring at her side.
Sighing again, Alyssa looked at the man seated in one of the side rooms. The door was wide open as he wasn’t receiving any treatment. Thankfully, he wasn’t paying attention. Then again, if he had been paying attention, maybe Kasita would have walked up like a normal person.
Unfortunately for the mimic, Alyssa couldn’t spare the brainpower required for conversation just yet. She quickly remeasured a spoonful of fresh sugar and dumped it into the flask. Something else that it was mixing with, maybe the gazer intraocular fluid, kept it from caramelizing over heat. A bit of stirring with a single drop of holstaur milk and she had herself a cure for dry eyes.
She quickly handed the potion over to the customer with his instructions—a single drop in each eye as symptoms occurred—before turning her attention to Kasita.
Alyssa stared with her arms crossed over her chest. The mimic was trying her best to look wholly innocent. And really, she probably wouldn’t have jumped out of nowhere had Alyssa been handling anything dangerous. Still, it set a bad precedent to let it go without comment. “Would it kill you to walk up to me like a normal person?”
“That was normal. For me. I’m surprised you still get startled by my voice.”
“I don’t, usually. I was just concentrating this time.”
“Alright,” Alyssa sighed. “What did you say? You didn’t find anything?”
“You shouldn’t have killed all your enemies. Now what are we supposed to do when we need people dead?”
“Make some more enemies, I guess.”
“Excellent! Perfect idea. I shall head over to Oxart’s office immediately, disguised as you of course, and knock over some of those papers she keeps on her desk.”
“Please don’t,” Alyssa said, sinking back into her seat. “I was just being sarcastic.”
“Well,” Kasita said, walking right up to the chair. She leaned up against the back, resting her chin on top of Alyssa’s head. “The military medical tent has been torn down. I imagine most everyone who was going to die from the troll thing did die and everyone else is carrying on with their lives. There’s no public executions scheduled any time soon. No sign of any activity from the Waters Street gang, if they even still exist. No hint of Morgan, Bercilak, or any other Society of the Burning Shadow member. And… that’s really it. Some of the guards seem a bit disgruntled, but it doesn’t feel like a violent coup is coming. Although I’ve never really participated in a coup, so maybe my sense for that kind of thing is not completely accurate.”
“I shouldn’t be mad about this,” Alyssa grumbled, “but I can’t believe we had people dying around us nonstop for what felt like a month and now nothing for the past month.”
“Sorry.” Kasita’s voice was quiet. Softer than a whisper. Even with her head right on top of Alyssa’s, her apology was hardly audible.
“Don’t be,” Alyssa said, dismissing the apology with a wave of her hand. “I knew from last time we were looking for dying people that it would probably be a fool’s errand.”
“Did you just call me a fool?”
Alyssa felt some breath from Kasita’s nose, which just made her chuckle.
“But I wasn’t apologizing for that… This is all because I made her mad. I shouldn’t have gone with you. I didn’t even get anything out of it aside from a short second-hand story of me being there.”
“No. If anything made her upset, it was me pulling my mother out of stasis sooner than Tenebrael wanted. But I don’t think that would have done it. I think something went wrong. Iosefael noticed that the souls weren’t who they were supposed to be. That is why I think Tenebrael hasn’t shown up since.”
“You said that souls rot when left in the body, right? So someone has to be taking them.”
“Doesn’t have to be Tenebrael. Could be Adrael. Kenziel. Even Iosefael. Or some other angel I don’t know about. None of them would want to talk to me, I think.”
“Not even Kenziel?”
“Well, last time she showed up, I called Tenebrael on her. I doubt she really likes me much after that little incident.”
“Hmmm…” Again, Kasita breathed right on Alyssa’s head.
This time, it tickled a bit. Just enough to make Alyssa unconsciously reach up to scratch at her hair.
She wound up smacking Kasita in the face.
“So mean,” Kasita sobbed.
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve survived Tzheitza’s knives through your head. I doubt I hurt you.”
“It’s the thought that counts—that hurts the most.”
Alyssa rolled her eyes, letting silence fall between them. It was a comfortable silence. It always was with Kasita.
However, this time, it started to grow uncomfortable. Entirely on Alyssa’s part. She had something to say. She didn’t want to say it. But… if she couldn’t say it to Kasita, she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone else either. So she had to.
“I was thinking,” Alyssa started.
“Oh no. Did you hurt yourself?”
“Ha. Ha…” Alyssa trailed off. Stalling. That was what she was doing. Maybe a customer would pop in and distract her for another half hour. But no one came. “I was thinking that there is a place where people are probably dying. Or, if they aren’t already dead, where we would be more than welcome to kill them.”
“Oh? I like where this is going.”
“Mother would hate it. She would probably disown me if she found out.”
“Then I’d be an only child again,” Kasita said with mock despair. “Good thing she went and found her own inn to live at.”
Alyssa had to nod in agreement at that. She loved her mother, but Tzheitza’s shop did not have enough beds. After Tzheitza got her the training job with the guild, she quickly moved out. She stopped by every now and again, mostly to check up on Alyssa. And Alyssa saw her during just about every potion delivery trip. But really, Alyssa was glad that she was living on her own, even with as much as she had missed her mother. It was like she had become a proper adult who could live on her own, even if she technically lived with a roommate.
But it wasn’t just her mother who would hate her idea.
“Tzheitza would probably kick me out.”
“Living here is holding you back. A Rank Six arcanist should be living like a king. I mean, half of them are royalty in this city.”
“You probably aren’t going to be too thrilled either.”
Kasita gave her a flat look. “Oh? And what about Irulon. Will she hate it too?”
Alyssa opened her mouth, but hesitated. “Actually,” she settled on, “I’m not sure.”
“That might as well be a yes. What is it?”
Before she said, Alyssa peeked around Kasita. The door to the back room was firmly closed. There were no other customers inside the shop. Someone could be listening in through the use of Tineye, or something similar, but they probably weren’t.
Kasita’s face flickered. It was just an instant thing, but Alyssa had come to associate that with a rapid change of emotion. Sure enough, she wasn’t smiling when she came out of the flicker. Her lips were pressed together as she nodded slowly. “You’re right. I’m not too sure that I’m thrilled with that. You interacted with the Taker and Octavia. There was no helping that. But willingly walking into a plague death house? Doesn’t sound like a smart idea.”
“It’s the only place we’re guaranteed to find people who are dying or that we can kill.”
“What about that man in the Central Garrison’s dungeon? No one would miss Cid.”
“Something tells me that Oxart would consider that a perversion of justice, or somesuch.”
“And didn’t you say that angels don’t show up for plague victims?”
“That’s true. Demons do. But, at least in the religious mythology back home, demons and angels are related. When one shows up, I can try asking it about Tenebrael. Maybe it won’t answer. Maybe it will try bargaining for an answer—in which case I’ll just walk away. But if I can get an answer out of one, then at least I will know something. This is driving me insane.”
Kasita went silent for a long minute. There was no trace of humor in her voice when she looked Alyssa in the eyes and asked, “You’re set on this?”
“If nothing happens in the next few days, I think yeah.”
“Then I’ll go with you.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want.”
“I do want, actually. Besides, someone responsible has to make sure you don’t die or contract the plague or… worse.”
Alyssa raised an eyebrow. “Did you just call yourself responsible?”
“More responsible than you, that’s for sure. Even mom agrees.”
Alyssa started to refute that, but had to stop. A customer walked in.