War And Peace
On The Open Road
“I can’t believe this is happening again.”
“Well,” Oz said with a bright smile. “think of it this way. At least you aren’t rushing off into the desert with little preparation to rescue someone you got mind controlled before they could be eaten only to discover an enemy encampment protected by monsters that only you can see.”
“That seems like an oddly specific occurrence,” Raugis, the first daughter of House Illuna, said. A hand covered her gentle smile. “The lives of mercenaries must be filled with such thrills.”
“Yeah. That’s one way of putting it,” Lumen grumbled.
Alyssa, once again, found herself in the company of Oz, Lumen, and Catal while they were on a quest from the guild. This time, it was more than just her and Irulon accompanying them. On the guild side of things, her mother had decided to join against Alyssa’s recommendation. Though, honestly, Alyssa wasn’t sure why she bothered protesting. Being out in the wilderness was probably safer than being in the city at times. Especially times with demons and fake-angels and all kinds of nonsense going on.
It wasn’t actually safer. People didn’t typically hire guards when they walked around the city unless they were carrying something valuable. Incidents happened, true. Even with demons and saboteurs running around, the total amount of deaths per month probably wasn’t that different from a modern Earth city of equivalent size. If only because of vehicular deaths. Outside the city, on the other hand, people only rarely traversed alone. Even the relatively safe trip to Teneville got people like Aziz to hire guards.
But, with Alyssa also headed outside the city, she really didn’t have much room to try to get her mother to stay in one spot.
Raugis was the name of the girl being escorted. A nobleman’s daughter, maybe a year or two younger than Alyssa. Roughly Irulon’s age. Although she didn’t act like it. From their admittedly short interactions so far, Alyssa got the feeling that Raugis was a fairly sheltered young woman. So far, she had spent the entire six hours of the day’s journey leaning out the window of her fancy carriage, talking with Oz. Accompanying her were a few members of her house’s staff. A coachman, who kept making nervous glances toward the draken despite the surprising calm of his horses, and some kind of butler-like servant. The latter was a fairly old man who, upon meeting up with everyone outside the city, had barely glanced at the draken.
Alyssa had to wonder what kind of stories he could tell that had him shrugging off a dinosaur walking alongside the carriage in definite biting distance of Raugis’ head.
For the draken, Izsha was around of course, as was Musca. Much to Pesca’s chagrin, Lisa had decided to take a guild-provided horse instead. Ensou and Dasca were around as well, ridden by Brakkt and Fela respectively. Dasca seemed just as excited as Musca and Izsha had been on their trip to the desert, even though the latter two seemed a bit more subdued than normal. Izsha might just be getting used to running around on the regular.
Musca, on the other hand, had been told in no uncertain words that running wild wouldn’t be tolerated for the time being.
Irulon rode atop the tiger-striped draken, somehow having modified the saddle to work as a writing desk. A fairly small desk, but large enough to hold a tome and a stack of papers. The papers had to be weighed down with a fairly big stone to keep from flying off. Apparently, all the running around in the past while was slowing down Irulon’s studies. Although she wanted to see what magic Alyssa was going to conjure over Owlcroft, she also wanted to get some work done.
Brakkt, Fela, and Trik of the plague containment team made up the last of the party. It was, apparently, not far off from a quarterly inspection of the Owlcroft defenses. With Alyssa and Irulon headed out there anyway, they had come a few weeks early.
As it turned out, Illuna was right on the way to Owlcroft.
Hence the slightly crowded caravan.
“I, for one, am quite happy with the situation,” Oz said with a wide grin. “The chance we were going to be attacked was pretty low to begin with, considering the situation as a whole. We are quite intimidating,” he said with a wave toward himself, Lumen, and Catal, “and should have easily scared off most ruffians. But with some extra free support? Who in their right mind would attack the Black Prince, a squad of draken, two Rank Six arcanists, and a hellhound? Really, I’m more worried for your daddy back in Lyria.”
“You think someone will attack Father?” Raugis said, obvious worry in her voice.
Oz’s smile froze stiff for just a moment. “N-No. Of course not. He has his guards and knows how to take care of himself. But, as safe as he surely is, we are that much safer.”
Alyssa wasn’t so sure. She had a bad habit of attracting unwanted attention. Not only was it unwanted, but it also tended toward larger, more dangerous threats. Like rogue angels or true demons. Then again, the trip to Teneville had turned out rather well, all things considered. Maybe nothing would happen.
She didn’t voice her concerns. Unlike Oz, she didn’t want to jinx it.
“So convincing,” Lumen muttered. Alyssa heard clearly, but Raugis didn’t react. “Why don’t you tell her about that time in Briarbank? You know, when you–”
“Briarbank, huh?” Oz said, just a bit too loud. “I can’t remember anything of interest that happened in Briarbank. Quite the boring job, as a matter of fact.”
“Really?” Lumen’s emerald green eyes glinted in the light as she turned a narrowed gaze in his direction. “Because I’m pretty sure I remember you—”
“Nonsense! You must be getting confused with Briar Bones, the brigand scourge of Flint. Fifteen men went to fight that day. Only four of us returned. And we never found Bones’ stash of treasure. They say the hoards of loot old Bones stole are still out there. And that there exists a map! But who has it? No one knows. Could be one of Bones’ old comrades who managed to flee their hideout before we arrived. Could be it is buried, lost forever. Or…” Oz paused, dramatically looking around the slow-moving caravan. “Could it be that one of those sent to fight him managed to get their hands on the map? They might be waiting for just the right moment to go claim the treasure!”
“Shame you don’t have it,” Lumen said with a smile. “You might actually be able to woo wealthy ladies if they knew you weren’t after their money.”
Oz sputtered a bit. At the same time, Raugis put a hand in front of her mouth and giggled. It was a polite, dainty giggle. But there was something in her eyes that Alyssa just didn’t like. As if she were acting the whole thing out. Like she had a mask on made from her own skin.
Or… that could just be paranoia talking.
Nothing was going to happen. As grandiose as his stories were, he was correct in that nobody in their right mind would attack their group. From inside or from out.
Though, Alyssa had encountered plenty of people who were not in their right mind.
That said, she didn’t actually think that Raugis was going to turn out to be an enemy, no matter how fake her giggling actually was. If anything, her giggling was fake because she had heard plenty of boasting from men trying to get into her good graces. Alyssa knew that she would have been sick of it all. Especially if they were just after status or, as Lumen had suggested, wealth.
Of course, Alyssa doubted that Oz was actually trying to impress Raugis that much. On the road like this, there actually wasn’t all that much to do. It wasn’t like modern car trips where everyone had a phone, headphones, and movies to watch or music to listen to. Unless they wanted to sit around and travel in perfect silence, they passed the time with stories and song. Maybe they would be interested in playing I Spy. Though there really wasn’t much around at the moment aside from trees, the distant mountains, and empty land.
Shaking her head, Alyssa looked off into the distance. It would be two weeks before they reached Illuna. Assuming they kept up good time. She had her phone. Irulon had her books. But everyone else? And that wouldn’t even be the end of the journey for half the group. From Illuna, Owlcroft was another week out—by horse, if they ditched the horses, the draken might be able to make much better time. Being one of the closest towns to the demonic pit, Illuna apparently had some good defenses. Well trained soldiers and arcanists to fend off any approaching demons. With them being in such a position, it was no wonder that they supported the Pharaoh’s acceptance of Fela. They probably wanted a hellhound of their own.
Alyssa honestly didn’t know where hellhounds naturally lived. She knew that Fela’s whole community had been wiped out, but not the exact location of where that community had been. It was a bit odd to think about it. Fela had to have come from somewhere north of the Fortress of Pandora. Maybe even from within the Juno Federation. The draken lived somewhere north of Pandora as well. Elves lived somewhere in the mountains on the southern coast. Ants lived in the desert. Bees could probably be found somewhere around.
With all the monsters north of Pandora, she had to wonder just what the fortress was protecting. Were they monsters even more terrifying than shadow assassins and gaunts? Was it just an attempt to keep more monsters from coming up from the south? Based on the map she snapped a picture of, there was quite the coast on either side of the fortress. Could monsters not build a boat and attack from the opposite side? Elves surely could build at the very least, were there no elvish communities south of the fortress?
Alyssa had been in this world for a few months now. She had learned a lot. At the same time, it sometimes felt like she knew so little.
Irulon was reading. Not really wanting to disturb her, Alyssa directed Izsha to drop back and fall in line next to Brakkt. For this journey, he had a lighter version of his armor on. A pack horse held his normal gear. For whatever reason, he had elected against bringing more draken. A quartet of horses carried gear, food, and other supplies for the Owlcroft group. Oz’s group had his own pack mules. Raugis’ carriage had a supply of food for her and her two servants.
“How far is Pandora from Illuna?”
“At our current pace? We could make it there in five months.”
Alyssa winced. Five months? That was longer than she had even been in this world.
“Pushing the draken and leaving horses behind might drop that time down to three, but I’d rather not strain them so much for such a long period of time. In addition, the closer we get, the more hostile people will be to the topic of monsters.”
“No. No. I wasn’t suggesting we go there or anything.” Not now, anyway. If the Astral Authority got suitably distracted with Tenebrael’s plan, she would definitely try to create a portal there. Five months was an insane amount of time to spend doing nothing but traveling on the roads. Sure, there would probably be villages and maybe even the occasional city that could offer distraction along the way, but… “Irulon,” Alyssa called out a little louder. She hadn’t wanted to distract the princess, but… “Did you say something about a Time spell that creates some kind of tunnel of warped time to speed up travel?”
Putting a finger between the pages of her book, she looked back. “I may have mentioned something along those lines.”
“Wouldn’t something like that help us get to Illuna faster?” The Pharaoh had not let Alyssa take a look at his spells. Aside from the Accelero card. Otherwise, she would definitely have tried to do so.
“I believe I also mentioned that such tunnels have been known to collapse upon the tunnel’s occupants in a fairly gruesome manner. While I have no doubt that your magical prowess would be capable of maintaining the spell, I also have no desire to help you test your very first one. My father practiced for years without ever actually entering the tunnel before he felt confident enough to use it to traverse even relatively short distances. You might be able to keep one stable faster, but… probably not in an afternoon.”
“You don’t happen to have one, or be able to draw one, would you?”
“The latter. Not while traveling, however. As smooth as Musca makes the ride, it isn’t smooth enough for delicate drawing. Perhaps when we rest for the night.” With a shrug of her shoulders, Irulon looked back down to the place she had held in her book.
“Why did you ask?” Brakkt said, violet eyes looking over to Alyssa. “About Pandora, I mean. Not the Time spell.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard about it, but started thinking that I would like to see it for myself. To help me better understand the exact situation between humans and monsters in this world.” And perhaps see if anything could be done about it. If the humans and monsters could be made to see eye to eye on at least some matters, the world would probably be in a much better place for dealing with Jason’s grand plan to modernize everything. And it would let the humans around here focus on the Juno Federation. She wasn’t sure that opening a dialog with them would work given her interactions with Bercilak and Morgan, but, at the very least, Lyria would be able to spare more soldiers for a proper defensive army.
“It is not the kind of place any should see if possible to avoid,” Brakkt said with a small shake of his head. “In addition, bringing the draken, Fela, or even Kasita would likely end poorly. On the few occasions when I’ve had to visit, I’ve always taken horses.”
A featherlight weight settled in against Alyssa’s back. Kasita had finally popped out of wherever she had been hiding.
“I’ve never been, myself. But I’ve heard stories. Hearing about how Pandora guards always keep monster detection spells active is the main reason I used to be so paranoid about the guards of Lyria,” Kasita said. Her voice started solemn, but gained a note of humor with every word. “Ufu~ I now know just how lazy the city guard is. Unless something is going on, I could sit right in the middle of the central garrison and nobody would notice.”
“Indeed,” Brakkt said, tight smile on his face. “I’ll have to talk with them about raising their vigilance.”
Even though she couldn’t see Kasita with the mimic up against her back, Alyssa could practically feel the pout. After a moment, a finger started poking into Alyssa’s cheek. “Hey, we’re not really going there, are we?”
“Not now, at least. But if or when I go, you can stay with Tzheitza. I’m sure she won’t mind. I think you’ve grown on her.”
“Hmph. She just likes not having to interact with customers. She would tolerate a gaunt if it could sell potions well enough.”
“That sounds accurate. Though, to be honest, I’m really quite surprised with how far Tzheitza has come. When you very first started hanging around the potion shop, she tried to stab you several times. That was back before you started appearing like you are now,” Alyssa said, catching a glimpse of Kasita’s sisterly form out of the corner of her eye. “So it was probably a bit more obvious that you were inhuman then.”
“All the men at the Waterhole seemed to appreciate my appearance. And more than a few female customers as well.”
“They were probably just too horny to notice how disproportionate your… proportions were.”
“I didn’t say that wasn’t true. I just said they appreciated it.” Kasita nestled her chin right on Alyssa’s shoulder. “Have I mentioned how glad I am to not be there anymore? To not have to worry about who might disappear next or what unfortunate would be arriving on the next slave caravan?”
“Just think. The entirety of Waters Street is shut down.”
“There are probably other monsters forced to work in brothels.”
“Perhaps. But that is something that is very likely to always be the case. We can only deal with what we can see. Everything else, we just have to hope that someone out there will end up helping out, doing what we did to Waters Street.”
Even with Tenebrael’s power, Alyssa didn’t feel like she would be able to solve every problem on the planet. In fact, so far, she hadn’t been able to do anything that would harm another mortal. Just the Astral Authority. Perhaps that was the actual limitation explaining why she would sometimes fail to cast anything. Like a portal to Tenebrael. If Tenebrael was hiding on the moon, opening a portal would probably create a sudden vacuum, directly harming anyone nearby.
Alyssa glanced up. The moon was its usual plain grey save for a tiny pockmark of black just off-center.
Shaking her head, she glanced back down. Even if she could, she wasn’t about to try it. Not until Jason and Guillem got started on space suits. Besides the possibility of venting the atmosphere, she couldn’t use Tenebrael’s power until Owlcroft for fear of attracting the Astral Authority.
“Looks like someone is on the road to Lyria,” Lisa said, slowing just enough to get close enough without having to shout. “Just thought you should have a heads up.”
Alyssa took a moment to realize what her mother was talking about. It hit her just as Brakkt started talking.
“We carry the royal banner,” he said, waving to the pack horse with a black and gold tapestry propped up on a small stand. “Any guards we meet shouldn’t attack. If they do… leave it to me,” he said after a glance from Fela to Irulon and Alyssa. “Hopefully the draken won’t startle them too much.”
“Will we be staying in towns during the nights?” Alyssa asked.
“House Illuna and the escorts will likely be staying in towns, but I imagine we should break away a short distance beforehand. Bringing the draken and Fela into the villages will only trouble them.”
Alyssa frowned, looking toward her mother. With her on a horse, she would join with the guild. She was a grown woman, capable of taking care of herself. And she would have Oz, Lumen, and Catal watching out for her. Trik too, in all likelihood. Still, Alyssa couldn’t help but feel a little nervous at the thought of leaving her mother alone.
She really should have asked Tenebrael for one more phone during her brief visit. Jason and Chris both had theirs back in their possessions.
“Everything will be fine,” Irulon said without looking up from her books. “The draken and Fela will be able to smell trouble from afar. I’ll be keeping an eye out as well.”
Right. Not only did her mother have allies, but Alyssa had her own.
Princess Irulon was right.
Everything would be just fine.