Svotty tipped backward in his chair. Having already been leaning backward on two legs with his feet up on the desk, the shotgun blast hitting his face and chest sent his body to the floor.

Alyssa took two steps forward, rounding her shotgun on Cid as she moved. “You were going to sell me to a brothel!” she snarled over the ringing in her ears. A pump of her shotgun sent an empty shell flying to the side of the room. He had a knife out. Having been standing just behind her up until now, it was surprising that he hadn’t used it. But then, he was probably too shocked from the noise and seeing his boss die right in front of him. Bacco, on the other hand, had his hands clasped to his ears as he backed up into the corner. “You just had to get greedy. You couldn’t make do with the cloak—”

Before she could pull the trigger, the door slammed open. Of course the guard would have heard the noise. To his credit, he didn’t stand around staring in shock. With a knife drawn, he charged at Alyssa.

She didn’t hesitate to aim her shotgun in his direction and fired again, filling the air with the sharp thunder crack and a bright flash of light. These weren’t good people. She hadn’t missed the name of the brothel. Waters Street Waterhole. As in, the same Waters Street gang that the city guard had mentioned. Given that they had planned on forcing her into prostitution, it was doubtful that any of the girls were here willingly. Every single person complicit in this establishment was the scum of scum.

Another pump of her shotgun sent another shell flying off into the corner of the room as the guard fell to the ground. Six cartridges left. She had more in her pack, but reloading wouldn’t be feasible if guards kept running in. How many had she passed on the way here? She hadn’t counted. A foolish mistake. She aimed back at Cid, wanting to pull the trigger.

But he dropped the knife. “No. Please! You misunderstand!”

“Oh, right, I suppose that’s your bartering knife,” she said through clenched teeth. The hazy air in here was giving her a headache. Her heart pounded in her temples. “Get on the floor,” she spat. “Face down. Don’t move. And you…” Alyssa flicked her glare to Bacco. “You were going to let him? To think I thought you weren’t so bad.”

“I-I told him it was a bad idea.” His knees shook when she pointed the shotgun in his direction. It didn’t take long for them to give out. He went straight to the floor, putting his face to the ground without her even ordering him to do so.

A good thing too. Someone else was running up the hall. A few someones. With her two thief friends on the ground, she could give the guards her full attention. “Stop!” she shouted, hoping she sounded more authoritative and less panicked. There were three of them coming up now. All three had their knives drawn. Only one of them slowed. The other two kept running.

She fired again. They were further away than the others she had killed, but shotguns worked fine at range despite Hollywood’s claims. It was her aim that was the problem. One of them screamed out, tumbling to the ground, clutching his leg. The other yelped, but didn’t fall. A few of the pellets must have torn through him while most hit the leg of the man who was on the floor.

“Your boss is dead,” she shouted again, pumping her shotgun. Five left. “And I…” Alyssa paused. She had been about to say that she was leaving. If anyone acted against her, they would die. But she had a different idea. Maybe a foolish one, brought on by the smoke-induced headache. Divine inspiration? Not likely. Tenebrael wasn’t around—surprisingly, maybe the bodies weren’t as dead as they looked. However, she needed to focus. Meeting Cid and Bacco had been a disaster. “If you try to attack me, you will die too,” she said as her mind worked overtime to try to absorb the full gravity of the situation.

What if the police came. Or whatever the local equivalent was. This could be an entirely legal brothel under the laws of this city.

Except it wasn’t. The police wouldn’t come. If the gang was notorious enough to warrant warning from the guards, the people here would sooner be arrested than her, even with her having killed someone. Even if they did arrest her, surely explaining that they had been about to sell her would buy her freedom. Or Irulon. Maybe knowing the princess would get her a way out.

So they wouldn’t come because none of the gang members would call them. And if they did, she would be fine. Taking a shallow breath, and coughing a little on the smoke, she calmed her frantic thoughts.

If she were smart, she could turn this into an opportunity. She could save the girls here. Alyssa couldn’t afford to be so altruistic in a world like this, but she would get something in return. Freeing the almost certainly unwilling girls would buy her their gratitude. Gratitude that she could spend on information about the city and anything else that came to mind. Unless she went through the place and killed absolutely everyone who wasn’t a prostitute, this place would almost assuredly be up and running before long. Someone else, like Cid or one of the guards, would take over Svotty’s position.

And frankly, staring between Svotty’s body and the guard in the doorway, she could already feel her stomach churning a bit. Not as bad as it had the morning after she awoke in this world, but the thought of just executing Cid and Bacco while they had their heads pressed to the floor didn’t sit right with her. No. Unless they continued to attack her…

Alyssa removed her finger from the trigger. She left the safety off, just in case.

If the women working here didn’t escape now, they would probably not have another opportunity.

Not only that, but this was a brothel. Brothels existed to make money. She wouldn’t need to get herself a job as a tavern wench if she found a safe filled with coins. There had to be something around. Even just Svotty’s gold rings would sell for something. Except, then she might wind up in another purple cloak situation if and when someone recognized the rings.

If possible, she wanted to leave here without anyone knowing what she had done. Just in case the city guard did launch some sort of investigation into Svotty’s death. No evidence left behind, except for witnesses—none of the spells she had copied could modify memories, unfortunately, if that was something that could even be done. They would have to stay.

Leave rings. Leave anything that might tie her to this place. Leave the cloak as well. Without it, she might not have even gotten into all this trouble. But loose coins, anything that looked like cash. She could take as much as she could carry.

The idea cemented itself in her mind. It might be risky, but she could pull it off. “You,” she shouted into the hall. “The uninjured one. Clear this place out. Tell the… patrons to go home. Tell the girls to gather in the large room upstairs. If any of the other guards have a problem with this, tell them to head to Svotty’s office. But let them know that they might not survive the encounter. Fail me, deliberately disobey, or run away, and I will kill you. Then I will kill everyone else here. Don’t think I can’t. No more playing around,” Alyssa added, more for Cid and Bacco’s sake. Hopefully they, and the guards, bought the bluff. Bacco still had to believe that she was a monster. Even if he didn’t, he at least would be terrified of what she had done and was capable of. She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. A mistake. The smoke almost sent her into a coughing fit. Hacking and wheezing, she knocked the incense burner to the floor and stomped on the glowing embers. “And open some damn windows!”

The man had already run off. She didn’t know if he would follow her orders, the latest one or the others. He might just escape despite her threat. Of course, she didn’t have a way to track him down if he did. None of the spells she had taken pictures of would do that either.

Alyssa leaned back against the desk, rubbing at her forehead. A twisted knot was forming in her stomach, slowly yet steadily. She felt sick, worse now that she was out of immediate danger. Two people. She had killed them, hadn’t she? Svotty, lying on the floor behind his desk, hadn’t moved. A quick glance tightened the knot in Alyssa’s stomach. Most of the pellets had hit him in the face. It looked like ground beef, though with more blood. The man by the door was much the same, except he had been hit in the chest. His fingers were twitching, but if he was still alive, he wouldn’t be for long.

Out in the hall, Alyssa could hear sharp, pain-filled gasps from at least one of the two men still out there. Aside from magical means, this world likely didn’t have much in the way of medical care. With only her one trip to the Observatorium, she hadn’t researched any medical magics. Unless this gang kept a healer around, the two in the hall, even the one she had only grazed, could easily die from any number of causes. Infection, blood loss, shrapnel complications… parasites. Some of which were more immediate concerns than others. Blood loss, for instance.

“Bacco,” Alyssa snapped. The large man made a high pitched noise at being addressed, but she ignored it. “There are two injured men in the hall. Go treat their wounds as best as you can and maybe you’ll come out of this alive.” She waited just a moment. When he didn’t move, she shouted again. “Get up! And get out of here.”

He did, but he didn’t look at her. He kept his head down and his eyes glued to the floor. Which ended up backfiring when he got to the fallen guard in the doorway. Bacco froze still, except for his shaking hands, and just opened and closed his mouth over and over again.

“Not him,” Alyssa said, wondering how the large man managed to be part of a gang. He was definitely not callous enough. “Further out in the hall.”

That got him moving. He practically tiptoed over the body. Once he was past, his timid movements turned to a lumbering dash until he reached the other two.

“As for you…” Alyssa trailed off. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with Cid. She had calmed down enough that she wasn’t about to shoot him. Not unless he went for his knife, but she somehow doubted that she would be that lucky. But she couldn’t think about it anymore.

A feather floated down from nowhere. Tenebrael had arrived. She hadn’t stopped time, this time. Alyssa could still hear Cid breathing and the occasional pained noises from out in the hall. Given that she couldn’t see Tenebrael, the angel had probably appeared behind her. Alyssa didn’t glance back. She kept her eyes on Cid.

“Just get out of my sight. Go make sure that all the patrons are gone and the girls gathered in the main room. If I see you before I’ve calmed down, you’re liable to wind up dead.”

“Shoot him now,” a sweet, harmonious voice whispered into Alyssa’s ear. “He’s terrified, even if he tries to hide it. He’ll be just delectable. If you need a reason to assuage some silly notion of guilt, rape and murder are the least of his crimes.”

Alyssa didn’t move. She didn’t even breathe. She watched with clenched teeth as Cid picked himself off the floor, making sure to keep his hands far away from his knife. Unlike Bacco, he actually looked Alyssa in the eyes.

“Sure thing, boss,” he said, smiling with that foul mouth of his.

Her teeth ground together. The shotgun moved of its own accord, aiming the barrel directly at his chest. No, not of its own accord. A pair of arms were wrapped around her from behind like a gentle hug, guiding her hands. But no angelic fingers brushed near the trigger. The decision was left entirely up to Alyssa.

Cid’s eyes widened. He backed away slow and careful to avoid any sudden movements, almost tripping over the guard’s body in the process. As soon as he made it to the hallway, he turned and sprinted straight past Bacco without stopping.

The shotgun barrel dipped toward the floor in his wake. Alyssa let out a small sigh. Of relief or exasperation, she wasn’t sure. With that sigh, the strength in her legs gave way. She tried to lean back against the desk for support.

Only to find herself resting against something soft and warm. For a moment, she didn’t move. It was comforting in a way that Alyssa couldn’t describe. An unearthly comfort.

“What a waste.”

The tension came rushing back as Alyssa threw herself away from the heavenly demon, spinning to face her. Which put her back to the door. Despite the situation, Alyssa retained the presence of mind to know what an abysmally bad idea that was. Tenebrael hadn’t stopped time. It took a bit of nudging with her foot, but she got the body out of the way enough to slam the door shut.

“The fear of death is like a seasoning. Though comparing it to salt or pepper would be a disservice. It is the most exotic seasoning a soul can have. And it’s so rare here in my world. In Nod. My fault, I know. I wanted to be worshiped so I started that whole religion about me. Now no one is afraid—”

Alyssa let out a sharp hiss through her teeth. “I. Don’t. Care. If you ever touch me like that again, I swear that I will shoot you in the face. And I will find a way to make it hurt.”

A light, musical hum came from Tenebrael’s throat. She smiled a kind smile, fitting of an angel, but the smile didn’t reach her glowing white eyes. “Are you sure you didn’t enjoy it, even a little?” She cocked her head to one side, smiling a little wider when Alyssa didn’t respond. “Well, let’s see what offerings you’ve presented me, my little reaper.”

“Excuse me?”

Tenebrael ignored Alyssa, turning to the body behind the desk. Her wings stretched out, brushing over the body. The image of the pig, which had been floating above its master’s corpse up until now, vanished as the liquid mist flooded into the room. Tenebrael ate up every drop, more like she had with the pilgrims than either of the thieves that had broken into her house. She didn’t even smile.

“Nope. Not very good, Alyssa. He hadn’t even realized he was dying before he… well, died. His last thoughts were of a lascivious nature that probably shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company. You’ll have to try harder next time. But I still appreciate the effort. He wasn’t in the books just yet, after all.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together. She almost said that there wouldn’t be a next time. But was that true? Even right now, she was in the basement of a gang-operated whorehouse. If the remaining guards got any funny ideas, she might be fighting her way out. Who knew what troubles tomorrow would bring.

“What about this one?” Tenebrael glided over to the other body in the room and repeated her wing motions. As the raccoon hovering above the guard faded and the mist filled the room again, Alyssa couldn’t help but note: Tenebrael had no soul. There were no animals hovering anywhere in the vicinity. Just the angel and her wings. “Ah, that’s a much better one. He didn’t die immediately. His brain was working long enough for him to start panicking. Damaging his spinal cord kept him from moving or reaching out. With his lungs filling with blood, he couldn’t even cry out for help, as he desperately wanted to.” Tenebrael ran her tongue over her black lips. “I approve.”

“I’m not looking for your approval.”

“You have it anyway.” She reached out and ran her hand over Alyssa’s head like a loving owner might stroke a cat. “But I’ve got to get back. No rest for the wicked, as they say. If you ever want to chat, just shoot someone!”

Alyssa clamped her hand over Tenebrael’s still outstretched arm. “Wait.” This was a chance she couldn’t let go. She had tried to ask earlier, but the angel had vanished too quickly. “I need you to do something for me.”

“Huh? You need me to do something for you?” She raised an eyebrow before letting out a musical laugh. “I see, I see. First you act all hostile to get me to like you more, then you act all lovey to reaffirm that desire? There’s a word for that, you know. But I’m not putting you back on Earth, so don’t even ask.”

“What? No…” She had no idea what the angel was talking about, but she hadn’t been about to ask for that. She needed a way to defend herself from angels before she even tried to go back. Alyssa pulled her phone from her pocket. “You did something that lets me connect to the internet. Earth’s internet.” An unnecessary clarification, maybe. “But it doesn’t work this far from my home. Can you make it so that it does? And also so that I don’t need to charge it and can use it forever? And maybe make it indestructible. And so that it can’t be lost or stolen. And—”

“While I do appreciate several of the things you have done, screwing up Earth’s books excepted, how long is this list? I do have things to do, souls to take, Iosefaels to talk to, you know… the usual. People are dying all the time. Got to keep up appearances.”

“Can’t you just stop time?”

“Well, yes… but I can’t consume souls while time is stopped because they’re stopped too.”

“Just leave them out of the time stop like you did to me earlier.”

The corners of Tenebrael’s lips tugged up into a small smile. “Who says that I did anything to you? The only magic that I have cast on you—that worked—was the miracle that brought you to Nod. Really, we shouldn’t even be talking like this unless you start dying. And you aren’t. Curious, curious, my little reaper.”

“Don’t call me that.” Alyssa closed her eyes and rubbed at her forehead. She still had a headache. Even with the incense extinguished, the room had far too much smell to it. Though, flicking her eyes toward the puddle of blood that she hadn’t caused, maybe it was good that the room smelled the way it did and not like anything worse. “Look. Can you do it or not?”

Tenebrael plucked the phone from Alyssa’s fingers and looked over it. “The question isn’t whether I can, but whether or not I will. If you’ve found some loophole in my protections and are contacting someone on Earth—”

“Nothing like that! Taking pictures is invaluable. Looking up modern science and concepts too! You want your prophecy book messed up? Let me introduce some modern technology. Even just how to make fire without magic.”

“When you put it like that, how can I resist? Very well. I’ll return your phone later on with all sorts of improvements.”

“Uh.” A chill ran down Alyssa’s spine. “Not to seem ungrateful, but how much later?” She still hadn’t copied those pictures she had taken at the Observatorium. If she wasn’t going to be able to return for a week when Irulon said to return, that was a long time to go without testing out the various magics she had noted down.

“Whenever I get around to it. I—” Tenebrael cut herself off with a glance at the door. A moment later, a timid knock tapped against the wood.

“Ah—Alyssa?” A far more timid version of Bacco’s voice made it through the wood. Barely. It was so soft she had to strain to hear it properly. “Cid said that there were some complaints, especially with people involved with girls at the time, but that the Waterhole is clear.”

“I’ll be out in a moment,” Alyssa said, looking back to Tenebrael.

Or where Tenebrael had been standing. There was nothing there now save for a handful of feathers drifting to the floor. No sign of the angel and no sign of her phone.

“Great. Just great,” she mumbled to herself. But maybe her talk with Tenebrael had done some good. She felt a lot looser. A lot calmer. She probably wasn’t going to immediately shoot the first person she saw. At least, not until they inevitably did something to piss her off. Tenebrael held most of her ire at the moment. The stupid angel just disappeared in the middle of their conversation. And took her phone.

That it might come back to her with an endless battery was the only bright side. For now, she had to go out and face the music.


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