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Alyssa stopped and gaped. She couldn’t help it. Two weeks of trudging through open plains and a forest, tripping over branches and brushes, being eaten alive by insects, and carrying several pounds of supplies on her back had all taken its toll. Frankly, she would be perfectly happy if she never had to camp again in her life. At least she hadn’t run into anything truly dangerous. No monsters since the harpy. Not even a regular bear. The main roads were kept generally safe thanks to the efforts of some guardsmen from Lyria. Had it all been worth it? That remained to be seen. One thing was certain, the city of Lyria was an impressive sight.

The villages that lined the path leading from the mountains to Lyria were barely deserving of the name. Alyssa wasn’t certain what the smallest unit of civilization was, but none of the so-called towns had more than a hundred people. None had inns like Teneville. They were all nearly identical communes filled with farmers for the most part. Each town tended to have a carpenter as well as a doctor and some type of priest. Nothing like what Lazhar had been. More like regular priests she was familiar with from Earth, except they preached Tenebrael’s name. She had stayed inside the homes of residents—typically the village priest—for a small fee. They had been cramped, often not more than single room buildings. The villagers that she stayed with usually included a small meal with the cost of staying the night, which was the one and only upside.

Given her experiences during the her travel, she had continued on, fully expecting Lyria to be barely bigger than Teneville.

It wasn’t.

Three great towers stood over the city at each corner of its triangular layout. A central building measured even taller. Unlike the towers, it had three wings coming off it, somewhat like a pyramid except the middle sections were absent. None of the other buildings in the city reached even a small fraction of the towers’ height, but the simple fact that there were buildings was a drastic improvement over the villages. Beyond the main city proper, villages hugged the walls and farm fields stretched clear to the edge of the forest, occasionally dotted with more homes or warehouses. In the opposite direction from the city, far from where Alyssa was, there was a distinct lack of forest. In fact, it turned into a desert as far as she could tell.

None of which really mattered to her. Once she shook off her initial shock at seeing some semblances of civilization, Alyssa made a straight beeline to the city gates.

A large road, obviously well traveled by both carts and foot, actually had lighting right up next to the city. Nothing electric. That was too much to ask for. But little glass jars set atop wooden posts had glowing lights in them much like the magic light spell she had cast way back in the mountains. The first real sign of magic that hadn’t come from an angel or herself.

As it turned out, most people didn’t actually believe in magic. Not in the way Alyssa understood it—lots of flashy effects doing impossible things such as turning something invisible or making something grow in size. While practically everyone was capable of Rank Zero magic, the effects were so small even to a primitive society that they were simply accepted as a natural part of the world. Only ten percent of people could use Rank One magic. Only ten percent of those could use Rank Two. And so on and so forth. Since everything truly magical—everything that modern technology couldn’t replicate—happened at the higher ranks, it wasn’t surprising that most people were a little wary of someone who claimed to be able to fly about. Or ward off harpies. Yzhemal and Lazhar might believe it, but they witnessed a supposed miracle yearly.

Another cause for the lack of even Rank Zero casters was the cost of materials. Fine paper and specialized ink were needed. Not supplies that were readily available in every tiny village.

For that reason, she had further delayed her investigation into the flight spell. How accepted would such a thing be around regular people? Would she be put to trial as a witch? Or would they realize that there was more to magic than a simple candle flame and a bit of light? Aziz’s book was distinctly lacking in the reactions to magic among common folk.

Hopefully she could find out more once she found the magic academy. It should be safer to experiment there as well.

Alyssa slowed her power walk upon reaching the city proper. A tall wall surrounded the entire place, built from a yellowy brown rock. Sandstone or granite perhaps. The road ran up to a wide gate, fully open, but with a pair of guards on either side of the entrance and more further still up on the walls. The ones up on the walls were armed with quivers filled with arrows and simple wooden bows. All the guards on the ground level were wearing beige-colored cloth over dark iron armor and had long pikes with violet banners emblazoned with a white eye—with black designs curling around almost exactly like the markings around Tenebrael’s eyes—hanging from the cross-spikes near the tip. The banners seemed like they would get in the way if they actually had to use their weapons, but maybe removing them wasn’t a big issue.

Not wanting to find out, Alyssa kept her pace sedate and her hands empty of weapons.

She had seen the banners and uniforms before. Roughly a week ago. There had been an outpost made of brick similar to what the wall was constructed from. No farms around it, just a small building that housed no more than a dozen soldiers. Apparently it was a part of some prince’s plan to keep the travel and trade routes safe from both monsters and bandits. The guards there had been friendly enough, even allowing her to stay the night inside some sort of barracks. But she hadn’t thought to ask whether the city guards would be as friendly.

It wasn’t like she had a passport or identification papers. What if they asked her for some sort of identification? Alyssa bit her lip, growing nervous.

One of the guards held up a gauntleted hand as she approached. Nothing hostile. Just a motion for her to speak with him. So she did.

“Uh, hello?”

The guard looked down at her with a frown. His helmet—or the face of his helmet—wasn’t solid. Quite the opposite. It was more of the cage-mask style similar to a hockey goalie. She couldn’t help but notice his eyes roaming over her gear, first at the shotgun slung over her shoulder, her backpack, and then to her clothes. She had decided to wear Aziz’s violet cloak as it would presumably be somewhat fashionable—or at least local—to the people in the city. But now, spotting the purple banners again, she was wondering if it had been a mistake. If purple was a color of royalty or something similar, she could easily be arrested, imprisoned, or even executed for impersonating or stealing or any number of trumped up charges.

Ugh, I should have thought of that earlier. Why didn’t the banners in the outpost tip her off? Had she just not been paying attention?

“What is a noble girl doing wandering alone outside the city?”

Ah. Great. Not only was she a ‘noble’ girl, but was that sexism she heard in his voice? Were females required to be escorted everywhere? Or was he just concerned for her safety? Nobles probably had a whole entourage of guards and attendants serving them when they left the city.

More importantly, what was the proper response? Correct him? That might lead to her aforementioned fears. Play it up? Claim she had lost her bodyguard?

“I am more than capable of defending myself, thank you very much.”

The guard chuckled with a glance to his companion. They were a bit far apart given the width of the gate. A subway train could fit through and have room to spare. Predictably, his partner didn’t make much of a response. They weren’t talking loudly enough and apparently he didn’t have any magic to enhance his hearing.

“That may be, but I would be remiss in my duties if I failed to find an escort for you. Now, which House are you from?”

Alyssa pressed her lips together and glared. “Huuuh?” She drew out the word, raising the pitch a bit at the end in an attempt to sound haughtier than normal. “That will not be necessary, thank you. Besides, my elder brother should be along shortly.” Glancing back, Alyssa turned her glare on the road before giving a sad shake of her head. “He stopped a distance back to speak with some farmer. I’m sure he won’t be long. If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get back quickly, get cleaned up, get food, and get… civilized.”

Immediately and without waiting for a response—as she imagined a snobbish noble lady would do—Alyssa moved past the guard and through the gate.

“Miss!” the guard called out behind her. “The Waters Street gang has abducted at least one woman in these past few evenings! Please wait for your brother at least!”

“I don’t intend to be out after dark, our home isn’t far. Good day sir!” Alyssa ran off, doing her best to look like she wasn’t actually running. It was more like she was moving with purpose. The most important aspect about fooling people into thinking that she was supposed to be here was acting like she knew where she was going. Being her very first time in the city, which was already in a strange world, Alyssa hadn’t the slightest idea where she was going.

Compared to the road outside the city, the streets inside were crowded. Not necessarily to the point where Alyssa had to squeeze between people just to get to move ten steps, but this one street probably had more people than she had seen over the entire course of her stay in this world so far. And she couldn’t help but notice just how many glances turned to her direction. Whispers usually followed soon after.

She needed to get rid of this cloak. The bright purple stood out too much against the earthen tones of everyone else’s attire. Modern clothing would be far less conspicuous than a supposedly noble woman running around with a giant backpack and a face dirtier than a farmer’s after a long work day. There hadn’t been much opportunity for bathing or a shower while camping out. One village she passed had a natural hot springs that flowed into a proper river, which Alyssa had made liberal use of, losing almost a day of travel time in the process. Unfortunately, that had been several days back. She had avoided using her drinking water to wash her face for the most part. Unlike the mountain pass, there hadn’t been a river ten steps away from the road the entire way to the city. Not knowing exactly the distance between villages or sources of water, she hadn’t wanted to waste anything.

There wasn’t much in the way of shops. Shops being brick-and-mortar stores with a fixed location and focused wares. Instead, the road was wide enough to make room for several carts. Some were simple wooden affairs with the goods lined up on the bed of the cart while others were more fanciful, looking like street-corner hot dog stands. Almost every single one sold food of some sort or other. Mostly carrots, potatoes, flour, and corn. Almost like a little farmers’ market. Which actually made sense. The city was surrounded by farmland, but there probably weren’t many fields within the walls. So the farmers brought their crops just inside the city gates to sell them to the people.

At least, it made sense in Alyssa’s head. Unfortunately, none of it looked ready to eat. Nobody sold French fries or hamburgers. Maybe it was fortunate. The stares were getting to her and buying some food would just increase that ten times over.

Slipping past a market cart filled with apples—all of which lacked the waxy shine that usually adorned those in the grocery store—Alyssa ducked into a narrow passage between two buildings. One barely wide enough for her to fit with her backpack. It dead ended against another building, but Alyssa didn’t mind that. She just needed a modicum of privacy. As soon as she was out of view from most of the passersby on the street, she tore off the purple cloak, rolled it up, and shoved it into her backpack. Having consumed a good amount of her supplies, there was plenty of room without taking the time to properly fold it. She could do so later at an inn. A city like this had to have at least one inn. She just needed to find—

“What do we have here?” a slime filled voice asked from behind. Alyssa wasn’t quite sure how she knew that it was slimy. Just that bad news lined the cadence of his words. The general tone felt disgusting. Whoever spoke was not the friendly Lazhar type or the grumpy but ultimately helpful Yzhemal.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Alyssa mumbled as she spun around. It wasn’t even dark yet. Yes, she had gone into a tiny alley, but it was a stone’s throw away from the main street. And not even that far from the main gate. When those guards had mentioned a gang running around, she had… well, not paid it much thought. Ten minutes ago, she had been more concerned with getting away from the guards than whatever the guard had been saying. But acting this brazen in accosting people? They must either be foolish or exceedingly confident that no guards would block them into the alley the way they were blocking her in.

And they were blocking her in. Two people. One, a larger man, standing in the back. He wore baggy cloth pants, but no real shirt. Just a sleeveless vest. A curved sword hung from a sash around his waist. Thankfully his hands were empty, crossed over his chest. He alone would have been enough to block the entirety of the alley, but he had a friend standing in front of him, dressed and armed in a similar manner, though he was a much skinnier man, smiling at her with teeth looking like he had desperately needed to visit a dentist twenty years ago but had a deathly fear of drills.

Did they even have dentists here?

All together, they looked like they had just stepped out of the Forty Thieves’ cave. Somehow, Alyssa had a feeling that they wouldn’t be breaking into song and dance any time soon.

“Can I help you?” Alyssa asked as sweetly as she could, putting her hands on her hips. Her shotgun was lying on the ground with her backpack. A foolish mistake. She still had two pistols on her, one under her arm and another at her hip. But even if they didn’t recognize the guns as weapons, suddenly drawing it would surely be taken in a hostile light. Hence her hands on her hips. Close enough to reach for her gun if she needed.

Hopefully, it wouldn’t be necessary.

“Help us?” Rotten-Mouth asked with mock sincerity. “Why, when we saw a young noble dash into this here alley all on her lonesome, we thought we could be the ones to help you. Isn’t that right, Bacco?”

“Right, Cid.”

Cid and Bacco then. Nice of them to tell her their names like that. Too nice. Either the names were not their real names or they were known criminals and didn’t bother hiding their identity. Or a primitive society just didn’t have the means to track down people like this regardless of the personal information they gave out.

“So we come to offer help only to find you shoving your noble’s cloak away like a used cleaning rag.”

“Suspicious,” the larger Bacco grumbled.

“Suspicious indeed. I wonder what the city guards would think of this.”

Alyssa couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at that. “Uh huh. I’m sure the guards would be far more interested in me than the pair of you,” she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. As she spoke, her eyes tried to search behind them, hoping that someone would notice and help.

But no. Bacco blocked off the entire alley. No one would know that a young woman was being accosted. She could scream, but they might just kill her first. Or try to. Alyssa’s eyes hardened as her fingers ran over the bumps on the pistol’s grip.

“Never know who or what might be trying to enter the city. Under false pretenses no less? Possessing a noble’s cloak when you are clearly not a noble? I dare say that we might even be given commendations for bringing you to the attention of the guards. Imagine that, us getting commendations!”

“Well deserved.”

“Very well deserved, Bacco.”

“How—” Alyssa cut herself off, pressing her lips together and shaking her head. There had been a lot in his words. The or what especially. Monsters? She couldn’t imagine the harpy trying to sneak into the city in human clothes, but there were probably tons of monsters that could pass as humans. She just didn’t know. It wasn’t like she had a bestiary compendium to check. Maybe that was something she needed to start. Overall, she wasn’t too worried about them going to the guards. If they really believed that they would get a commendation, they wouldn’t have bothered her first.

Then there was the whole cloak issue. Getting rid of it might be something of a priority. If it was as special as these two were implying, it would likely be worth a fortune, but it also wasn’t likely to be something she could peddle off at a market stall. She would need some less than legal fence. Or… Alyssa drew herself up to her full height, matching Cid but still failing to reach the height of his larger friend. “How about I hand over the cloak to you two and you pretend you never saw me. Then we don’t have to get messy. Having guards wander by, even if it is simply to clean the two of you off the ground, would be tedious for me.” Her fingers trembled, but her voice remained firm. The most important step in fooling someone—or intimidating someone—was to act. Act like their presence didn’t bother her. Act like she wasn’t nervous. Act like I can cause some harm.

Bacco shifted, actually taking a step back as Alyssa brushed her fingers over her pistol again. Did he know what it was? No. He couldn’t. “Even more suspicious,” he said with a definite tremble that hadn’t been there before. Maybe he just thought she was that or what they had mentioned earlier.

“Indeed.” Cid kept his feet where they were, not even changing his posture. “I wonder what she might have to hide by offer—”

“Can we just stop with all the round about way of speaking? I’m not naive. The cloak is a peace offering. It is troublesome to me and I’m sure you have a way to turn it into coins in some manner or other. I would recommend against being too greedy. If you want something else, simply state it and we’ll see who gets to carry on with their lives.”

Bacco leaned forward to whisper into Cid’s ear, not taking his eyes off Alyssa. “—one of them…” was all she caught from his hushed tones. Maybe something about her being more trouble than she looked. For just a split second, Alyssa started to get her hopes up. Unfortunately, Cid waved him off and stood his ground.

Alyssa took a deep, slightly shuddering breath. Thinly veiled threats weren’t really her thing. Internally, she had never been the nicest person. Like anybody else, there were people she liked and people she disliked. She just tended to avoid voicing her dislikes most of the time. Actually threatening to kill someone, even in such an obtuse way, felt awkward on her tongue.

But it was effective. They apparently already thought that she was some kind of monster. With Cid waving him off, Bacco took a step back again, hands dropping to his side and looking like entering the alley had been a mistake. Cid didn’t move, but his smile did drop off. In response, Alyssa put on her own smile, trying to keep it as steady as possible.

“Either leave and cease wasting my time or… tell me, where might I find an inn or similar lodging in this city?”

The two glanced at each other. Or rather, Cid looked over his shoulder. No words passed between them, but Cid’s shoulders lost a bit of tension that Alyssa hadn’t noticed until it was gone. When he turned back, he was smiling again. “We seem to have gotten off to a poor start,” he said. “But if it is a tour guide you need, then that is one of the many skills I can provide.”

“No thanks. Directions will suffice. I would rather not be spotted with the criminal elements of the city. There are several places I must go that will require me to be of a legally sound status.” At least, she assumed that the magic academy wouldn’t be too accepting of fugitives. Best to keep her nose as clean as possible anyway, metaphorically speaking. Medieval society was not a fun place to be, she couldn’t even imagine how horrible their jails and prisons must be.

If they didn’t just publicly execute felons.

“Criminal!” Cid clutched at his heart, swooning with a deep gasp. “No wonder we’re off to such a poor start. We aren’t criminals. Bacco wouldn’t hurt a slime!”

Slime? A monster? Well, if their belief that she was a monster caused the shift in their demeanor, who was she to argue otherwise. Deciding to cultivate that line of thinking, Alyssa said, “My mistake then. When two men back a woman into an alley, I naturally assumed the worst. I’m new to the city, so I wasn’t aware that this was common behavior for human tour guides.” Alyssa couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “Regardless, a tour is too much. Take me to an inn, an inexpensive one that won’t ask too many questions, and the cloak is yours.”

“I think I know just the place you’re looking for. Shall we have Bacco carry your gear?”

“Absolutely not.” Alyssa half turned, keeping the two men in sight as she grabbed her shotgun. When neither made to move toward her, she slipped into the straps of her backpack. She didn’t bother with all the buckles in the name of expedience. With the shogun safely in her hands, Alyssa was feeling much more confident. A pistol might scare them off on noise alone, but she would have to hit their vitals to actually put them down. The shotgun had much more stopping power. “Lead the way. Though I hope you don’t mind if I follow from several paces behind.”

“Still don’t trust us?” Cid shook his head, letting out a clipped sigh. “Nothing to it, I suppose. Keep an eye on Bacco. Hard to lose him in a crowd.”

She could definitely agree with that. He was the largest person she had ever seen in real life, though there might have been a few basketball players or wrestlers that she had seen on television who were larger. Regardless, unless he was average for this world, Bacco should be easy to spot from just about anywhere so long as they were on the same street.

With a half bow, Cid turned. Bacco turned a moment later, looking far more wary about leaving his back open to Alyssa. Despite that, they both started walking out of the alley. Alyssa followed after until she reached the main street once again. There she paused. She had half a mind to run off. Maybe find a guard. Maybe not. But even assuming the two wouldn’t find her again and that she could avoid any uncomfortable questions from the guards, she would still have to find a place to stay on her own. As much as she hated to admit it, criminals would know of far better places to lie low than upstanding citizens.

Did she actually need to lie low? Who knew. Until she learned more about the city and politics that might affect her, it couldn’t hurt. Being caught with the cloak could be trouble. Anywhere that didn’t ask questions was far better than somewhere that did.

And if they were leading her into an ambush… well, she had her shotgun. She would not—could not afford to hesitate. Not if she didn’t want her soul eaten up by an angel. With a slight shudder, Alyssa maintained her distance a few paces behind Bacco. As she walked, she couldn’t help but notice how few people actually looked at the pair. Certainly no one panicked about wanted fugitives wandering the streets openly while carrying weapons. Looking around, about one in every twenty people had a weapon of some sort, so it wasn’t that unusual. She highly doubted that they had been telling the truth about not being criminals, but they might be less wanted than she had given them credit for.

Not stabbing her in the back in the alley and then looting her corpse was a credit to them, she supposed. They might be common thieves, but at least they weren’t wholesale murderers. Or maybe they were just taking her to a more secluded area. Somewhere that wouldn’t have people around to care about her screams.

Alyssa clutched her shotgun tighter, but kept following. If things looked too dangerous, she could always run away. Even with Cid glancing over his shoulder every dozen paces, it shouldn’t be hard. And if they found her again… repeat negotiations might not go so pleasantly.

For them.

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