Vacant Throne — 024.011

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City Matters

Donations


Alyssa’s breath caught in her throat. She clenched her fists around Tenebrael’s shoulders, hoping she wasn’t getting in the way of the wings. The ground disappeared from under her feet and Alyssa pinched her eyes shut. Wind dragged at her hair, pulling it back. Her shirt, a regular cotton tee, whipped about in the sudden gust.

It was all Alyssa could do to hold on for dear life. The logical part of her mind said that Tenebrael couldn’t hurt her. Even if she could, she probably wouldn’t. But the more primal fear in her mind welled up, screaming out that humans were not meant to be so high.

Peeking an eye open just made Alyssa want to punch the angel. Not while they were flying, of course. But when they landed? “You flew past the potion shop you stupid angel!” The wind tore her words away, but Tenebrael still heard them loud and clear.

“Sorry,” Tenebrael said, voice unaffected by the wind in the slightest, “bit distracted!”

Hearing her admit that just about made Alyssa vomit. “Don’t be distracted while carrying me!”

“Mhmm.”

“Mhmm? Mhmm! We’re on the wrong side of the palace! What could you possibly be distracted with?”

“Oh, nothing you need to worry your little mortal head over.” As she spoke, Tenebrael banked sharply, turning to sweep wide around the palace.

Alyssa sucked in a breath and promptly slammed her eyes shut. She could feel their sharp descent. That was beyond enough. She didn’t need to see it too. If she did throw up all over Tenebrael, it would serve the stupid angel right. Of course, it probably wouldn’t do anything besides slide off and leave Tenebrael looking as pristine as ever.

The wind, thankfully, died down. Her hair still felt like it was pushed sideways, but if it was, it wasn’t the wind holding it up. It was hard to tell if they were moving or not, though. Her arms, tight with tension around Tenebrael, still managed to tremble. That small sensation made her feel like she was still moving. Like getting off a roller coaster and still feeling the vibrations up her legs.

“You can let go now.”

Blinking her eyes open, Alyssa found herself in front of Tzheitza’s shop. On ground level. Tenebrael still held her aloft, but that was mostly because of how Alyssa had a hold of her. Slowly, carefully, Alyssa put her feet to the ground, making sure it was really there before actually putting her weight on the ground.

“What the hell did you do that for?”

“Honestly? It was probably faster this way.”

“Yeah, but… at least warn me next time,” Alyssa said, leaning against the door frame. She took a moment to catch her breath. There was a reason she had never tried any flying magic on herself. Flying off uncontrollably into the sun was just one of many possible problems she could have. Tenebrael’s quick tour certainly hadn’t helped to encourage her. The fact that she had seen literally zero other people flying about gave her some reassurance that people just weren’t meant to fly like that.

Even though her heart still raced, Alyssa turned away to peer into the shop. The backroom door was open and light was coming out. Tzheitza must have returned. The place wasn’t on fire. Even the jars weren’t disturbed. It looked like Tzheitza missed out on any danger imparted by an angel in the city.

Lucky her, Alyssa thought with a mild glare at the angel… who was phasing through the door. Alyssa followed after her. The staff needed checking. And Tzheitza too, even if it looked like nothing had gone wrong.

Both Alyssa and Tenebrael went right into the back room. Tzheitza was in the same spot she tended to be in as of late. Once again, she was dressed up in the protective clothing and playing with bottles of red liquid that Alyssa definitely wanted far away from her. Tzheitza didn’t even look up from the black droplet falling into the larger flask.

“Is that… mine?”

Tenebrael stopped just behind Tzheitza. Her eyes were locked on the potion vials as well, staring even more intently than Tzheitza was.

“Yeah,” Alyssa said slowly before trying to shift the word into the start of a question for Tzheitza. “Did anything strange happen since you got back?”

Tzheitza did not respond right away. She put a cap on the flask of red and started gently swirling it around. The liquid inside darkened, first turning a deeper red before becoming so dark that it might as well have been tar. Alyssa wouldn’t say that it sucked in light. Not like that potion she had pulled out upon seeing the gaunt. It did get pretty close.

Apparently finding something wrong with it, Tzheitza scowled and placed it up on the shelf with all the other flasks. She penned a few words in a small notebook on the workbench. Only when she finished did she finally turn to face Alyssa.

“Strange?” she asked. “How strange? Strange like comin’ home and finding a haberin hound sleeping at my fire pit?”

“H-Hound?” Alyssa whipped her head over to the fireplace. How did I miss that! A ball of black fur sat curled up between the two chairs that she and Tzheitza often sat in. Two empty taco wrappers, the last of Alyssa’s modern food, were scrunched up next to her. The food didn’t matter to her so much. Not with Tenebrael hovering just to the side. The angel was staring at the flasks on the shelf, but that didn’t concern Alyssa either. “Why is Fela here?”

Tzheitza just raised her scarred eyebrow.

Alyssa flushed, feeling silly for even asking. Of course Fela had followed her scent. Just like she had done to find the cave. And she got into the room and into the food. What a menace. “You’re right,” Alyssa said, shaking her head. “But hold that thought. I need to check on something really quick.”

Crossing the room in only a few large steps, Alyssa opened her already ajar door. She didn’t need to go in any further. The staff was right where she had left it, leaning against the wall behind the bed.

So Adrael hadn’t come for it. And she hadn’t come to attack Alyssa. Unless she was out attacking Irulon at the moment, what had she even come for? Why leave the feather?

Alyssa sighed as she turned back to the room. She wanted to ask Tenebrael, but couldn’t do so easily while Tzheitza was watching. Or… Maybe she could.

The angel had her back turned to Alyssa, still focusing on the flasks on the shelf. She wasn’t touching them, but she did have a hand out toward one. Glowing Enochian script floated around her hand. It looked familiar. The same sort of thing that she had done when Alyssa had first used Spectral Chains to stop her and Iosefael’s fighting.

Alyssa didn’t even ask. She walked up and buried her hands in Tenebrael’s wings. For a moment, she almost forgot what she had been doing and just indulged in the sensations. The feathers were so soft. Like rubbing the belly fur on a particularly poofy cat. Or a bird, she supposed. But she didn’t forget completely. With a firm tug, several of the feathers came loose.

Tenebrael made a particularly undignified squeak, whipping around with an unhappy glare already on her face.

“What was that for?”

Not bothering to respond, she held out the feathers, maybe another dozen of them, to Tzheitza.

She didn’t take them right away, staring between them and Tenebrael. Or rather, she stared through Tenebrael. Her eyes didn’t manage to focus on anything. “It’s here, isn’t it?” she said, barely above a whisper. “Yer monster.”

“Yeah. She is. And she has graciously consented to giving you another sampling of her feathers.”

“I what?”

Tzheitza eyed the empty spot again, curling her lip. “Tell it thanks, I guess.”

“She can hear you.”

“How many of them are yeh gonna bring around anyhow?” Tzheitza grumbled, removing her gloves before taking the feathers. She treated them far more carefully than Alyssa had. Her touch was tender, like the feathers were made from the most fragile glass. One by one, she laid them out on her workbench, inspecting each for a moment before moving on to the next. As she worked, she talked. “At least this one is all nosee and the mimic can disappear. If some hubbard comes and spots that hound, I am gonna be the one meeting with the captain. And it won’t be as nice as yer meeting.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that.” Turning to Tenebrael, Alyssa put a hand to her hip. “Can’t you do something?”

“I told yeh back in the field—” Tzheitza started.

“Not you. Her,” Alyssa said, pointing to what Tzheitza would see as empty space.

Tenebrael blinked twice. She didn’t answer right away, looking astonished. After another set of blinks, she pointed back to Alyssa. “You stole my feathers.”

“It’s for a good cause, or so I’m told.”

“You didn’t even keep them for yourself. You gave them to some random mortal.”

Is it just me or does she sound hurt about that. “Tzheitza isn’t random. She’s working on a cure for demon plague.”

“Demon plague? What…” Her eyes widened as she looked back to the flasks. “Oh. That demon plague. He isn’t going to be happy about this.”

Alyssa just shook her head. “Well he should have thought of that before he started all this nonsense. I care about helping humans.” Glancing behind Tenebrael to Fela, she quickly amended her statement. “I care about helping mortals. If your elder sibling is going to run around committing biological warfare, it’s obvious people are going to fight against it. Whatever happened to good old temptations? Shouldn’t he be offering apples, not diseases?”

“What do you think the plague is? It is one gigantic temptation. All the power a human could ever wish for if they just dismiss me and take him into their hearts. The only reason why this world isn’t overrun by demons is because of how prolific my name is.”

That got a scoff from Alyssa. “We didn’t have the plague back home. I don’t think anyway. I’m sure I would have noticed people turning into literal demons. So I’m betting that the fact this plague exists at all is somehow your fault.”

Tzheitza stopped her inspection of the feathers, looking over her shoulder with narrowed eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just baseless conjecture,” Alyssa said with a sigh. She didn’t want Tzheitza to stop working on her potions just because she thought Tenebrael was a demon. That would be extremely counter productive. “Her brother… uh… step-brother is… the leader of the Underworld?” Alyssa sounded far more uncertain than she would have liked. And it wasn’t just because she was trying to hide Tenebrael’s name. She didn’t know how the Underworld worked. She didn’t even know how angels and demons worked. She hadn’t even seen the stupid plague aside from minor evidence that such a thing existed. Tenebrael had sent over that dossier on angels and Alyssa was still trying to filter out the useful information. Said information had not included anything on demons.

So she ended with a weak, “She’s trying to stop him from causing more harm.”

Something she said must have worked because Tzheitza’s eyes softened. She simply nodded her head and went back to the feathers. It was strange… or was it? Tzheitza had tried to stab Kasita several times when she first showed up. But now she apparently left an entirely vulnerable Fela to enjoy the crackling fire in her sleep. Maybe she was getting used to monsters a bit. That would be nice.

“Your conjecture might not be wholly baseless,” Tenebrael said, spoiling Alyssa’s good mood. “I may have gone to brother dearest in the earlier days when I was first attempting to break away from the book’s predictions.” She shifted back and forth, looking uncharacteristically nervous. “It might be partially thanks to him that monsters continue to exist when they all should have been wiped out in the First City’s downfall. He might have requested one tiny favor of me.”

“I thought you said never to make a deal with… A favor? Wait,” Alyssa said as she folded her arms over her chest. “Don’t tell me. I can guess. Her. Who is Her?” Alyssa glanced between both Tenebrael and Tzheitza. Tzheitza had been the one to initially mention a creature by the name of Her, but Tenebrael would probably know far better.

“A monster lord,” Tzheitza said.

At the same time, Tenebrael said something different. “A representative. In his words. It was the favor my brother wanted. Between you and me, I think he is representing himself.”

“You don’t know?” That seemed like something Alyssa would find out as soon as possible.

“I keep far away unless I absolutely cannot help it. And I’ve never been unable to help it.”

Alyssa put a hand to her brow and shook her head. How… irresponsible. But that was just Tenebrael’s natural state of being, she supposed. Being responsible would probably mean following the plan and the will of the books. If Tenebrael did that, Alyssa would surely have died already. “Could you go check on Irulon?” Alyssa eventually asked. “She hasn’t messaged me back after I warned her that Adrael might be around.”

“You know, I have people praying to me hourly who make less requests than you do.”

Answering prayers breeds dependency, Alyssa thought with a grimace. She didn’t get a chance to respond. Tenebrael exploded into feathers, hopefully off to check on Irulon. Spotting a few of the feathers near her, Alyssa plucked them out of the air and added them to Tzheitza’s small pile.

“She hopes they help,” Alyssa lied without remorse as Tzheitza started inspecting the new additions.

“These’ll tide me over for a while. Helpful these may be, I’d wish yeh’d stop bringing monsters into my shop.”

“Yeah…” Fela was going to be a problem for Tzheitza. Especially if Decorous decided to send guards over to search her potion laboratory for Alyssa. “I wonder if I could get her to the palace. Let Irulon keep her there for a while. And I bet if Fela were living in the palace, it wouldn’t be much trouble to get more… uh… fire tear potion things.”

“Guards will attack yeh on sight.”

“I figured. But if I can get Irulon to escort me, maybe it won’t be so bad?”

Tzheitza paused her feather inspection to look over at Alyssa. “Yeh were ridin’ around the Black Prince’s draken, hmm? Brining them here and scaring off all my customers.”

“Ah. Sorry. Is that why we haven’t had many customers as of late?”

“The Black Prince has a history with monsters. Get him to take yer pet to the palace. Less chance of bonzer bodinkum.”

For a while there, Alyssa thought Tzheitza was fine with speaking plain English. Now she just had to shake her head and ask, “Less chance of what?”

Tzheitza didn’t respond immediately. At least not with words. She did grunt, frowning at one of the feathers before setting it aside. Alyssa leaned in a little closer but couldn’t spot anything that might set it apart from the others. It was black and feathery. Just like the rest.

“There are rumors that the Princess isn’t who she says she is. Better to get the Black Prince to escort yer pet than risk accidental aeration.”

“That… would be Kasita’s fault. Partially. The other part is probably me. Though Irulon’s clones helped out.” Alyssa well knew that people like Decorous would probably be wary of Irulon for the time being. But Tzheitza had heard rumors too? “How did you hear that rumor? Does the entire city know? Or did you ask some contacts of yours in the city guard?”

“Guilden know. Wakamas ‘see. Prolly ev’ne with the way those jammerjaws.”

Is it me, or is she getting worse. Maybe she was just that into the feathers that she couldn’t spare the brain power for proper speech. She set a second one to the side. Again, Alyssa couldn’t spot a difference between it and the others. Maybe it was slightly longer? That could easily be a trick of the light.

Shaking her head, Alyssa left Tzheitza to her work. If she couldn’t understand her, there wasn’t much point in carrying on a conversation. She could always ask later, after Tzheitza had some time to calm down. Still, she was right. The gate guards had definitely not been all that friendly toward Irulon when she and Irulon approached them the other night. They hadn’t outright attacked, not even after Irulon threatened them, but they might decide to do so easily enough if they saw her walking around with a hellhound.

Dropping into what had become her seat by the fire pit, Alyssa frowned down at Fela. The hellhound was splayed out without a care in the world, absolutely unconcerned with being in the middle of a human city, in the middle of a human potion shop. She must have slipped by the guards on the wall during all the confusion. Had she found the Taker? Or Octavia? Or that other little girl…

For a moment, Alyssa considered taking off her boots and using Fela as a footrest. Despite being able to block blades, Fela’s fur was soft. But… she had work to do.

“Message. Brakkt. Hello, it’s Alyssa. I’m at Tzheitza’s potion shop and we have a bit of a furry problem. Nothing dangerous… to us, at least. But I was wondering if you might help escort a hellhound to the palace. I’m sure Irulon would care for her after that. I also wanted to ask you a few things about your draken, but I honestly don’t know how long Messages can be. For all I know, this is all being cut off. So I’d prefer to talk in person, if possible. If you aren’t too busy, that is.”

Alyssa stopped, not quite sure what else to say. She didn’t know Brakkt all that well. If Message hadn’t been cutting off her words, it probably would have stopped when she stopped. Even if she thought up another question to ask or something to tell him, she would have to use another spell card. She had drawn up a lot of Message cards as it was a very useful spell, so she could always send a second one.

A light pressure in the back of her mind told her that she had a response. Or maybe it was Irulon? Either way, relaxing slightly let it through.

~Understood,~ she heard Brakkt’s voice say in the back of her mind. ~Will it become a problem if I wait for the morning after tomorrow? I will confer with my sister during the day. She is asleep at the moment and I do not wish to make an attempt at waking her. After, I have some business to take care of and won’t be free until after the following day.~

“Message. Brakkt. I don’t think it will be a problem if you wait a day. And I completely understand about not wanting to wake Irulon.” The girl was a nightmare to rouse. And, if she was truly asleep, that might explain her lack of response to Alyssa’s earlier Message. As long as she was safe, it was fine, but it did make Alyssa wonder if there wasn’t some long range Alarm spell that might be able to wake someone like Irulon if there was an emergency.

A few moments passed without response. Since he had clearly gotten her first Message, she assumed that he got her second and simply didn’t wish to waste his own spell cards with what would probably be a one-word acknowledgment.

Boots still on, Alyssa started nudging Fela. In complete contrast to Irulon, the hound’s eyes snapped open almost instantly. Fire poured from the corners of her red eyes as they darted around. Even through the thick soles of her boots, she could feel Fela’s muscles tense up. This whole world was really putting Alyssa’s exercise routines to shame.

Fela calmed down after a moment of observing. She rolled over on her stomach in order to face Alyssa, crushing some taco wrappers, but didn’t bother to actually get up.

“So you decided to come here, huh?”

“I was still hungry.”

“And now what is your plan? The guards are on full alert, watching the walls. Slipping by is going to be tough.”

“Then—” she interrupted herself with a long yawn. “Then I’ll stay here,” she said, stretching out.

Alyssa crossed her arms. Despite being called a hound, she reminded Alyssa more of a cat than a dog. “Uh huh. Maybe for a day, but you’re going to cause too much trouble for Tzheitza if you stay here. How about the palace? I bet they have lots of good food there. And Irulon…” Might want you as a pet? “Would be happy to see you again.”

“Where are the draken you were riding?”

“At the palace.”

Fela hummed. Or purred? Growled? It was hard to tell. It was a pleased noise, so not an angry growl. “Maybe I will go there.”

“Irulon’s brother will probably come here to escort you so that the guards don’t attack. Stay here for a day or two, please. And don’t get yourself seen by any humans who aren’t me or Tzheitza.”

The flames at the corners of Fela’s eyes were small. Larger than a candle’s flame, but nothing like the foot-long trails of orange that they normally were. Was she about to fall asleep again?

Before she could, Alyssa asked, “Did you find whoever threw the knife?”

Her fire grew a bit, not quite to its usual length, but enough to be noticeable. “I smelled them and chased, but then the smell just disappeared. I was going to try to follow the other end of their smell, but you stopped me with your spell in my head. I decided to come here instead.”

Recall? Alyssa thought. It was the only real teleportation spell that she knew of. There could be others, or it could have been something else entirely. Disguise Scent? That could be a spell for all she knew. But the only things that she knew existed that would make a smell disappear were teleportation spells.

“Would you remember the smell if you smelled it again, even after a long while?”

“Of course,” she said, mildly affronted that Alyssa had doubted her abilities.

“I might ask you to help me with that.” Alyssa didn’t want to seek out trouble, but if assassins were seeking her out, it stood to reason that a proactive approach was for the best.

In other words, she was going to tear out their souls with Spectral Axe and feed them to a dark angel. And she wasn’t going to lose sleep over it.

“Speak of the devil,” she mumbled as black feathers started popping into existence around the room.

“Speak of the angel!” Tenebrael corrected. She was seated in her narrow-backed throne. Both Tenebrael and the throne had materialized between the two far more regular chairs next to the fireplace. “I found Irulon. She was sleeping. No sign of an angel and no word of her upcoming demise in the book, so you can relax for a while.”

“Good.” Brakkt had already mentioned that to her, but she was going to be thankful that Tenebrael would help her out with little things like that.

“So. You ready to go?”

“Go? To Earth?”

“It is a bit early for our little… event. But I did promise lessons. An angel cannot lie.”

Deciding not to comment on impossibilities that may or may not be possible in reality, Alyssa jumped to her feet. Fela’s candle-sized flames flared with the sudden movement. Alyssa didn’t care. The hellhound could, and probably would, sleep whenever she wanted.

Lessons! The only thing holding Alyssa back from instantly agreeing was the fact that Kasita still wasn’t here. She had wanted to go to Earth again. But… Alyssa didn’t know how long that would be. And Kasita did not have any Message cards to the best of Alyssa’s knowledge. “Give me… five minutes,” Alyssa said. She was going to send a quick Message to Kasita. And if the mimic didn’t appear before then… Well, she didn’t want to keep Tenebrael waiting.


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Vacant Throne — 024.010

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City Matters

Dinner and a Feather


“Are you feeling quite alright? You’re looking a little green in the face.”

Alyssa shuddered. A fairly juicy slab of steak that had been expertly grilled sat in front of her. It wasn’t alone, having come with a side of potatoes and bread. Of all the food that Alyssa had seen in this world, it was by far the best looking. It might not have a slathering of steak sauce or an unhealthy dollop of butter and salt, but it should have looked delectable.

It didn’t. Staring at it, she felt queasy. Alyssa was not a vegetarian. She didn’t think she was about to become one either. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the reasonings behind the movement. Cows, chickens, and other livestock, as long as they were treated humanely, were just not that big a concern of hers. Even now, that hadn’t changed.

What made her queasy was the memory of the gaunt.

The guards had brought it a cow.

It had eaten a cow.

Watching it eat a person had been terrible, but she had been hopped up on adrenaline and had a thousand other things to worry about at the time. Watching it eat the cow had been… different. A cow was far larger than a person. Remembering how the animal had squeezed in on itself to fit through the small holes that covered the gaunt’s face… just…

Alyssa pressed a hand over her mouth and tried to think of other things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax. Of cabbages and kings.

“Alyssa?”

“And why the sea is boiling hot— And whether pigs have wings.”

“I’m sorry? The sea is boiling hot? I’m afraid I do not understand.”

Humming to herself, Alyssa picked up her fork and knife. She considered shoving the plate away, but feared it would offend Decorous. Instead, she pictured a psychedelic wonderland to distract herself. “Sorry,” she said after eating the first bite. The steak was good. Couldn’t really go wrong with a nice juicy barbecued slab of meat. “I’m fine.”

“If you’re sure,” he said, gently piercing a dainty chunk of meat. “Return to the part where you freed the monsters, if you would.”

“There isn’t much more to it. We freed them, pointed them at the enemy, and they took care of the rest, more or less. Irulon and I hardly had to lift a finger after that.”

“I see. That would explain the sharp decline in the quality of the Princess’ report from that point on.”

It certainly had nothing to do with things getting angelic, Alyssa hummed to herself as she took a small sip of the grape wine. It was… better than most of the ale she had tried, but it wasn’t really her thing. Even if it was delicious, she couldn’t afford to get drunk and spout who knew what in front of Decorous.

“About the spell Princess Irulon used to distract the occupants.”

Case in point. It was a bit of surprise to find out that Irulon was claiming credit for the damage Annihilator had caused. Someone else might be upset by that. Not Alyssa. She was perfectly happy with attention being taken off her. Slipping up and saying that Irulon hadn’t cast the spell would ruin all of Irulon’s efforts. So she simply asked, “What about it?”

“The name of the spell is conspicuously missing. In addition, she claims she used it to destroy the majority of a hillside and several buildings. An exaggeration, surely. My scouts will confirm in time, but I would not refuse an earlier clarification.”

“I hate to disappoint you, but if Irulon hasn’t mentioned the name of the spell, I shouldn’t either.”

“But you know it?”

“I… yeah, I guess.”

Decorous clasped his hands together, humming. He had hardly touched his meal either, though it probably wasn’t out of horrifying memories in his case. “And the destruction.”

“I mean, I haven’t read her report, but destroying a hillside sounds accurate.”

“Indeed? Curious.”

Alyssa didn’t bother asking just what he found curious. She had been extremely vague in describing the events. The only things she said were things that she was sure he already knew, generally because he would ask about them in specific, such as monsters being freed or the size of the Annihilator spell. It was… rough. Tzheitza wasn’t around, she had gone back to the potion shop, so she had no one to help distract him. The room was empty.

Well, empty of people.

They were seated in Oxart’s office. Her old office? It looked nothing like Alyssa remembered. Oxart kept everything highly utilitarian. Her desk had been fancy, but covered in paperwork. The two chairs she had on the guest side of the desk had been simple wood and nothing more. No cushioning, no red velvet. The walls had been adorned with maps and the large scheduling of guards at various posts around the northern area.

The current desk was the same, but all the paperwork had vanished. It had been given a polish, the wood practically gleamed in the bright lights set about the room. A marble bust sat on one corner. No one Alyssa recognized. She was a little relieved to see that it wasn’t Decorous, that would have been just a little too gaudy.

Speaking of gaudy, Alyssa turned her head to the side. The maps were gone from the walls, replaced with long red tapestries emblazoned with a white symbol. Three swords pointing upward and five fanned out in an arc beneath, pointed down. The same iconography covered the backs of the chairs, which were far fancier than anything Oxart had kept.

Even the silverware fork, which was probably real silver, felt like it would put Alyssa into debt just because she had touched it.

“Are you through with your questions, Captain Decorous?” Alyssa said, drinking a drop of wine. “I’m sure Tzheitza is—” Alyssa’s breath caught in her throat.

A single feather was sitting on the table between her and Decorous.

A white feather.

Eyes wide, Alyssa lurched to her feet, whipping her head around fast enough that her neck cracked. Adrael had come back for her? The feather certainly would have indicated as much, but it was the only feather. The rest of the room was perfectly normal. Nothing had been molting inside. There were no angels, Adrael or otherwise, as far as Alyssa could see. Just her, a bewildered Decorous, and two hardly touched meals.

“Is something wrong?” Decorous asked. He had stood up as well, clearly on alert, though he hadn’t moved for his sword or his spell tome so far. His gaze followed hers as she kept looking around the room, but not nearly to the same extent. Out of the corner of her eyes, she kept noticing him look to her. If anything, he was more suspicious of Alyssa than the idea that something else might be in the room.

“I… I think we were being watched.”

“Watched?” His back stiffened. Whatever calm demeanor he had put on for her vanished in an instant as he narrowed his eyes and looked around the room. “Who? How do you know?”

Alyssa bit her lip, turning slowly, still waiting for Adrael to pop up and skewer her with a shield. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. What if Adrael was right behind her, slowly floating around the room to keep just out of sight? That would be… ridiculous. She didn’t have a reason to hide. Especially not after dropping a feather right on the table.

The feather was still there. Normally, angel feathers disappeared a few seconds after hitting something that wasn’t Alyssa. Had it brushed against her? That would explain why it was still here. Or—and she would feel awfully silly if this were the case—the feather could be a normal feather. There was nothing nearby that might have produced the feather. No pillows or the like. Maybe a chicken had been plucked in the kitchen and its feather wound up stuck to the plate.

No. The feather was perfect; it was smooth, unbroken, and free of stains or grime. There was no doubt in Alyssa’s mind. It was a feather of an angel.

Putting her finger on the wood of the table, careful to avoid touching any part of the feather, Alyssa looked up to Decorous. “Do you see anything here?” A test. If she had touched it, he would be able to see it.

Decorous turned his sharp eyes to the table and stared. And stared. And stared. His gaze roamed left and right, circling around Alyssa’s finger.

Test failed, Alyssa thought. He didn’t even need to speak. If he could see the feather, he would have said something by now.

“I see nothing,” he said after a moment, confirming Alyssa’s thoughts. “I’ll fetch someone capable of performing Unseen Sight.” He pulled out a spell card. Message, probably.

“No need. Wouldn’t help anyway,” Alyssa said before he could open his mouth. Sliding her finger forward, she nudged the white feather, barely disturbing it.

Decorous’ eyes immediately focused in on the feather. He definitely could see it now, but he didn’t look concerned. Only confused. “A feather? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Did Irulon’s report mention angels?”

“The… new monster species that hides from human perception?” His face remained steady, but a slight note of disbelief entered his tone. “She claimed they possessed destructive force on par with dragons.”

“Did she describe them?”

He opened his mouth only to hesitate with a glance down. “Feathered wings.”

Alyssa picked up the feather by the hollow shaft. “This wasn’t here when we started eating.”

“After knowledge of our plans? No. It left it behind,” he said slowly. “It wouldn’t leave behind such deliberately placed evidence if it were merely spying. A warning. Or a message? An omen?”

Biting her lip, Alyssa considered the same problem. If it was a message or a warning, it was probably for her. She couldn’t see why Adrael would have tried to warn Decorous. Had Alyssa not touched it, he never would have known. Then again, she didn’t know why angels did anything, especially not the one that was trying to ‘fix’ the world.

“Adjutant,” Decorous said in a raised voice. It wasn’t quite shouting, being far too… elegant for that, but it was intended for an audience outside the room.

And that audience swung open the door mere seconds after. “Sir?” a young man said as he popped in.

“Recall all guardsmen to the wall. Double the watch. I want men surrounding the city immediately, anything suspicious outside should be reported to me with all due haste. Spread the word to the Eastgate and the others.”

The adjutant didn’t need a dismissal. With a small widening of his eyes, he turned back into the adjacent room, presumably to set about with the given orders.

Alyssa didn’t think it was likely that the city would be attacked. The message was clearly for her. She just didn’t know what it meant. It couldn’t be a warning, could it? Why not just take off her head before she knew that Adrael was there? Unless it was some stupid programming that the angels had to follow. Or…

Maybe it was just a simple notice. A letter dropped by to say that Adrael had been around. If Alyssa were Adrael, she would be wanting her staff back right now.

A chill wracked her spine. “I need to leave,” she said, already halfway to the door. A spell card was in her hand. “Things I need to check on.”

“Alyssa, wait.”

“You said I would be able to leave. I have people I need to warn. If I find out anything else, I’ll send you a Message, but I will be leaving.” Her fingers brushed over the deck of spell cards she had. Would she kill him if he wouldn’t let her leave? No. Of course not. But she might have gone overboard in drawing up Spectral Chains over the past few days. With the amount she had, she could probably chain up half the city guard before she ran out.

And if he wouldn’t let her leave, she might have to do just that.

Decorous drew in a deep breath through his nose and held it. “One question: Princess Irulon’s report lacked a way to detect the presence of these angels. You clearly possess the ability to do so. How?”

“I wish I knew. But I do know a thing or two about angels. They… don’t like to get their hands dirty.” She couldn’t say that they didn’t harm humans. Not anymore. But she was somewhat positive that even Adrael would have an aversion to it. Adrael could have stopped the destruction of the outpost well before it began if she didn’t care at all. “They’ll manipulate others into doing their work for them. Look out for regular humans or monsters.”

Alyssa didn’t give him the opportunity to ask another question. She turned and fled from the room.

Decorous didn’t try to stop her. He didn’t shout out to the adjutant, who was in the middle of a Message to some other garrison of guards judging by the small bit of what she heard as she ran to the stairs. He had kept his word. She probably shouldn’t be so surprised, but something about him just made her suspect that he wasn’t on the level. Part of that might have been the redecoration of Oxart’s office.

The moment Alyssa was outside, she held up a spell card. “Message. Irulon. There might be a hostile angel inside the city. A feather just popped into being in front of me while I was talking to Decorous. I’ll fill you in later, just… try not to get stabbed in the back again.”

While running back toward the potion shop, Alyssa sent a similar Message to Kasita. As far as she knew, Adrael didn’t even know that Kasita existed. She had spent the whole time in Alyssa’s pocket during their previous encounter. Still, Alyssa wasn’t going to let her friends wander around without being at least the slightest bit aware of the danger. With Kasita’s ability to detect angels, even as difficult as it was, she might mistake Adrael for Tenebrael and try to follow or contact her.

Speaking of the dark angel… Alyssa pulled her phone out of her pocket as she ran. She probably should have called Tenebrael first, but her priority had been on her friends. Her thumb hovered over the call button, but she hesitated. Last time, Adrael had somehow blocked the calls. The blocking wound up fizzling out her phone for a minute or two, forcing it to reboot.

Alyssa switched to texting. Could Tenebrael even receive texts? She didn’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t work because of that. Maybe it would still fizzle out the same way calling did. She could always try calling afterward. For now, she slowed to a power walk, using both hands to tap out characters on the screen.

Head down, staring at the screen, Alyssa turned a corner around a building.

Adrael is ba

She barely made it three words into her text before slamming into something. It was a hard hit, but she didn’t so much as stumble.

A little girl, half Alyssa’s height, went sprawling across the ground.

With how little force the little girl had hit Alyssa with, she almost suspected that Kasita was rubbing her elbow on the ground. But it wasn’t a form Alyssa had seen before on the mimic. Although light, the girl had been just a little too solid to really be a mimic. No. This was a human. Some kid she had just knocked to the ground.

Alyssa groaned. She didn’t have time for this. At the same time, she couldn’t just sprint off and leave her lying there. Tapping the send button—if Tenebrael couldn’t figure out the meaning of the text from what was already there… well, she would try calling later—Alyssa extended her other hand out to the girl.

“Watch it you bumbling blockhead!”

The girl shoved Alyssa’s hand away, proving that she really wasn’t a mimic in disguise. She got to her feet with the kind of enthusiasm only a child could muster, looking none the worse for the wear. Her clothes, a sort of aprony thing—she must be a servant—weren’t torn and, despite having landed on her elbow, didn’t seem to have so much as a scratch on her.

Excellent. Great. That meant that a quick, “Sorry about that,” should suffice. Stepping around the girl, Alyssa tried to leave.

A hand around her wrist stopped her short.

She turned, finding the girl staring at where her small hand grabbed onto Alyssa.

“How odd.”

Alyssa felt a chill go down her spine. There was just something about the way the girl said that under her breath that unnerved her. The girl looking up with red eyes didn’t help. On Earth, hardly anyone had red eyes. Alyssa had never met someone with them. But here, it probably wasn’t all that strange. The entire royal family seemed to have violet eyes.

In fact, now that she was looking a little closer, maybe the girl’s eyes weren’t red, but just a dark pink. Was she… related to Irulon?

Great. Fantastic, Alyssa suddenly found herself thinking all sorts of terrible things about the girl in front of her. She couldn’t help it. The last younger relative of Irulon that she had encountered turned out to be a psychopathic assassin-worshiper. One that might have tried to kill her only an hour ago. This girl could have been the one who tried to kill her an hour ago, saved only by the intervention of a hellhound.

Alyssa tugged her hand back to herself. The girl didn’t try to keep a hold of it. For a moment, Alyssa thought to turn and run. She really didn’t have time for this. The staff could be missing. Tzheitza could have been caught up in Adrael’s burglary. Tenebrael would hopefully be popping into being any second now.

But leaving would mean turning her back on a little girl who suddenly felt far more dangerous than grown men with swords.

Maybe it was her imagination. Her paranoia. She had just been attacked and there was evidence of Adrael being about, so her paranoia wasn’t unjustified.

“You… are human, right?”

Alyssa blinked twice before shaking her head. What did I do now? Everyone asks that. Realizing that the shake of her head might be taken the wrong way, she quickly nodded. “Yeah. Human. What about you?” The question was out before she could stop herself. Alyssa took a step back, worried what the physical response might be regardless of the answer.

But the girl didn’t get angry. She sighed, putting on a deep pout. “Was it that obvious? What did I do wrong?”

“Uhhh…” She was a monster? Alyssa took another step back. It didn’t seem like she was about to be attacked, but who really knew. The girl wasn’t a mimic but she was a monster that looked human enough. Would she be strong? Weak? Would a gun work?

Was their meeting a coincidence or had she planned it out? That was the biggest question.

“Well?” She shoved her hands to her hips. “How did you know? Was it something I did? Or just something you do?”

Alyssa bit her lip before deciding to answer honestly. Maybe if she played along, the little girl wouldn’t turn into a giant cockroach from outer space. She did have a Spectral Axe that would probably work, but Alyssa wasn’t about to attack without knowing that the girl really was an enemy. Alyssa might have killed people. A lot of them, even. But she wasn’t a murderer. And that, she felt, was an important distinction to make.

“Human girls around your age don’t talk like you do.”

The girl waited, but when it became apparent that Alyssa wasn’t going to say anything else, she huffed. “That’s it? I didn’t talk right?”

“If you want to blend in properly, you should go find some real human girls and just watch what they do. Especially when they interact with strangers.” Alyssa stepped back again, just in time for a black feather to drift down from above, nearly brushing against her face as it wafted past.

She glanced up, relief flooding her as she spotted Tenebrael’s fully extended wings drifting down toward her. The angel came down, landing just in front of the little girl. Alyssa was pretty sure the girl wasn’t a mimic, but she must have been able to sense something. Stiffening slightly, the girl turned and ran off.

“I searched around some. If Adrael is present in my world, she is eluding me.”

Not the best news that Alyssa had heard, but it was close. “Considering how she had been around your world for quite some time before I found her, I’d say she has some practice in dodging you.”

“True. But I don’t like it.” The glowing white in Tenebrael’s eyes shifted around a bit, looking over Alyssa. “She stole the staff back?”

“I was just about to check on that. I had to leave it behind—it is too cumbersome to carry everywhere. All I saw of her was a single feather.”

“Very well. I suppose I can stick about for the time being. Not too long from now, I was going to come pick you up anyway.”

“Your presence is appreciated. Come on. The staff is at the potion shop. Unless you want to teleport me there?”

“I could,” Tenebrael said, looking down at her black fingernails. “Breaking time and space to save you only a few minutes of walking is kind of a pain.”

“You stop time on a whim.”

“True.” She extended the hand she had been looking at, placing it on Alyssa’s shoulder.

For a moment, Alyssa thought a ring of magic lights would pop up and whisk her off. Instead, Tenebrael dragged Alyssa in close. She barely knew what was happening before she found herself whisked into the air with a beat of Tenebrael’s wings.


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Vacant Throne — 024.009

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City Matters

Pacification


“G-Gaunt!”

Alyssa spun around. The guard hadn’t been joking. One gaunt was slowly creeping out of the field of corn. Metal clanked behind her as the men started moving. She didn’t know if they were advancing or retreating, but a horse’s whinny and the beating of hooves told her that at least one of the horses had decided that it wanted to be anywhere but here.

But Alyssa paid them no mind. She was staring at the gaunt, watching it. The field of corn it was lethargically moving out of was the same one that she and Tzheitza had just come from. It had been following them. An uncomfortable thought, but she was prepared for this. Raising her hand, she cast Spectral Chains.

The ethereal links of ghostly metal wrapped around the gaunt, hiding most of its skeletal body. It managed one more step before the chains tightened around its legs, sending it toppling to the ground. After a few meager struggles against its bindings, the gaunt fell still. If she hadn’t known that they were invincible murder monsters from the worst nightmares, she might have thought it died.

Only when she was sure that it wasn’t about to jump to its feet did she glance over her shoulder.

Tzheitza had two potions out, one in either hand. A luminescent white orb and one so dark that it almost seemed to suck in light, dimming the area around it even despite Alyssa’s Night Vision spell being active. She held them but wasn’t even in a pose to suggest that she might be considering throwing them. They were both especially notable potions, but Alyssa couldn’t remember having seen them on the bandoleer. Tzheitza did have a small bag with her, so she could have pulled them from there.

As for what they might do, Alyssa couldn’t begin to guess. Irulon had insisted that gaunts were basically immune to magic that directly targeted them. From what Alyssa had seen, potions were just magic in a bottle. But if they affected the area around it, that could work.

Behind Tzheitza, the guards were far less composed. Where there had been a dozen, only four remained. Lanhom was nowhere to be seen. A few of the guards were fleeing up the path toward the city, but Alyssa couldn’t pick Lanhom’s back out from the other knights with their identical armor. None of the horses were around either. The guard whom Lanhom had been talking with was around, currently trying to get to his feet as fast as possible. The way his back had gained a coat of dirt was unfortunately all too familiar for Alyssa. He must have been bucked off the horse.

One of the remaining guards had a spell tome out in one hand and a card in the other. Again, Alyssa had no idea what he was intending to do with the magic, but maybe he had a way of creating a barrier that the gaunt couldn’t cross.

The lead guardsman finally got back to his feet. Between his ashen face and the way he backed up, he had probably been on the verge of running. Looking between Alyssa, the chains connecting her to the gaunt, and the monster put a stop to that. He put a hand to his chest, breathing a few times before throwing his own glance over his shoulder.

“Get those men back here,” he said, barking the order to one of the remaining guards… who needed no second tellings—maybe he was just that diligent, but Alyssa was putting money on wanting an excuse to put distance between himself and the gaunt. The lead guard glowered at him on his way out before turning to the man with the spell tome. “And you, send up a yellow flame. Get them out of the fields at once!”

As the lead guardsman turned back to Alyssa and the gaunt with a scowl plastered on his face, the arcanist flipped through his tome and selected a new card. Just like Lanhom’s firework spell, this one launched a ball of fire up into the sky. When it exploded, it burst into a dazzling golden glitter.

“You two… just… just stay right there.”

Alyssa glanced over to the gaunt. It wasn’t moving in the slightest. “You’re not going to arrest me, are you?” she said, jangling the chains. “I don’t think that I can keep it locked up if my hands are in manacles.”

He ground his teeth together. Limping a few steps forward, and pausing with a flick of his eyes toward the gaunt a few feet behind her, he said, “Captain Decorous has been looking for you.”

“That’s nice. I don’t see why that requires me to be arrested.”

“You’re consorting with monsters!”

“Consorting? I captured it. If that’s illegal, I’ll be happy to let it go.” Giving the chains a lazy tug made the gaunt move again. It couldn’t really move with the chains around it, but it tried.

The effect was enough. The guardsman backed away once again, shooting a nervous glance at Tzheitza. “Don’t do that,” he said eventually. “Don’t do anything. Stay right where you are until we can… do something.” Tilting his head to touch his chin to his shoulder without breaking eye contact with the gaunt, he barked out another order to the arcanist. “Send a Message to Decorous. Inform him of the situation. Get him down here if possible but… be respectful about it.”

“Sure. Sure thing.”

The arcanist backed away, moving a bit aside to get some privacy just as Alyssa had done earlier. As he pulled out a card and started mumbling, a guard emerged from the corn field. He had a sword out and was using the flat of it to knock stalks of corn out of his way, grumbling the entire time under his breath. He marched right up to his commander without even noticing the chained gaunt.

“Are we done here? Muck is leaking into my…”

He finally noticed. Robbed of words, he just stared.

More guards started emerging from the fields. Both the one Alyssa had been inside and the one on the opposite side of the path. Most of them were more attentive than the first one out. Reactions varied, but as more gathered around the commander with their weapons at the ready, those more timid steadied themselves and joined ranks.

Unfortunately, most of them were shooting glares in her direction. Tzheitza’s as well.

“I’m causing trouble for you again,” Alyssa said softly as Tzheitza approached. “Sorry.”

“Don’t mite care. How long can yeh keep it?”

“The chains?” Irulon, or her clones, had asked the same thing. Alyssa didn’t even feel the slightest strain. Not like when she cast Fractal Mirror or other such spells. “Forever, I guess.”

Tzheitza let out an audible sigh, relaxing her tense muscles. She didn’t put away the two potions. They were still just as ready as ever to be tossed at the gaunt. But she did finally break eye contact with it. The first time since it had appeared. She turned to Alyssa with a sliver of a frown on her face. “‘T would be nice not to worry over monsters every time yeh show up. Or gangs. Or armies.”

“I feel the same way. I’ve got enough going on without things like this popping up. Guess it’s good we caught it before it could eat anyone. But…” Alyssa dropped her voice. “Is there a plan for this? Irulon can probably get me out of any jail they throw me into.” Or rather, Tenebrael was going to pop up and pull her out of the whole world in less than a day. Though coming back to Lyria might not be the best option if the guards started a manhunt for her. Not without getting Irulon to smooth things over, if she even could. “But he wanted to arrest you too.” Irulon might help out Tzheitza if Alyssa asked nicely, but she also might not. It was hard to tell with the Princess sometimes.

“I’ve got friends in the guild and guard,” Tzheitza said, shrugging. “And a reputation. Whatever they’re tryin’ to claim I did won’t stick. My work this past week with plague menders almost guarantees that I’ll be released to continue working on it unless they come up with some surprising claims.”

Good to know that having friends in high places didn’t apply only to Alyssa. Some things just don’t change even a world away. Alyssa’s friends, both the mortal and immortal, were just a little higher than most people had access to.

And there I am thinking about Irulon as a tool again, Alyssa thought with a mental wince. Tenebrael, on the other hand, was a tool for all she cared.

Roughly a dozen men had appeared from the corn in the short time Alyssa had been talking with Tzheitza. A few of the men had returned from up the path as well, but not the full numbers. Not yet at least. With nearly twenty people all standing around her, Alyssa would be lying if she said she wasn’t nervous. Tenebrael could get her out of prison with a snap of her fingers. If one of these guards got a little twitchy and rammed a sword through her chest, it would be a different story.

She did take solace in the fact that swords were a whole lot harder to be twitchy with than firearms.

“Better cooperate,” Tzheitza mumbled. “Should’ve just let the guards handle it from the start.”

“Then you wouldn’t have your hellhound eye fire thing. And you saw Fela. She didn’t even act like she thought about attacking you. Considering what she went through at the outpost, that’s saying something. She’s a nice girl.” Alyssa paused before considering the way Fela had disappeared from their little meeting. “I hope she eats the Taker.” And I hope she’s alright after fighting him, she thought, though she didn’t verbalize it. She was already pushing for Tzheitza to be more open with monsters as it was. No need to beat her with a metaphorical hammer.

She did get a low chuckle from Tzheitza, though it died off quickly as the lead guardsman started walking toward them.

“Captain Decorous is heading out on his fastest horse. You are not to leave. We need to…” He put his hand to his forehead before speaking a little quieter. “He said to deal with it. I don’t know what he expects.”

“I can hold it indefinitely. I don’t want to. There are other things I need to be doing. But I’ll keep it until you come up with a plan. As long as you’re not planning to arrest me.”

“That… is up to Decorous. I will let him know that you are being cooperative.”

Alyssa dipped her head in a slight nod. “Appreciated.”

“Here’s yer plan: get a cow or some other luggard, shove it right up against its face, an’ close yer eyes. Then load it up on a wagon and dump it in the Pit.”

The Pit. The hole in the ground straight to Hell. Or the Underworld, if there was a difference between the two. That did seem like a valid place to drop the gaunt. Maybe when it woke from its torpor, it could eat some demons. Still, she glanced at it with a slight frown, wondering just how aware it might be of what was going to happen to it. It definitely didn’t think like a normal creature, not like Tzheitza, Kasita, or Fela. Or even the draken.

Alyssa shook her head, deciding not to think further on the topic. The creature might not be evil in the classical sense, but a rabid dog had to be put down before it became a hazard to people. If it could not be reasoned with, then it had to go.

“That isn’t a bad idea,” the guard said. “Yes. That might work. You there!” he said, pointing toward another of the men. “Run to the Abernathy Livestocks. Get them to hand over some animal and drag it back here.”

“Alive,” Tzheitza said.

“Yes. Alive.”

That made Alyssa wince. Throwing the gaunt into the deepest pit they could find was one thing. Feeding it a poor cow to make it docile… She didn’t care to stick around to watch it happen, but unless someone else could contain the monster, she wouldn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

Glancing back, she scowled. The chains held tight and the gaunt still hadn’t moved. Why did something like it even exist in the first place? She could almost understand most of the rest of the monsters. Maybe it was some perverted type of confirmation bias because of myths and legends on Earth, but a harpy seemed far more natural than this thing.

The men around, trained guards that had probably gone into battle not so long ago against trolls and goblins, were visibly nervous. They had their weapons drawn. Looking to each other had become an almost pathological need. Aside from the leader, who was currently having a rough time tallying up how many of his men were missing, none of them strayed closer than twenty feet. Even Tzheitza stood quite a way further away than Alyssa would have expected. Alyssa caught glimpses of her looking back, but never for long. Only to reassure herself that Alyssa hadn’t been lying about being able to keep it chained up.

Three horses rode down the path from the direction of the city before long. They did not have a cow in tow. Decorous had arrived first. Alyssa actually preferred it this way. It meant that Decorous wouldn’t be able to drag her off to some cell without freeing the gaunt, giving her at least a chance to figure out why he wanted to talk to her.

Like Oxart, Decorous did not wear the heavier armor that most of the city guard wore. His clothing was a red cloth, fastened up the middle with silver links. He wore a little half-cape thing. A black cloth that really only covered his shoulders. It was the same length in the front as the back. He did have a spell tome chained to his hip, hanging next to a thick leather pouch, but it was far thinner than Oxart and Irulon’s. On his opposite side, he had a long sword with a rapier-like blade. To Alyssa, it looked far too fancy to be functional with the gems encrusted into the grip and hand guard, but she did admit that she didn’t have much of an eye for swords.

He didn’t approach right away, though he definitely spent a moment staring between her and Tzheitza. His eyes followed the length of the chains until he reached the gaunt. He didn’t avert his eyes or shift with shaken nerves as the rest of the guards did. All he did was let out a small sigh. Waving a hand to call over the lead guard, he proceeded to spend a few minutes conversing.

Alyssa couldn’t hear a word of it. They were definitely speaking about her. She kept meeting their eyes all through their conversation. It made Alyssa wonder just what kind of eavesdropping magic existed. Wonder all she might, she wouldn’t magically get any right now. Sighing, she just waited until Decorous approached.

Or tried to approach.

His horse, a well groomed white stallion, reared back the second he tried to approach closer than about thirty feet, just about throwing him from the saddle. His eyes went wide, but he managed to avoid crashing to the ground like a few of the other guardsmen had done. Leaning forward, he spoke into its ear while rubbing at its neck. It took another moment or two, but the horse did calm.

It was apparently far better trained than the ones the other guards had been riding.

Rather than try again, he handed the reins off to his second in command and dismounted.

Decorous strode across the path without a hint of concern for his own safety from the gaunt. The two mounted companions he had brought with him did not dismount, but they didn’t approach either. One of them ran off after a quick direction from Decorous. The other started taking over from the previous commander, barking orders around to try to get the men organized properly.

As he passed Tzheitza, Decorous nodded his head. “Interesting to see you out here. I was under the impression that you had taken up seclusion in your laboratory.”

“Gotta collect mats some time. Habering menalicks interrupted as yeh can right see.”

“So I see. So I see. Your name was… Alyssa.” Decorous walked right up to Alyssa, stopping a mere two feet away. “Monster slaver, potion seller—” He paused long enough to glance at Tzheitza. “—medical expert, lumber hauler. Am I missing anything? Saboteur, perhaps?”

“Saboteur?” Alyssa blinked, trying to remember anything she had done in Lyria that might have been considered sabotage. Nothing was coming to mind except maybe dragging a fairy around the city. She had been planning on denying that. Claiming that the fairy had already been in the palace when Oxart wound up captured should work. Anything Oxart said to the contrary could simply be a product of uncertain circumstances that Oxart had misinterpreted. And if Oxart had a problem with her shirking responsibility for that in the name of getting out of jail… well, she would have to remind the captain that it was Alyssa and Irulon who had come to her rescue.

For now, deny, deny, deny. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Did you not just return with Princess Irulon? I read her report of the situation. Destroyed a large group of Society of the Burning Shadow. Worthy of commendation, if Princess Irulon’s story is to be believed. Several scouts have already been dispatched to confirm, but they haven’t quite made it back yet.”

“I haven’t done anything except that,” Alyssa corrected, slightly relieved. “If that’s all—”

“Of course, some less than scrupulous questions have been raised concerning you.”

“Like… what?”

“Oh, certain accusations that you have been trying to usurp the throne.” His tone remained conversational, but the words brought Alyssa up short.

“I… I what?”

“Insinuations have been made,” he said, still speaking casually. “A palace guardsman insisted that the Princess Irulon we all saw was an impostor. He was unable to inform us at the time because he had been placed under a spell, but he was quite adamant after the fact. Then you disappeared with the princess right after in… suspicious circumstances. One city guard, part of the Northgate Guard, was left with instructions from Oxart to apprehend you should something happen to her. Unfortunately, you had left the city before we could investigate further, even claiming that Oxart had been controlled by a fairy to her second in command.”

“That… is absolutely ridiculous.”

“Oh?”

“First of all, if I was trying to usurp the throne, which I most certainly am not, I wouldn’t do it by replacing the seventh person on the totem pole with an impostor. I would set my sights higher than that, on someone more likely to actually become the ruler. Secondly, Irulon is back. Safe and sound. I’m sure a Rank Six arcanist as powerful as the Pharaoh is purported to be would be able to tell the difference between his daughter and a fake. The entire suggestion is completely baseless.”

“I didn’t say I believed it,” Decorous said, covering his mouth as he chuckled. “With Oxart’s fall to disgrace, I don’t know that her words carry much weight anymore. Nor do her orders to her subordinates. And, as you said, the Pharaoh has made no mention of his daughter being anything but his daughter.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together as he mentioned Oxart, but she didn’t say anything. Irulon had said that she would look into that. It might be wise to send her a reminder, given her apparent problems with her father, but it wasn’t something Alyssa could easily change. “So I’m free to go, then?”

“Well…” Decorous, trailed off, looking over her shoulder. “I see you weren’t lying about being able to wrangle a gaunt. I would prefer it if you stayed here for the time being.”

“Yeah. I figured,” she said with a sigh. “But you aren’t going to arrest me immediately after?”

“No, but I do have a few questions to clear up. If you would join me at the Northgate Barracks following this? There are a number of inconsistencies that I would like to straighten out.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“There is nothing to fear. With everyone present as witnesses, I will treat you to a meal and send you on your way immediately after. My honor as a noble from House Yora won’t allow me to go back on such a promise.”

Alyssa scowled, definitely not missing the fact that he had not answered her question. She glanced to Tzheitza only to get an uncertain shrug in return. “How could I refuse after hearing that?” she said with another sigh.

“Excellent,” he said, clapping her on the shoulder before tilting his head in apparent concentration. “Is that a mooing I hear? It shouldn’t be long now.”


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Vacant Throne — 024.008

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City Matters

Navigating the Maize


Fela launched herself into the frosty field before Alyssa could stop her. The Taker wouldn’t have attacked if he hadn’t thought he could have taken on a hellhound. He was probably counting on her being bloodthirsty. Splitting up was an extremely bad idea.

Alyssa scanned the forest of corn, looking for any hint of the Taker or Fela. Fela had charged off toward where Tzheitza had thrown her potion. She wasn’t running away, but running to attack. That might give her a moment to cast a spell or two.

“Projectile Reflection,” Alyssa said aloud, less because she needed to speak to cast spells and more for Tzheitza’s benefit. She hadn’t been completely idle during the few days of downtime. Drawing up a deck of spells hadn’t even taken that long. And Projectile Reflection was one of the spells she had wanted the most.

Let the Taker suck on his own bag of tricks. Alyssa learned from her failures. His spell could be used against his throwing weapons easily enough. This encounter would go far differently from the last. She had both chains and scythes ready and even had another Fractal Mirror. If he managed to kill her despite her preparedness… well, she would definitely ask Tenebrael if she could delay being eaten until she had a chance to torture the guy on his death.

Alyssa knelt to pick up the knife. Fela had dropped it before darting off. But she hesitated. What if it was cursed in some way other than the frosty enchantment on the blade. Fela might have been able to ignore the curse thanks to some inherent magical resistance, but Alyssa wasn’t even wearing the dragon hide armor. She was back in modern clothing.

Realizing that Tzheitza might not recognize the knife, Alyssa said, “It’s the Taker.”

At the same time, Tzheitza spoke with a hiss. “Octavia.”

“What?”

“That knife. That idiot girl was tossing ‘em at me and Oz.”

“When you captured her… Of course Octavia shops at the same blacksmith that the Taker does. That’s identical to the ones the Taker was throwing at me when I fought him.”

“Yer sure?”

Alyssa winced as she felt a memory of the dagger pierce her chest. Long. Black. More like a nail than a proper knife. It was probably designed specifically for throwing. “Yeah. Very sure.”

“Oh Tommik,” Tzheitza said softly. “I hope yer out there.”

“I hope it’s Octavia.” As prepared as she felt, it was almost a relief to think that Octavia might be the one hunting them down instead. She seemed like far less of a threat. Though it wouldn’t do to let her guard down just because of a suspicion. Best to treat it as the Taker until proved otherwise. Or worse, both of them could be out there.

Alyssa snuffed out her light spell, realizing that it was just painting a target on them. In its place, she activated Night Vision. “Can you see in the dark?”

“I got a potion,” Tzheitza said. The potions on the bandoleer were something of an issue. A few of them glowed in the dark. It lit up Tzheitza like a Christmas tree. Or, it did until Tzheitza pulled on the bandoleer. A heavy cloth fell over the potions. They could still be grabbed from the underside and a little light came out from there, but it wasn’t half as bad as before. “Yer monster might be in trouble if it is the Taker.”

“And Octavia will be in trouble if it’s her.”

“Bah. Serves the haberin fool right.”

“I’d rather hand her over to the Pharaoh to deal with. Don’t want to be accused of anything. We should find them regardless.”

“Mhm. Guards’ll have seen the ice globe.”

“All the more reason to find Fela quickly. I have extra Projectile Reflection cards. Do you want one?”

“Nah. Too high rank for me. I’ve got a harden skin potion. Daggers canne hurt me with it.”

“Alright. How do you want to do this?”

“Stick behind me.”

“But I’ve got Projectile Reflection. If he flings any more daggers, better to reflect them completely rather than risk them being sharp enough for harden skin to fail.”

“Projectile Reflection isn’t gonna help against his sword.”

Alyssa flinched again, unconsciously rubbing at her lower stomach. That was a very good point. Did she have a spell that would block swords? Closing her eyes and thinking for a moment, Alyssa came up blank. She had a lot of offensive spells, but Projectile Reflection was the only defensive one she could think of off the top of her head.

Clicking her tongue in annoyance, Alyssa fell in behind Tzheitza as they started moving through the frosted portion of the fields. She didn’t like putting Tzheitza in danger just to be safe herself, but she fully acknowledged Tzheitza’s experience in things like this.

That said, if Alyssa were the Taker in this situation, she would be fleeing back to the city as fast as possible. He had an angry Tzheitza after him, an angry hellhound after him, and an angry Rank Six arcanist after him. Plus the guards that would surely be swarming the area as soon as they noticed that the field had turned into an ice cube when they weren’t looking. Continuing to fight in this situation was just asking to be caught.

Which had Alyssa thinking that Tzheitza was right. This really was Octavia. As Irulon had said, her younger sister was an idiot. Who in their right mind would attack in a situation like this?

Fela had left a trail of destruction in her wake. Following her path was as simple as following the corn stalks that had been broken off. A perfectly clear trail led from the ice explosion toward the city, though not directly. There was a path only three minutes of casual walking from where Alyssa had been standing. This was headed in almost the opposite direction, keeping far from any path that Alyssa knew of.

Silence hung over them, eerie in how odd it would be that Fela or their assailant wasn’t making any noise. However, it didn’t last. Someone shouted. No words were spoken. The shout was just noises. It wasn’t the higher pitched nasal tones of the Taker and it wasn’t a young feminine voice that might belong to Octavia. A guard? So soon? Even the horse riders would have had difficulty arriving so quickly, mostly because the horses probably couldn’t pass through the corn all that easily.

Unless it was a cohort. Cid? Alyssa hoped that she wouldn’t ever meet him again, but if she did… he wouldn’t have a fun time of it.

Whoever it was, Tzheitza shifted directions, leaving the path Fela had made to head directly toward the sound. Alyssa followed close behind, spells at the ready. She wasn’t about to draw her firearms against the Taker. He knew about Projectile Reflection. Octavia would as well, though Alyssa didn’t know if she could cast the spell. Better to be on the safe side and stick with spells.

A… clearing opened up before them? Corn had clearly been planted, but a wide area had been swept away. Far wider than Fela could have managed even had she been running with her arms extended. There was no sign of the hellhound in the clearing. Nor of the Taker or Octavia. One man was curled up on the ground, wearing the armor of the Lyrian city guard. His face was down in the roughage, but he wasn’t dead. Both his hands were over his head in a protective pose.

Alyssa’s first thought was to run forward and check to see if he was alright, but she hesitated. Tzheitza held out a hand, blocking Alyssa’s path anyway. Something was wrong then? A trap?

There wasn’t anything around that Alyssa could see. Having seen Irulon set a trap on the Society of the Burning Shadow’s water rock, not being able to see something wasn’t all that comforting.

“Guardsman,” Tzheitza said without taking a step forward. He ‘eeped’ a little and jerked upright, facing the wrong way. Tzheitza didn’t give him a chance to look around before continuing. “I am a member of the Knights Solaris. State yer status. Are yeh in need of aid?”

“H-Help me.” He stood up and practically sprinted over, all but confirming that there were no traps around him. “I’m Lanhom, a-a noble from House Davenport,” he said as he ran. There clearly weren’t any traps around if he was running like that, though one of the fallen corn stalks tripped him up. He landed on his face just in front of Tzheitza. Undeterred, he looked up. “My serv—fellow guard disappeared when that mon-monster attacked us! I order you to protect me in his place. Take me back to the city!”

“Yeh gotta hummworm in yer grey? Yer a guardsman, yet yeh want me to protect yeh?”

“What? I…” He blinked twice, looking away from Tzheitza to Alyssa. He wasn’t going to find any help from her corner. Maybe it was that she had a mother who had served in the military before going on to be a security guard, but Alyssa had strong feelings about those with law enforcement positions. Using his status as a noble to cower and hide… did not align with her ideals.

Though it was true that her mother had never fought literal monsters. But Fela wasn’t that scary.

“What attacked you?” Alyssa asked instead of saying anything else that was on her mind. She suspected that it was Fela, but if there was another monster running around in the cornfield, best to know what kind of horror movie she was in before it started stalking her.

“Oh it was horrid!” he said, wrapping his arms around himself in a self-hug. Which looked odd on a man wearing bulky armor. “One moment, I was walking alongside Seath. Then… Oh, I almost forgot.”

He reached into the folds of his beige surcoat and pulled out a small notebook. Spell cards. He fumbled through selecting one, held it up to the sky, and practically shouted out. “Flare!”

A bright orange orb of fire launched off toward the clouds. Reaching its peak, it burst apart in a fiery explosion of light and sound. A magical firework, essentially. And probably either a warning or a call for help from the rest of the guards.

Judging by the swear under her breath, Tzheitza was worried about more hostile attention drawn their way.

“What was the monster?” Alyssa asked again. When he just looked at her, she added on, “This is vital information that we need to help keep you alive.”

He shuddered. “Oh, it was horrible.”

“Yes. You said that.” Oxart had said that most of the city guard was made up of nobles. What she hadn’t said was that nobles were literally babies. It was a wonder that the entire city hadn’t fallen to the first attack if this Lanhom was an example of that the guard had to offer.

He wasn’t, of course. Alyssa knew Ipo was far more disciplined than this guy.

“It was huge with midnight black skin.”

“Furry?”

“N-No? Its skin was like leather. It gleamed in the light of our lantern,” he said, glancing down at a little iron and frosted glass lamp that had fallen to the ground. The flame within flickered as he picked it up. “It was on us before I knew what was happening. Didn’t hear a thing.”

“Its skin was shiny and black… and you didn’t hear it coming,” Alyssa said, suddenly feeling a bit nervous. “Did you happen to see its face?”

He shook his head back and forth in a negative.

“Right. I wish Kasita were here. Let’s keep an eye out for gaunts.”

“Gaunts?” “Gaunts?”

Both Tzheitza and Lanhom spoke at once, the former in a concerned but curious tone while the latter in a high pitched panic.

“A gaunt injured Irulon the night the palace was attacked. It later… assisted me in routing the Society of the Burning Shadow from the Waterhole.”

“That was you!” Lanhom blurted out. “You’re… Captain Decorous has been wanting to uh… speak to you. We’re supposed to alert him if we find you.”

“Well isn’t that just great.” The man who had locked up Oxart upon her return wanted to meet with her. Sounded like something to avoid if at all possible. Luckily, this guy seemed like a self-centered fool. Hopefully he wouldn’t remember Tzheitza’s name. They could just slip away and Alyssa could start avoiding the city guard for the rest of her life. “Regardless, his description sounded like a gaunt and, as far as I know, the city guard haven’t found the one I encountered. Though I thought they were supposed to go dormant for a decade after eating and it definitely ate that night.”

“If that’s true, we need to get out,” Tzheitza said, speaking perfectly clearly. “Guild standard procedure when dealing with gaunts is to lead them away from population centers and find them a cow to eat, or something similar. Fighting one isn’t done. Encountering one in a cornfield is a death wish.”

Ignoring the few whimpers from Lanhom, Alyssa nodded. “That’s why I wish Kasita were here. But I can contain it as long as I see it before it grabs one of us.” A small part of her wondered if the Spectral Axe spell could scythe out its soul. Irulon’s clones surely would have thought of that when they had discussed options for dealing with the gaunt, so most people couldn’t do it. Alyssa wasn’t most people, however.

Still, she ensured that Spectral Chains were at the forefront of her deck of cards. It was a tried and true spell. No need to take risks.

Though if there was really a gaunt out in the field, had it wandered out on its own? Was the Taker or Octavia trying to weaponize it as the Society of the Burning Shadow had done? It couldn’t be coincidence that it was out here at the same time as someone had thrown a dagger at her.

“C’mon,” Tzheitza said. “Stick close, guardsman. I’ll not wait up for yeh.”

Whereas before Tzheitza moved through the path with slow caution, she now charged forward just barely under a run. That didn’t stop her cautious glancing about. If anything, she was even more alert of her surroundings than before. Alyssa couldn’t blame her. The gaunt didn’t make a sound. If it destroyed crops, they might be able to hear it when the stalks broke, but it could just as easily pass through them the same way that Alyssa and Tzheitza were now.

And they did pass through the cornfield. The corn wasn’t as densely planted as she had seen in modern corn mazes, letting them walk mostly unhindered as they left the path of toppled plants.

Alyssa wasn’t slacking off either. Constant vigilance? That was the phrase. Tzheitza spent most of her time looking forward and to their immediate sides, so Alyssa took over the backward glances. Gaunts were slow moving, so they probably didn’t have to worry about being chased, but no sense ignoring a whole avenue of attack. Lanhom followed just behind her, half crouched over as if to make himself look smaller. He looked everywhere around him, even up above despite the forest of corn not really extending much higher than their heads.

“Something is there,” Alyssa hissed, spotting stalks of corn moving unnaturally. It definitely wasn’t just wind. Even with night vision, she couldn’t actually see what might have caused the twitching stalks. Her fingers rubbed over her deck of cards. She wanted to just toss out a Spectral Chains, but without being able to see anything, it would probably just wrap around some corn.

Tzheitza didn’t share in her hesitation. She grabbed one of the potions from her covered bandoleer and chucked it between the stalks. A golden liquid splashed out, right where Alyssa had seen movement. Most of it stayed a bright golden color. All the plants were doused as was the ground. But a few spots on the ground darkened to a deep red.

It took her a moment to realize that they were footprints. Elongated footprints. Definitely not human unless the potion turned red in a wider area than normal feet.

“We were being watched?” Alyssa said as she realized just how the footsteps aligned. They came in from somewhere off to the right, stopped at a point ten feet away, and vanished back in roughly the same direction they had come. “The gaunt? Or something else.”

“It moved quick for a gaunt.”

“Fela?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care. It’s gone, keep moving.”

Tzheitza allowed for no argument as she started walking again. She did change her angle, moving their group away from where the footprints had been heading. If Alyssa’s sense of direction hadn’t gone all screwy—being able to see the palace and city towers helped—they were now headed toward a path that cut through the fields. It took a few minutes that felt like forever, but the edge of the field finally came into view.

Being able to see further than a few feet away was a blessing. Now she could actually see a gaunt coming.

And she could see the guards. Four were on horseback. Another six were hovering about the edges of the field. The closest horse rider took notice almost immediately and, with a nudge of the reins, started trotting over.

Lanhom managed to get a quiet word in before the horse rider got too close. “Just stay calm, I’ll handle this.” As he spoke, he moved to the head of the group, standing straight rather than half hunched over. “Sir!” he said with an arm over his chest in a salute. “I rescued these civilians from an unknown monster, but Seath went missin—”

You rescued us?” Alyssa could hardly believe how quickly he had turned from a sniveling coward into, on first glance, a gallant knight. If she was a bystander and only just glanced over, she might have even believed him. His words carried a confidence and calm that she would never have expected from the man who had been in the maize.

He clicked his tongue in annoyance and opened his mouth, but Tzheitza spoke first.

“Quit yer haberin bickerin. Cap’n, yeh—”

“Not a captain, citizen, just a guardsman.” He spoke with a tinge of annoyance in his voice. As if he were annoyed that he had to admit that he wasn’t highly ranked. At the same time, he carried a tone of derision when he referred to Tzheitza as a citizen like he was looking down at her. Which he was, literally, because of his high horse. “I am Guardsman O—”

“Don’t mite care. Yeh need to pull yer guards out of the field hastylike. There is a mitehan of a gaunt out there.”

“Gaunt?” he repeated, narrowing his eyes as he looked from Tzheitza to Alyssa and finally to Lanhom. “What did you see?” he asked, addressing the latter.

“I… uh… didn’t right see, sir,” he said, rubbing the back of his helmet. “It moved so fast, you see?”

“Fast, huh?” he said, looking back to Tzheitza, not bothering to hide his suspicion.

The woman clenched her fists, clearly irritated. Alyssa couldn’t disagree. Lanhom had probably not seen anything at all. She was tempted to say as such, to reveal just how large a coward he had been, but it would be her and Tzheitza’s word against his. With the way he had looked to Lanhom for confirmation, he probably wasn’t inclined to believe the worst of his subordinate. And if Lanhom really was some noble, he probably had friends in high places. Places where this guardsman wanted to go.

“Yeh can argue later. There’s more than just the possibility of a gaunt out there. An assassin with Waters Street might be targeting us. Mayhaps the Taker himself. And…” She trailed off, glancing to Alyssa for just a moment. “A hellhound.”

Alyssa winced at that little betrayal. But she could understand the reasons for it. Fela very easily could be a danger to the guards walking around inside the fields. She had proved that at the Society outpost. In light of the gaunt, it would be best to warn her via a Message as soon as possible that she needed to flee. The guards would be combing the fields after this.

“A hellhound?” the horseback guardsman practically shouted, clearly not believing Tzheitza. “In Lyria? Madness. One would never dare come this far north. The Fortress of Pandora would have sent warning that one slipped by. And the only gaunt that has been in the city was safely escorted to an isolated mountain far south. Whatever rumors you may have heard to the contrary are only that. Rumors.”

“Escorted?” That was the first Alyssa had heard of that. She had asked Brakkt and he had said that the gaunt went missing. He would know more than a random guardsman, wouldn’t he?

“Uh, sir?” Lanhom said, stepping closer to the horse and its rider. With a gesture from his hand, he had the guardsman leaning over in the perfect spot to whisper quietly.

Letting them have their moment, Alyssa walked a few steps away, pulling out a Message card as she moved. “Message. Fela,” she spoke as quietly as she could. “The guards are going to be looking for you in the fields. You need to get out as soon as possible. Good luck! I’m sorry I can’t do more—”

“Guards! Take these two into custody!”

Alyssa whipped back around to find several of the guards now advancing toward her and Tzheitza. None of them made it very far before they all stopped as one. One of them raised an arm, pointed, and shouted.

“G-Gaunt!”


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Vacant Throne — 024.007

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City Matters

“Fela!”


“Fela!” Alyssa called as she trudged through the tall maize in one of the unharvested portions of the northern fields. Her voice was loud and quiet at the same time. A whispered shout. Or a shouted whisper? Hellhounds probably had good hearing. They were exactly the kind of creatures that Little Red Riding Hood might point at and say, ‘My, what big ears you have.’ Even if the ears were just for show and hellhounds were deaf, Alyssa didn’t want to shout any louder.

There were patrols out on the edges of the fields. Horseback riders outfitted with either lanterns or Light spells. She hadn’t noticed them on the way in the other day, but the city guard was clearly serious about their increased security. Drawing them closer would complicate things if Fela did show up.

The gate guards hadn’t made any trouble. Alyssa hadn’t recognized any of the ones stationed there tonight. If they had recognized her, they hadn’t said a thing.

They had, however, recognized Tzheitza. She made up an excuse about why they were leaving so late. Gathering potion ingredients and teaching her apprentice what to look for. Tzheitza was well known to the city guard and well respected. They hadn’t even questioned her beyond that.

Of course, they had said that they would need to inspect their belongings when returning to the city. Not even Tzheitza’s reputation could protect her from that. And Tzheitza didn’t have draken that could just jump over the guards. It was probably for the best that Alyssa had decided to travel light. All she had on her was the hamburger, her weapons, and a mostly empty satchel.

Speaking of the hamburger, Alyssa cracked open the cardboard container. Whatever stasis spell kept the hamburger fresh broke, filling the air with the delicious scent of incredibly unhealthy food. Alyssa’s mouth watered despite having just eaten before leaving. Ignoring her stomach, she started waving her spread deck of cards over the top of the burger, using them like a makeshift fan.

“Here Fela, come on girl!”

All the while, she tried to avoid looking at Tzheitza. Not only did she feel a bit embarrassed and a bit silly about calling for the hellhound like she was an actual dog, but Tzheitza… did not look happy.

The potioneer hadn’t said much since leaving, but she had maintained an abject look of utter disapproval. Her mouth was set in a thin line and her brow hadn’t unfurrowed since leaving the city. Her eyes flicked about the fields, searching for danger. With her hand tight around one of the orbs on her bandoleer—a blue freezing potion—Alyssa had no doubt that she would be ready for a hellhound to pop out of the shadows and attack her. In fact, even if Fela didn’t attack, the hound might still get a potion to the face.

Now that the hamburger container was open, it probably wouldn’t be long. The smell just needed a chance to percolate.

“Thank you for agreeing to this, by the way,” Alyssa said, using a much more natural tone of voice. The guards were plenty far away. “I know you don’t like monsters much.”

Tzheitza grunted in response. “Where is yer mimic anyhow? I can’t imagine yeh finally got rid of it.”

“Oh, she is at the palace with Irulon.” Alyssa had received a Message from her just the morning before. Kasita originally wanted to spy on the meeting between Irulon and her father. Apparently, the Pharaoh wasn’t too pleased with his eldest daughter at the moment. Mostly because of Kasita and the stunt she had pulled in front of the entirety of the city and palace guards.

Brakkt had calmed down the guard who had wound up in a Loophole, but not before he had managed to tell everyone and their dog that the princess wasn’t the princess. Now, nobles were slinging accusations of all sorts of things. The most ridiculous of which seemed to be the suggestion that Irulon had never existed and had always been a monstrous infiltrator. One person even put out the theory that all the royal family members were monsters.

It sounded rough for Irulon. That said, they really hadn’t had that much of a choice. Irulon’s clones had even given Kasita instructions on how to speak to the guards, so she had clearly agreed with the choice. But that didn’t stop all the trouble.

With all that going on, Alyssa had to wonder whether Irulon was managing to help out Oxart. Alyssa would need to look into it herself before long. Maybe after sending a message to Irulon to check. But that probably wouldn’t be until after her trip to Earth. Kasita had mentioned in her Message wanting to be there for that, so she might be slipping out of the palace at this very moment. Hopefully she would be careful. Alyssa wouldn’t normally worry about the mimic, but with the city guard on high alert, the palace guard would probably be the same. And they probably had at least a few people looking out for mimics after Kasita had disguised herself as the Princess.

A rustling in the maize made Alyssa tense up. The hand not holding the hamburger went straight for her pistol. She held no doubts that Fela wouldn’t attack her, but Fela might not be the only thing drawn close by the smell of modern food. To her side, Tzheitza tugged the icy potion from her bandoleer, having much the same thoughts. Or maybe she didn’t care if it was Fela or not.

The rustling happened again. This time, Alyssa saw it. Two bright orange flames shining in the darkness. “Fela?” Alyssa whispered. That had to be her. If it was some other hellhound, she hoped they liked burgers more than people.

She took a single step closer. The heavy weight of Tzheitza’s hand on her shoulder kept her from moving forward any more.

“It’s fine,” Alyssa said, shrugging the hand off and holstering her pistol at the same time. If this wasn’t her hellhound and she wound up dead… well, she would probably feel awfully foolish in the pit of Tenebrael’s stomach. “Fela? Is that you? You remember hamburgers, right? I brought you one so that we could talk for a bit. Do you mind coming out? My friend won’t hurt you.” Hopefully.

The rustling got closer as did those fiery lights.

A stalk of corn toppled to the side as a hellhound stepped forward, poking its mane-draped head out of the shadows and into the small area lit by Alyssa’s Light spell. She had her eyes narrowed at Tzheitza, but it was a strain, Alyssa could tell. Her gaze kept drifting over to Alyssa’s outstretched hand. She kept licking her lips. Every few seconds, she would sniff at the air.

Unable to take it anymore, she practically pounced on Alyssa’s hand. The hamburger vanished in a blur of fur. Fela disappeared as well. Alyssa could hear her nearby, chomping down on the burger.

“We should go,” Tzheitza said, voice terse. Her knuckles were white as they gripped her potion orb. Hopefully the glass could stand up to the pressure. “Yer lucky to keep yer arm.”

“It’s fine. She didn’t even scratch me.” Alyssa waved her hand in front of Tzheitza. “Not even a tiny mark. But Fela!” Alyssa turned to where she thought she heard the noises coming from. There was a faint light in the darkness that might have been from Fela’s eyes, though her back was turned. Or it might have just been Alyssa’s imagination. “Come back. I just want to talk. Tzheitza isn’t going to hurt you. In fact, she’s going to put her potion right back on her bandoleer,” she said with a pointed look at the older woman.

Tzheitza grumbled something unintelligible under her breath. Or maybe she was just growling louder than the actual monster. Either way, it took an extra glare to get her to lower the potion. Frankly, Alyssa was surprised that she hadn’t tossed it the moment Fela leaped at the hamburger. It had happened quickly, true, but she had reacted to other things quickly. When they had been captured on the Brechen Overlook, she had been the first one up and at them when Kasita freed them. Of course, they had been captured in the first place, but that had been an ambush.

Ah well. Alyssa should just count herself and Fela lucky that neither of them wound up an ice cube.

However, even with the potion lowered, it still wasn’t away.

Alyssa probably wasn’t going to get anything better.

“You have lots of scary friends.”

Turning back to the forest of maize, Alyssa spotted the two red lights just barely beyond the radius of her spell’s light. “Oh?” The draken and Irulon were pretty scary. Tzheitza was muscular and armed with all sorts of esoteric potions, but Alyssa would definitely say that she was the least scary of the bunch. Then again, she hadn’t ever seen Tzheitza go all out. And, thinking about it for longer than a second, that potion she had used to melt the troll was horrifying.

But Fela didn’t know about all that.

“She smells like danger. Like she might explode if I got close.”

Alyssa threw a quick look to Tzheitza, wondering how literal Fela was being. Tzheitza didn’t strike her as the type to explode in anger in a situation like this. She might toss her potions if she felt threatened, but wouldn’t shout. Which probably meant that those potions could explode. Maybe if exposed to the hellhound’s flaming eyes.

A light breeze picked up, lasting only a second or two. That was enough to tug on Alyssa’s hair, pulling it out of place. A quick hand over her head had it back into position, but she couldn’t help but frown. It had been a long while since she had been able to do any trimming. Alyssa didn’t mind long hair, but it needed to be styled away from her face. It was starting to get unkempt, even being a bit much for a ponytail, though she wore it loose at the moment.

Fela didn’t seem to care much that her own hair got pulled around by the sudden breeze. Probably because it hadn’t been anywhere near tidy before. With only the dim light from her spell, Alyssa couldn’t see perfectly, but Fela’s mane of hair sure fit the description. Instead of trying to fix it, Fela narrowed her eyes, dimming the flames ever so slightly as she looked around, sniffing at the air a few times.

“Why don’t you stay there then. We can talk like this.” With barely a thought, the light moved around to get closer to Fela. The hellhound shirked away, raising her furry arm to block out the light, but she didn’t flee. “What are you doing here, Fela? You know that the humans won’t like it if they find you.”

“Nowhere else to go. I thought I’d try to find you, but those humans keep patrolling the wall. One almost caught me today.”

“Yeah, I… heard.” Alyssa sighed. Having nowhere to go had been her reason for seeking out Alyssa’s pack back at the outpost. Of course nothing had changed since then, but Alyssa had expected her to run off to find someplace that wasn’t infested with people who hated her. “They’re harvesting these crops, Fela. That means that your hiding spot isn’t going to be around for much longer. You’ll be caught if you stay here.”

Her pointed ears poking off the top of her head drooped, flattening down against her head.

“Sorry.” Alyssa didn’t know what else to say. It wasn’t like they could sneak her into the city. Even if they could, she would have to be confined to a back room without windows or risk being spotted by passersby. That wouldn’t be a fun time for a hellhound.

Even the draken, who seemed to be accepted by the royal family at least, didn’t seem to get out of their stables all that often. They, arguably, needed exercise and a field to run about in far more than a hellhound. Alyssa still wanted to speak with Brakkt about that, and she probably should have when she first got back. Now she didn’t know when she would next see him. Especially if the Pharaoh had grounded Irulon, as hilarious a thought as that might be.

Maybe Irulon would take the hellhound in. Her clones had wanted to domesticate a gaunt. Surely a hellhound was a better companion. Not only was Fela fluffy and not nightmare inducing, but she could actually understand and respond to words. And Fela wouldn’t fall dormant for a decade between feedings.

“Hellhound.”

Alyssa jumped, not having expected Tzheitza to speak at all. She glanced back, slightly worried about the why.

“Yeh didn’t kill the man who found yeh earlier. Why?”

Fela let out a low, guttural growl. “I’m not stupid.”

“Didn’t say yeh were. Just asked a question is all.”

“Then you must be stupid. If I had killed him, he’d go missing. Humans look for missing humans. They’d find him… and me.”

“But yeh scratched him. Yer wound leaves burns on the skin.”

“An accident.” Fela grabbed her busy tail, hugging it tightly to her chest. “He startled me. I fled. My tail swiped him.”

“Your tail?” Alyssa said, blinking. “How did you scrape him with your tail?”

“My fur is like little bits of metal.”

“I’ve touched your tail. It’s soft and fluffy.” A bit smelly, but she wasn’t about to say that to her face. A good bath would do Fela well. Tenebrael’s feathers would make the best bed and pillow of all time, but hellhound fur was a close second. She broke eye contact, looking around and sniffing the air.

An action that Tzheitza ignored. “Nah. The hound is right,” she said. “When the hound feels threatened, the hair stiffens. It is an extremely valuable reagent. Rare too.”

Alyssa raised an eyebrow for two reasons. First, the thought that Fela might puff up like a cat made her smile a little. Although a cat didn’t turn into a pin cushion when scared. But the second part of what Tzheitza said made her brow furrow. “Did you come out here to see if you could get some potion materials?”

“The thought crossed my mind.”

“You’re not hurting her.” Turning to Fela, Alyssa repeated herself. “She’s not hurting you.”

“Don’t need to hurt it. I’ve a decent store of hellhound fur and blood, but bottled flames are hard to come by. Can’t be harvested from dead monsters.”

The fur was expected. Most of the monster-sourced reagents and catalysts in Tzheitza’s store rooms were parts of monsters. Eyes of a gazer. Fangs of a basilisk. Feathers of a harpy. Scales of an apophis. Tongue of a jabberwock. So fur of a hellhound didn’t stand out. Neither did blood, really. But… “How do you bottle flames?”

“With a flask,” Tzheitza said, producing an empty one from a bag she had slung over her shoulder. “Would it… Would yeh mind holding this up to yer eye?” Even though she still had the frost bomb in one hand, she stepped forward, holding out the empty bottle.

Fela shirked backward, moving the same number of steps away.

“You know,” Alyssa said as she took the flask from Tzheitza, “I bet a lot of your extremely rare ingredients wouldn’t be quite so rare if humans and monsters got along a little better. Wouldn’t it be nice to go get a clipping of bunyip hair with a simple question instead of sending people to fight one to the death?” As she spoke, she slowly approached Fela, pleased to see that the hellhound didn’t run away from her.

“We do what we need. Not all of us live in yer fantasy delusions.”

“Fela? Could you hold this up to your eye?” Alyssa said, holding out the bottle. The hellhound accepted it with her large paws, looking down at it for a few moments before doing as requested. Orange flames licked the bottom of the upturned glass. They didn’t dissipate or diminish as would be expected of fire without a fuel source, but they… grew. The flask filled up completely until, left with nowhere to go, the fire spread out around Fela’s hands.

Tzheitza passed a thin glass stopper to Alyssa, who promptly handed it to Fela. There was a bit of fumbling—Fela’s large paws were clearly not designed to accomplish precise tasks, but she eventually got it in place. Only then did she finally turn the flask right-side up. The flames stayed inside, swirling around with a tranquil fury.

“Can’t you do something?” Alyssa said as she handed the bottled flames back to Tzheitza. The glass was surprisingly cool to the touch. Either it was enchanted, insulated, or hellhound eye flame just wasn’t all that hot. “Like, get a permit for keeping Fela around? Say that her presence means easy access to rare ingredients.”

“I’m not ingredients,” Fela said with a huff.

“No, but you could trade some fur for a roof over your head. You wouldn’t have to sleep in the fields. Maybe get some food too.”

“Don’t fill its head with bad ideas. I’m thankful for the flame, but it’s gotta get away afore someone spots it if it doesn’t want to wake up with its head on a pike.”

Fela wrinkled her nose, sniffing twice at the air. “Something smells,” she said, not disguising her disgust.

Alyssa didn’t smell anything, but she glanced back to Tzheitza, just to make sure that the resident potion master hadn’t uncorked anything foul. But Tzheitza wasn’t even paying much attention. Her eyes were on the flask of flames. She swirled it about like she was trying to aerate a fine wine. The glass stopper was still firmly in place, so the smell wasn’t coming from there. Unless the flames started smelling different after being separated from Fela, they probably didn’t smell like much of anything regardless.

Before she realized what was going on, Alyssa found herself wrapped up in Fela’s muscular arms. She didn’t remain embraced for long. Alyssa sailed through the air a short distance. The thick stalks of corn caught her, breaking her fall to the ground.

Glass cracked. A cold rushed over Alyssa, turning her breath to mist and forming frost on the leaves of the maize.

It took a moment to orient herself. Her orb of light was still up in the air, providing enough illumination to see by. The light was even brighter now, reflected off the ice. Where there once had been a forest of corn stalks, winter had fallen. The stalks had been flattened against the ground by the force of the frosty explosion.

The explosion hadn’t been anywhere near Alyssa or Fela. Tzheitza had tossed it off behind where Alyssa had stood. Fela was glaring in the same direction, sniffing at the air.

Alyssa’s eyes roved to Fela’s paw. She held a knife. A smooth black blade designed to be a throwing dagger.

With a sick feeling welling in her stomach, Alyssa unslung the shotgun from her shoulder as she got back to her feet.

She had seen that dagger before. Several times. It had even pierced her chest in an alternate reality.

The Taker was nearby.


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Vacant Throne — 024.006

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City Matters

Potion or Placebo


Most of Alyssa’s initial anxiety with returning to Lyria had died down over the past three days. No one had come to arrest her. She hadn’t woken up to find herself dragged out of Tzheitza’s potion shop in chains in the middle of the night. Best of all, she hadn’t heard a single whisper of the Waters Street gang. Decorous, in charge of the majority of the city guard at the moment, had apparently cracked down on them. The Taker hadn’t been found and neither had Octavia, but there had been several very loud raids on known or suspected Waters Street hideouts… and a few public executions.

Which was nice. Alyssa hadn’t worried in the slightest about Waters Street since hearing that news. They had a lot more on their plate to deal with than one person who might have cost them a relatively insignificant amount of money by freeing a few slaves.

For the majority of her time, Alyssa occupied herself with working for Tzheitza again. She wanted a holster or sheath or whatever for the staff. For that, she needed money. And Tzheitza was perfectly happy to have her delivering potions again and even operating the front counter. The potion maker was almost solely concerned with Tenebrael’s feathers and experimenting. She did the bare minimum to keep her shop running.

Alyssa looked up from the angelic information that Tenebrael had finally sent as the door opened. It dragged along the ground, making a nasty scraping noise as it moved. Apparently, some people were coming to replace the door and the window in a few days. Something that couldn’t come soon enough, in Alyssa’s opinion.

The man standing in the doorway was familiar, but it took Alyssa a few moments to remember just where she had seen him last. It finally clicked when he walked up, asking for Tzheitza. Most of the walk-in customers only got nonsense in return. Placebos. This one was no different. It was the man who had gotten the crushed earthworm balm for his bruises. Someone who came in every few weeks with a new life threatening ailment.

“I’m sorry, Tzheitza is a bit busy at the moment. Perhaps I can help you?”

“Oh?” He chuckled. “Has she finally taken on an apprentice?”

“Something like that.” It was true that Tzheitza had taught her a few things, but those few things were all placebo ‘cures’ for people like this. Things that didn’t matter, didn’t do anything, and made people think that they did something, but took a decent amount of time to make.

She had thought that the worst part of the job would end at having to crush up earthworms for bruises.

She had been naive.

The actual worst part was looking at festering wounds. She had seen some that actually required Tzheitza to come out and provide real medical attention. In one case, she had to send some poor girl off to menders, a prospect that had Alyssa shuddering. Potions tended to fix wounds, but magic and menders were required for anything that involved surgery. A potion couldn’t fix a malignant growth and it wouldn’t pull a plate of metal out of someone’s leg.

So, Alyssa hardened her stomach as the man started rolling up his sleeve.

“I’m sure it isn’t anything too bad,” he said with a nervous chuckle. “I was working out in the fields when I found this big black dog. I tried to shoo it, but it nipped at me on its way.” He finished rolling up his sleeve.

Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as Alyssa had feared. Alyssa would have described it as a cut more than a nip, but the little gash on his forearm wasn’t even bleeding much. It was just a relatively straight thin line. The skin surrounding it was bright red. Almost to the point of luminosity. Inflammation, but she didn’t know if that meant infection or natural body healing process. Even if it was the latter, the cut could still be infected. It probably was infected. And if something like rabies existed in this world, he might already be dead and just didn’t know it yet. A vaccine could save a rabies victim if given immediately after infection, but such a thing likely didn’t exist here.

Best to get advice from an expert. “It doesn’t look too bad, but let me see if I can bother Tzheitza before I give you anything for it.”

“Oh. Sure. Don’t mind me,” he said with another chuckle. “I’ll just try not to die before you get back.”

“You don’t have to worry about that at all,” Alyssa said as she stood. His pessimism made her a bit uncomfortable. Was he always like that? Stubbed his toe and thought the world might end? “I’ll be right back.”

Ducking into the back room, Alyssa found Tzheitza right where she always was these days. She didn’t have her white protective gear on today, but she also wasn’t working with those red flasks. Those things made Alyssa a little nervous just being in their presence. They were heavily diluted samples of blood taken from plague victims. Having a demonic plague separated from her by only a thin bit of glass didn’t seem safe at all.

One of Tenebrael’s feathers was in pieces on the workbench. Each about half an inch in length. Tzheitza had a strange set of glasses on that looked like something a jewel appraiser might wear. Lots of little lenses could be flipped up and down over the main glass. Using a pair of forceps, she was combing through one feather piece’s individual fibers.

“Busy?” Alyssa asked, approaching.

“Attempting to discern which individual part of the feather contains the aspect that retards the plague. Given how rare these feathers are likely to be, I need to find the most efficient way of extracting said aspect. I am also planning on sending off a feather to a colleague of mine who specializes in duplicating magical aspects of rare materials with more common items. He has single handedly driven down the cost of a great number of potions, though some things still elude him.”

“Like the stuff for the rejuvenation potion, I assume.”

“Indeed. Did yeh need something?”

Alyssa started to talk until she realized that she had forgotten to ask the man’s name. Ah well. “There’s a man who says he was bitten by a dog. He’s got a small wound that doesn’t look too bad, but I thought I’d ask you first. I don’t know what diseases you have that are transmitted by wild dogs. Does rabies mean anything to you? Or pasteurella?”

Tzheitza looked up from the feather without adjusting her glasses. Her one eye was tinted amber with all the lenses in the way. “Sometimes, yeh open yer mouth and strange noises come out.”

“Oh, that’s rich coming from you.” Although she said that, Alyssa was extremely grateful whenever Tzheitza chose to speak in a relatively normal way. “What did I say that was strange? The diseases?”

“Mhm. Never heard of ‘em.”

“That’s good. Rabies is particularly nasty.” Unless they called rabies the madness disease or something else. But so far, everything had aligned properly with modern Earth vernacular. Diseases probably would too.

Probably.

Tzheitza carefully placed her glasses onto the worktop, making sure to avoid disturbing the feather pieces. “I suppose I’ll check ‘im out,” she said, not sounding too happy about the prospect. “How bad is it?”

“Not bad. It looks more like a cut than a bite. Long and thin. It wasn’t bleeding much when he showed it, but the skin was clearly broken earlier. There is a bit of inflammation.”

“Mhm,” Tzheitza hummed, pulling two small flasks from a cupboard—not the red plagued ones, but one clear and one a translucent brown. With those and a wad of wool in hand, she headed for the front room.

The… patient? He stood near the broken window, looking at one of the carboys that had its top sliced off. He didn’t have his hands anywhere near the glass edge, he was just leaning over to peer inside. The colored water had all been cleared out, though there was a slight stain on the glass where the water level had been.

Tzheitza cleared her throat, startling him to the point where he almost lost his balance. “Ol’ hodder,” she said upon seeing who he was. “Whatcha wronglike now?”

Alyssa rolled her eyes. A part of her wondered if Tzheitza only talked like that as part of a show. Oz had said that potioneers spoke strangely because they could communicate more effectively in the event that something went wrong. Telling someone in the ‘know’ to add a neutralizing agent to an unstable potion would surely be faster with codewords and profession-specific lingo, but extending that to essentially slurring their daily speech had to be a big joke the whole community was playing on the rest of the world. Tzheitza could speak perfectly normally. Alyssa had heard her plenty of times.

The patient quickly came over and started explaining everything that he had already said to Alyssa. Tzheitza inspected his arm, turning it one way then the other. She was surprisingly gentle with him as she looked him over. Considering that she was irritated at having her research interrupted, Alyssa would have expected her to rush through what was likely a simple non-issue.

But she was spending far more time inspecting the wound than Alyssa would have expected.

“This dog,” Tzheitza said slowly. “‘Twas a largen, mhm?”

“Oh yeah. Big, huge.” He spread out his arms wide, or tried to. Tzheitza still had a grip on his injured arm. “Thick black fur.”

Alyssa narrowed her eyes, getting an odd feeling in the back of her mind.

“Did yeh see its face?”

“No. It was all curled up on the ground. Sleeping. Felt mighty bad about nudging it awake with my hoe.”

“How’d canne see its face but it bit yeh?”

He put a hand to the back of his head, rubbing his hair. “Well, I didn’t see it bite me. Only noticed a few hours later. I didn’t cut myself… so it must’ve been the dog.”

Alyssa stepped closer. “Which field was this?”

“Oh, it would’ve been North-Three… maybe Four. One of the ones next to the path a bit far out. We’re chopping down some of the destroyed crops to make way for new plantings.”

The seemingly continuous field was apparently split into sections. Alyssa had no clue where any part was, though North was a fairly obvious indicator. If it was near the damaged fields, that meant that it would have been along the route that Alyssa had taken to get back to the city.

“Lemme get sommat ready. Sit tight.” She let got of his arm and moved back behind the front counter, casually waving to one of the small private rooms. Having been here plenty of times in the past, he apparently didn’t need any further instructions and promptly went right to the one Alyssa had first seen him in.

Alyssa walked over. He hadn’t closed the door, so she spoke softly to Tzheitza. “Is it anything to be worried over?”

“It definitely wasn’t a tool cut. Magically inclined monsters will often leave a bit of residue behind in attacks. Sometimes harmful. Sometimes not. That red around the cut is a burn I’d associate with a hellhound, though donno what one is doing that close to the city. Might itch a jommy, but probably not deadly.”

Grimacing, Alyssa shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She was pretty sure she knew what one was doing this close. Or, if she didn’t know what it was doing, she knew who that hellhound was. At least Fela hadn’t killed him. That probably would have had the guards burning down the fields to get to her. But… “How did he mistake a hellhound for a dog?”

Tzheitza eyed her for a moment. If she noticed the shifting of Alyssa’s feet, she didn’t say antyhing about it. “Not surprisin’ if he didn’t look at its face. Not a lot of people outside the guild would recognize uncommon monsters anyhow.”

“Still, you’d think he’d notice the muscles on the non-furry parts… or the non-furry parts… or the breasts… or the huge flames coming out of the eyes… or… What?”

Pausing mixing a few ingredients into a creamy paste, Tzheitza raised her unscathed eyebrow. “Yeh know something?”

“Well, I mean, it could just be coincidence, but Irulon and I met a hellhound while we were out. I might have mentioned that we freed a number of monsters while destroying the outpost.”

“And it followed yeh back?”

“She followed us part of the way, but we weren’t exactly waiting up for her.”

Tzheitza let out a long sigh, crossing her arms as she stared at Alyssa. “I thought yeh learned after the goddard fairy.”

“Fela isn’t anything like the fairy! She doesn’t mind control people, for one. And Irulon was fine with it.”

“The Princess might not be thinking properlike. Don’t think I didn’t notice it when she came abouts for yer mimic.” Tzheitza tapped the side of her temple with a finger. “She’s got dragon eyes. And the Black Prince is known for his monsters. Octavia is none better. That whole family is trouble, I tell you.” Scoffing and shaking her head, she grumbled to herself, “Shoulda moved to Davenport ages ago. If only the palace wasn’t my biggest customer.”

“They aren’t that bad,” Alyssa protested. “And the draken are actually pretty nice once you get to know them… if you can ignore the razor sharp teeth.” She still had vivid recollections of Izsha and Musca chomping people to pieces.

“Bah. This ointment is nearly done,” she said, stepping away. “Add a dollop of this.” She held up the flask of brown liquid. “Keep stirring it for five minutes then cast a Flame and hold it in the bowl just above the cream for a count of thirty. I’ll be back shortly.”

“Where are you going?”

“Gotta go tell the guard that they have a hellhound problem in the fields. They can hunt it down themselves or, more likely, hire the guild to do it for them.”

“Wait! You’re going to have her hunted down?”

“‘Course,” Tzheitza said matter-of-factly.

“But… but she hasn’t hurt anyone!”

Tzheitza raised an eyebrow again. Without saying a word, she glanced over to the partitioned room that their patient had taken up temporary residence within.

“She hasn’t seriously hurt anyone,” Alyssa corrected. “Look, let me go talk to her. I’ll tell her that she’s got to leave. Then nobody has to get hurt. Human or monster. I’ve seen her fight. She’s pretty scary.”

“Yer just gonna walked up to a haberin hellhound and tell it to get out?”

“Unless you’ve got a better idea?”

“Tell the guards.”

“A better idea that won’t get her hunted down.” Alyssa shook her head. “It’ll be fine. She knows me. Kasita said that she imprinted on me, or something like it.”

“What.”

“That was my reaction exactly.”

Tzheitza put a hand to her face and pressed in on her cheeks, as if she could massage away the frustration she undoubtedly felt.

“Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be in any danger, if that is what you’re worried about. And I bet I can find her extremely easily if I bring out a hamburger. She’ll smell it from the opposite side of the city… though maybe I should wait until after dark so that all the farmhands are out of the fields.”

“Yer gonna get yerself killed. At least get me those feathers first.”

“That’s tomorrow, unless I’ve gotten my days mixed up.”

“All the more reason to stay safe.”

“The hellhound isn’t going to hurt me.”

“The guards might.”

“That’s why I’m waiting until nightfall. Less people around means less gets reported to the guards. As long as you don’t go to them.”

Tzheitza sighed. A long, heavy sigh. “This?” she said, picking up the flask of brownish liquid. It had a thick consistency as she poured a dab of it out into the cream, almost like honey. “Is honey.”

Ah.

“It has several unique and valuable properties. One of which is that it builds up a resistance to certain changes to its environment. By exposing it to flame, we can create an effective burn ointment.” Instead of heading out, she picked up the wire whisk and started mixing it together.

“Does this mean you aren’t going to the guards?”

Tzheitza made a noise. It wasn’t a yes or even an agreeable noise, but it wasn’t a no either. It was a noise of exasperation.

Alyssa took it as a good sign.

After a minute, far less time than she had told Alyssa to mix for, she pulled out one of the spell cards from under the desk. In contrast to Lumen and Irulon, both of whom didn’t even look at their tomes as they selected spells, Tzheitza had to shuffle through the disorganized drawer full of cards. She really needed a filing system if she wasn’t going to put them away in a tome. Alyssa was fairly sure that the only reason she found a Flame card as fast as she did was because there were a lot of them relative to other cards in the drawer.

Her hand remained completely steady as she held the flame a fraction of an inch above the amber-colored cream. The color started to change, turning to a rich earthen brown. Using her free hand, she used the whisk to turn the cream, bringing amber to the surface to be heated. A step of the process she had neglected to mention before almost rushing off.

She kept at it for a minute before flicking her fingers to put out the flame.

“There. Burn ointment. Smear a thin layer over that ol’ hodder’s arm. Bottle the rest and tell him to do the same once every morning until the jar runs out. It’ll cost him four medi. I’ve got to get my gear.”

“Gear?”

“Yeh ain’t going off on this habberin idiocy on yer own.”


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Vacant Throne — 024.005

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City Matters

A Lease on Life


Tzheitza seemed to enjoy a good cheeseburger a whole lot more than Irulon. The Princess just didn’t have a palate for anything but the meaty side of things, it seemed. But the food was hardly the topic of conversation.

In the end, Alyssa went with the angel explanation. Powerful imperceivable monsters that no one had ever heard of before was a slight bit more believable than her having occasional casual chats with Tenebrael. And it wasn’t even untrue, either. She might be lying by omission, but not outright lying.

Besides that, if Tenebrael’s feathers worked to stifle a demonic plague, it was highly likely that Iosefael and Adrael’s feathers would also work. And any other angel that appeared as well. So if someone could develop a magical method of seeing angels, they might be able to acquire feathers on their own. It was a long shot, true. For the time being, Alyssa would try to get as many as she could.

Alyssa couldn’t tell how much Tzheitza actually believed. When Oz got back, he could at least back her up a little. He obviously hadn’t seen an angel with his own two eyes, but he could attest to something having attacked him and his friends.

“I’d show you what they look like. I have a… trinket that lets me see the angels. Unfortunately, I’ve let Irulon borrow my phone and I’m not sure that she is done using it.” The Princess was probably asleep assuming Tess had been telling the truth. “Actually…”

Actually, now that she was thinking about it, the phone had probably been buzzing the whole time Irulon had it thanks to Chris. And Alyssa wouldn’t be able to find him until she got the phone back. So, with a shrug of her shoulders, she called the phone back to her hand.

One hundred thirty missed calls.

Alyssa couldn’t help a wince. She really needed to go find that guy. And maybe tell Tenebrael to take away his phone privileges.

The thought that there were two more people who would need refuge in Tenebrael’s world had her shuddering. Maybe, after teaching Chris a little about the world, she could hand them off to him for Nod orientation. Maybe one of them would be a mathematical genius who could solve the magical issue of traversing between Earth and Nod.

For the time being, Alyssa turned her phone to the photo gallery and pulled up the image of Adrael. The wing color was different. It would have to do. Showing her Tenebrael would just ruin all the effort Alyssa had made to avoid that angel’s name.

“Here. This is the one that attacked Oz,” Alyssa said, holding out the phone. “You can think of it like a portable portrait painter,” she added quickly, remembering how tedious it had been to explain the phone’s functions to Oz, Lumen, and Catal.

“A harpy with arms,” Tzheitza said.

“Yep. Basically. Except angels are capable of extremely high level magic. Irulon was theorizing that this spell was Rank Ten,” Alyssa said as she switched to the image of Adrael casting.

She didn’t know what Tzheitza’s magical education included. Given the few spell cards around the potion shop, such as Flame for lighting the fire pit and the various Bunsen burner-type devices, she had some education. But at mentioning Rank Ten, Tzheitza only raised an eyebrow. A stark contrast from Lumen outright calling Irulon insane.

The phone buzzed in her hand. Tzheitza jerked back, hand darting to her chest as if to grab one of her potion orbs, but she wasn’t wearing the bandoleer at the moment.

“Sorry,” Alyssa said, dismissing the incoming call. “It does that when someone is trying to contact me.”

“Message?” Tzheitza said. “How’s it know when sommat Messaging yeh?”

Alyssa shook her head. “It actually uses… electromagnetic waves in the air. A similar trinket will send them out like… uh, ripples in a pond. And my phone detects those ripples… or… something.” She really wasn’t qualified to talk about this kind of stuff. Maybe one of the people she rescued from certain death on Earth would be an electrical engineer who could really kick start an industrial revolution. A magitechnological revolution.

“Anyway, I hate to leave you with what I’m sure are a million questions, but this guy has been trying to contact me non stop for a good three days. I need to find him before he goes completely crazy.”

“Will yeh be back?”

“Yeah. Of course. Before nightfall… if that’s alright with you?”

Tzheitza crossed her arms, nodding. “All yer luggaround is still in yer room.”

“Oh good. Well, I’ll see you later tonight, then.”

“Stay safe, the Waterhole’s been seized, but the gang’s still about.”

Grimacing, Alyssa nodded. She had almost forgotten about them. “What about the gaunt? Has anyone seen that around?” It had been missing on her way out of the city—Irulon and Alyssa had run by specifically to check. The slow speed that it moved at meant that it couldn’t have gone far, but now it had had a good week to run around and do whatever gaunts did when full of people.

“Not a sight of it has reached my ears. Could be that the guards’ve been sneaking it off. Prevents panic.”

“Probably a good idea.” Alyssa certainly hoped that would be the case. The gaunt was creepy. She really didn’t want to meet it again.

Speaking of meetings… “Alright. I’ll be back later tonight.”

With that parting message, she grabbed her pistols, shotgun, and deck of cards. She decided to leave the staff behind. Letting it out of her sight wasn’t necessarily a good idea, but it was large, cumbersome, gaudy, and attracted the eyes of everyone she passed. It hadn’t been that big of a deal on her way to Tzheitza’s shop with the rain keeping people off the street, but now that it had died down a bit, there would be plenty of people eying it, wondering if they could steal it. If Adrael did show up to take it away, she probably wouldn’t hurt Tzheitza over it. She would just pop in, take it, and leave.

It was a risk, but the only other option was carrying it literally everywhere. That just wasn’t feasible. Magic didn’t seem to affect it, meaning she couldn’t use some Physical magic to change some of its properties. Unless she figure out how to summon it like Adrael had done, she would need an easier way of carrying it. Her current plan was to commission some kind of sheath that would keep it attached to her back. Because, while cumbersome, it was valuable to carry around. It blocked magic.

For now, it would stay.

Outside the shop and around the corner, Alyssa waited. It didn’t take much waiting. Five minutes before her phone buzzed once again.

“Hello, Chris, I—”

Alyssa grimaced, pulling the phone away from her ear. He… did not sound too happy at the moment. And that was understating the situation by a lot. She just held the phone at arm’s length, waiting for the blast of sound to die down. It took longer than she expected—her arm was getting tired—but he finally ran out of breath. After waiting an extra second to ensure that she wasn’t going to get an immediate earful, she carefully brought the phone back.

“Are you done?”

Preemptively leaning away from the speaker made her miss whatever he said. He didn’t even shout it. Feeling a little silly, she hurried to listen to what he was saying.

“—the hell is all that? I thought it was a joke! Then he pulls out a knife and tries to stab me! I put him down, but my reflexes aren’t what they used to be.”

“Did you get injured?” Alyssa asked, suddenly feeling guilty for having ignored his calls for several days. She had managed to get through an entire week around people in this world before actually being in personal danger, but she had also been dropped off in the peaceful Teneville. Not even a whole day had passed from the time she got to Lyria to when she wound up needing to defend herself.

She probably should have thought of that before having Tenebrael drop him off here.

“Just a scratch. You should see the other guy.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes. “How long ago was this? Is the wound… alright? Some blades in this world are poisoned.”

“This world?”

“Just tell me if I need to bring medical supplies.” She would rather know whether or not he had been poisoned before getting too far from Tzheitza’s shop. She had her own emergency first aid kit in her satchel, but if he needed an immediate cure-all, Tzheitza would be the only one who could help her.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’ve gotten far worse before. Just tell me what the hell is going on… please.”

“Are you going to listen? Or are you going to insist that this is some government conspiracy?” He hesitated just long enough for Alyssa to wonder if he was still seriously considering the possibility. “Well guess what, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Ask anyone. They’ve never heard of the United States. Or China. Or Russia. Or any other country you might name. The American government doesn’t exist here. As far as they’re concerned back on Earth, you are dead. Not that it matters to you, seeing as you can’t go back. You asked me if you were dead. I should have said yes.”

The silence continued for another few seconds before he finally grumbled out, “This is the worst afterlife I’ve ever heard of.”

“Yeah, well, it isn’t over yet. If you die, a Hot Topic reject of an angel will show up and eat your soul. So you’ve got that to look forward to.”

“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.”

“Me neither,” Alyssa said with a sigh. “What did you end up doing with the guy who attacked you? And why did you get attacked in the first place? Please don’t tell me it was a city guard.”

“Naw, don’t think so. Some ruffian jumped me in an alley. I just knocked him out and left, but not before taking his dagger. Fancied my trash bag, I guess.”

That made a stupid amount of sense. To people who had never seen a trash bag before, it must look like some exotic attire. It was shiny to a slight degree and the wrinkling gave it an interesting pattern. Stupid, yes, but she could see how such a thought came about.

“Look, can you just tell me what I’m supposed to be doing?”

“What you’re supposed to do?” Alyssa hesitated, considering the question. “Whatever you want,” she settled on. “You’ve been granted a new lease on life. Without my intervention, you were undoubtedly going to die on Earth. A real death. This place might be a little different than what you’re used to, but it is much the same as well. Find a job. Find a home. Or don’t. Live on the streets if you want. I imagine that’s both harder and easier than doing so back on Earth. People, you may have noticed, don’t exactly walk around unarmed.”

“Yeah. Everyone has a sword or knife.”

“There are other, more subtle weapons. If you see someone walking around with a book on their hip, avoid them at all costs. Magic is real here. A tome is a sure sign of an arcanist.”

“Magic?” he said with a clear scoff.

“How do you think you got here?”

“Point.”

“If you’d like to meet up, I can go over a few options that I thought might be decent for you. Just a little direction in this strange world. If not… well… please stop calling my phone nonstop. It is highly irritating.”

His chuckle made Alyssa frown, but she didn’t say anything about it. She didn’t know exactly what he had been shouting about, but as long as he was being reasonable now, she didn’t much care. That said, she would need to be on her guard when meeting him. She didn’t think that he would attack her based on their conversation so far, but there was always a possibility. He could easily be absolutely distraught with the situation and might view her as an outlet for his anger.

Was this world making her overly paranoid or had she always been like this.

“Why not? Got nothing else to be doing here.”

It took a few minutes to figure out exactly where he was, which turned out to be down in the southern section of the city that Alyssa had hardly been in save for a pass-through during her initial entrance to the city. Actually setting up a meeting spot wasn’t much easier. He had been in this city for a week and knew practically nothing about it. A week after Alyssa had arrived and she had basically the whole city mapped out. What had he been doing all this time? She wasn’t certain that she wanted to know. No matter what it was, it felt like it would irritate her.

Eventually, she managed to direct him to a little tavern that she had eaten at a few times while delivering potions for Tzheitza. It was a quaint shop. Much cleaner than the inn Cid had led her to on her first night in the city, but not nearly so cozy as Yzhemal’s tavern down in Teneville. Instead of glass jars of light potion, it had candles set on every single table, though they weren’t lit at the moment as more than enough light flooded in through the windows. It was a rarity among established businesses. Most could afford the light potion.

Being late afternoon already, plenty of people were around for a meal. Alyssa had been counting on that. Finding a sparsely populated tavern might seem like it would offer more privacy, but the opposite was true. With many people, it was harder to listen in to one particular conversation. The low rumble of many voices drowned out individuals.

Or at least, that was the theory.

Chris stood out like a sore thumb. Half the tavern was glancing at him, making subtle pointing gestures, and speaking with their fellows. It was his trash bag. He still had it on. Compared to when she had seen him in the alley, it had turned to tattered strands of plastic. Underneath, he had on a clearly worn set of green, brown, and black camouflage. Forest camo. Probably picked up at, or maybe stolen from, a surplus store given its lack of use in the military in the past twenty-odd years.

Trying to keep her expression from showing too much distaste, Alyssa went to the counter and ordered two meat pies and a pair of ales. Meat, grains, onion, and garlic. Not particularly appetizing, but that was Nod food. The pies would be a while, but the ales were ready immediately. She went and took a seat at the table he had chosen and put one of the pints down in front of him. At least he had the good sense to pick one off on the side. If he was going to draw the attention of everyone in the tavern, they might as well keep the majority of the people as far away as possible.

Not that they would really be talking about anything that would damn them if overheard.

“So, Chris, how are you finding the Grand City of Lyria? Everything you hoped for in a new life?”

He didn’t respond save for a scoff, choosing instead to take a small swig of the ale. Although he swallowed it, he did make a face. “How do you drink this stuff?”

“How I drink anything else,” Alyssa said, taking a drink from her own mug. It was actually some of the better ale she had tried in the city. Much better than the swill in Teneville. But really, ale quality was not what she had come to waste her time talking about. “You used to be in the military, correct?”

“You know everything about me?” he said, taking another drink despite his complaints. “I don’t even know your name.”

Alyssa blinked. Had she not introduced herself? Or maybe he hadn’t been paying attention. Either way, there was no harm in introducing herself now. “You can call me Alyssa. As for knowing everything about you, I don’t. I do know you stole vital radio parts to sell on the black market and later deserted. You wound up in prison, got out, and promptly became homeless.”

He narrowed his eyes, fist tightening around the wooden mug. “Like I had much choice. My parents disowned me. No one wants to hire convicted felons.”

“Well, you are in luck. No one here knows what you’ve done. You have no past, but I doubt anyone cares about that. Finding a job should be a simple matter. You’re strong and, I assume, at least somewhat skilled. There are plenty of things to do, from carpentry to monster slaying. Hell, get a desk job. The majority of the population is illiterate so just being able to read and write is a valued skill.”

“Monsters?”

Alyssa raised an eyebrow. “You’ve seen them, haven’t you? Pointed ears. Blue-grey skin? Elves. There are a huge variety of monsters, some more hostile to humans than others.”

He shook his head and drained a good half of his drink at once. “Sure,” he said. “Why not? Monsters.”

The tavern keeper, an older man with a rough mane of hair and the odd name of Gobbtop—the same name as the tavern—brought around the two meat pies. They were called pies, but they looked more like burritos than the circular pies that Alyssa was familiar with. She was a bit surprised with how voraciously Chris dug in. The pies weren’t bad, but they weren’t particularly tasty either.

“What?” he grumbled, mouth full. “The ale might taste like piss, but good food is good food.”

“I guess,” she said. “Anyway, I thought up a few options you might consider in terms of a job. I can give you directions and—”

“What do you get out of all this?”

Alyssa leaned back, considering. “Nothing, I suppose,” she said after a moment. “You are here because I didn’t want to kill you. I’m only here to explain a few things to you because I felt responsible. This world is a far cry from what you’re used to and I figured you could use a little help. If you want to leave, figure things out for yourself…” Alyssa waved a hand to the door. “Otherwise, I’ll let you know about a few job opportunities and tell you what I’ve learned of monsters, magic, local politics, and anything else I can think of.”

“Magic. You mentioned that. It’s… really real, then?”

“Ah! I came prepared for that.” Alyssa opened up her satchel and pulled out two loose Light spell cards. “Take this,” she said, offering one. “Hold it between your fingers and say ‘Light’ while thinking of a little ball of light floating around. Like this: Light.”

As soon as she said the word, the card in her hand disappeared and the orb of light replaced it. She danced it around the table a few times before dismissing it, letting it expire into motes of magic. Several of the nearby patrons fell silent as she cast the spell, making her a little nervous that magic wasn’t allowed in the place, but no one came around to tell her off so she did her best to ignore it.

Instead, she focused on Chris. His eyes had gone wide when she cast the spell. Now, he was still staring at the spot where it had disappeared with a wide open mouth. Had she… looked so dumb when she had first cast Light? Hopefully not, though it didn’t matter. No one had been around in the mountain pass aside from a harpy.

“Well? Go on.”

Chris looked down at his own card. He shook his head twice, scoffing as he did so. Still, he raised the card just as she had. “Light.”

Nothing happened. He tried again. And again. The card remained right between his fingers. He looked at it, frowned, then looked to Alyssa. “Did I do something wrong?”

“Not sure. Did you picture a ball of light?”

“I was thinking about what you did. Easy to imagine when I saw it floating about in front of my face.” Looking down at the card with a scowl, he stared at it like it had personally offended him. “Light.”

Again, nothing.

“Well, you can keep that card and try again whenever you wish. Not everyone can use magic, though I don’t know what the difference is between the people who can and those who cannot.” She had honestly expected him to be able to get it right away, but that was mostly because she had been able to do it on the first try. It wasn’t something she had thought to ask Irulon, but Aziz had killed himself in part because he had been unable to cast magic. “I’ll see if I can’t look up why you cannot use it. In the meantime, would you like to know what I know of monsters? Or shall we end it here?”

“This is… unbelievable. Everything,” he added before Alyssa could ask. “But if I have to live here, I’d be a fool to ignore you.”

“Excellent. Glad I’m not wasting my time.” To get started, Alyssa pulled out her phone and notebook. Hopefully this wouldn’t take long. Looking at how thick the notebook was, she realized that she had gathered quite a bit of information about the place. Either way, she could probably skim over a few things. Her spell repository occupied the largest chunk of the book by far. If he couldn’t cast spells, it might not be too useful except as a reference for what was possible for others to cast.

If she wanted to keep her promise to Tzheitza and get back before nightfall, it would be best to get started immediately.


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