Vacant Throne

by

TowerCurator

007.004 Real Monsters - Escape from Lyria

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The stares were the worst. Alyssa couldn’t remember a single point in her life where she had been more nervous. Not even her home being robbed and her killing those two men had rattled her quite so much—she had been pumped so full of adrenaline that she hadn’t really had the wherewithal to be nervous. Here, walking down the streets of Lyria, it was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other over and over again. And that was even with most of the stares directed behind her.

Four monsters followed just behind Alyssa in pairs, pulled along by a rope. On Kasita’s suggestion, they had looped a rope through the chains of each of the girls. Just to reinforce the impression that none of them were being towed along willingly. Not that Alyssa was too worried about that. Enrique had actually broken down in tears when they reattached her one manacle and she hadn’t stopped crying since, even with the keys tucked under her… clothes, if they could be called that. All the monsters were wearing what looked like burlap potato sacks.

Thankfully, they didn’t have far to go. With the Waterhole being close to the eastern edge of the city, Alyssa had feared that they would have to march through the entire thing just to get back to the southern entrance that she had used. Enrique presented an alternate exit. There was more than one way into and out of the city. Because of course there was. Even if it had a wall around it, they would have multiple gates. When Enrique had been first brought to the Waterhole, her captors had used an entrance not far away. Kasita and Pho had been brought in using a covered wagon, so neither had much of a directional reference.

But just because the entrance was close didn’t mean that they weren’t passing by dozens of people. Every single one of whom could not keep their eyes to themselves. None had run off screaming for guards so far, so she might be worried for nothing. The looks they gave her weren’t kindly. After passing by the first few people, she had thought a mob might form.

“Just act natural,” Kasita whispered. “Take it from a master of blending in, no one thinks twice if you look like you know what you’re doing.”

“I know that,” Alyssa hissed back. She had used that principle plenty of times since arriving in this world. The problem wasn’t that. It was that even if she was a native to this world actually selling slaves, she might still get herself stabbed in the streets along with the monsters. “Where does the hostility come from? What did monsters and humans do to each other?”

Alyssa kept walking for a moment, but Kasita didn’t respond. Was someone watching them a little too closely? The street wasn’t even a quarter as populated as the street around the Observatorium had been. Both here and there combined wouldn’t be able to match the amount of people in the market just beyond the city gates that she had passed through on her first day. Nobody was close. The nearest person at the moment was leaning against a wall, chewing on something black and tar-like as he eyed them. With her walking straight down the middle of the street, there was a fair distance between them. Kasita could easily whisper without being overheard. Chancing a glance around just to see if someone was following them, she just about tripped over her own legs as she found all four of the monsters staring at her. Even Rizk.

“What? What is it?” Alyssa said after walking forward another dozen steps.

“Con. Fused. Not. Know?”

“Ufu~ And here I thought you were some sympathizer, but you’re truly naive, aren’t you.”

“I’m not from around this area, alright?”

“Just how large is ‘this area’ to you?”

“Let me put it this way, until two weeks ago, I had never heard of Lyria. Since it’s apparently the largest and most beautiful city around, that should tell you something.”

“Ufufu~” Kasita’s giggle was really starting to grind. “There used to be far more grandiose human cities. You’ve at least heard of the Fortress of Pandora, have you not?”

“Again, not before two weeks ago.”

“Really? Just where did you come from, I wonder.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, but didn’t say anything. A small group of people, staring at them, were seated just outside a rundown shack. Each one had a wooden tankard. Alcohol? Most likely. They were a bit red in the faces. One of them stood. Alyssa tensed, gripping her fully reloaded shotgun tight in her grip. Using it, however, would not be much of an option. Killing a man in the basement of a whorehouse with no one but criminals around was one thing. Doing the same on an open street to a random drunk would almost surely see her arrested.

The man walked… or rather, the man staggered right up to Alyssa. But he didn’t stop there. He wobbled right past and stopped in front of Rizk. “I know you,” he said with a definite slur in his voice. Drunk for sure. His lips split into a grin missing a few teeth, but with still better dental care than Cid had. “Hows about we head inside? Have a little fun?” He reached out. The poor lizard girl flinched back as if she were about to be struck, but he just grabbed hold of her chest.

Barely believing what she was seeing, in broad daylight no less, Alyssa slung her shotgun over her shoulder. She gripped the man’s wrist, pinned his arm behind his back, and forced him to his knees. “Do not touch my property again.”

He didn’t have much to say in response except a muttered, “Ouch, ouch, ouch.” She wasn’t even pinning him back all that hard. Upon releasing him, he fell face first into the hard dirt road. Alyssa shuddered. The way he just laid there, unmoving… but no, he was breathing. His neck wasn’t broken. He was just drunk. It wasn’t even nighttime, though it was getting close, yet people were already drinking too much.

Turning around, Alyssa set her face into a deep scowl. The other two men had gotten to their feet. Right. Because of course his buddies would come to his defense. Rather than draw her gun, which wouldn’t do anything to scare them off, she reached back to one of the pockets of her backpack and pulled out a card. A spell card. Which spell, she didn’t know. They were all together in the same pocket. Probably a light spell as they were the most numerous cards she had from Aziz’s collection. Whatever it was didn’t matter. Holding it between her fingers, she flashed just enough of the front toward the two men for them to see that there was a design on the front but not long enough for them to know for sure what that design was. It helped that they were drunk and probably weren’t knowledgeable about magic in the first place.

It worked. Both stopped in their tracks. “Pick up your friend,” she said through grit teeth. “Get out of here and do something productive with your lives.”

They didn’t move. Neither to their friend nor to assault her, the latter of which Alyssa was not complaining about. Giving them a cocky smirk, she slowly lowered the spell card. Once sure that they weren’t going to make a move at her, Alyssa gave a light tug on the rope. “Let’s go,” she said to the monsters. Not a one said a word, though Enrique did make a few whimpers. Alyssa wanted to apologize to her, but a proper slave owner would probably berate her crying. In the end, she stayed silent.

Continuing on, Alyssa walked in a solemn sort of silence. She didn’t like this. This whole world. What did the Pharaoh do all day? Even discounting the monsters, should he not be protecting his citizens? Why was it even possible for someone to be accosted and potentially kidnapped not ten minutes after entering the city? Why were there girls who were abused and wanted to stay in that abuse just to continue living? A ruler was supposed to protect their people from both external and internal threats.

Sure, maybe Earth wasn’t perfect. It’s history had probably been a lot like this. Monsters excepted. But reading about ancient history and actually experiencing it were two different things entirely. She was a modern woman from a first world country. Culture shock. That’s what it was. Maybe, if she actually cultivated a friendship with Irulon, she could suggest a few policies to implement. What policies? Who knew. That would be far off in all likelihood and wasn’t really related to her immediate goals. She would think about it if anything actually happened.

“The Fortress of Pandora is set on a narrow strip of land separating the human lands from a large desert.”

Alyssa blinked, glancing back at Kasita, but the mimic wasn’t even looking at her. She was staring up at the sky. Maybe at the rings. Maybe at the off-color moon barely visible in the light of day. She almost asked what the monster was talking about, only to realize that it must be an answer to her earlier question about monster-human relations. Continuing to walk, she remained quiet and listened.

“That desert wasn’t always as it is now. Humans used to live there in cities far larger and far grander than Lyria, surrounded by lush green forests, plains, rivers, mountains, jungles, and so on and so forth. Roughly two thousand years ago, monsters started appearing there. I don’t know how it was when the monsters first appeared, but it soon developed into a full-scale conflict between them and the humans.

“The humans call them the Monster Lords. A bit of a silly name, in my opinion, but that’s what has entered into the collective unconscious. We don’t really have a term for them. They’re just monsters. The original monsters were far more powerful and scary than monsters today. There were hundreds of them. Now? There are only four left.”

“Monsters live for two thousand years?” Alyssa asked, hating herself for interrupting, but it seemed a pertinent question.

“Some do,” Kasita said with a chain rattling shrug. “Enrique here will live about as long as a human. Rizk? She might see two centuries before dying of old age. But the Monster Lords… well… Occasional rumors will pop up about other survivors than just the four, but none have ever been confirmed.”

“What happened?” Alyssa asked after Kasita fell silent for a moment.

“The human king made a choice. He feared that the monsters would destroy the rest of humanity after ravaging his kingdom. When the Monster Lords marched on The First City—his city—they found the streets devoid of life. There were a handful of guards that tried to slow them down. Beyond that, everyone was dead. Killed by a single thin blade through the heart. A city with at least the population of Lyria, slaughtered. Sacrificed. They found the king seated on his throne, visage ragged and maniacal, holding a jewel encrusted dagger. Without a single word, he plunged it into his own chest.

“It destroyed the entire country. Monsters. Humans. Plants. Animals. Mountains. Whatever magic he unleashed rendered the land uninhabitable for a millennium. It has begun to recover, but the fact that the majority of the land is still a desert should tell you just how bad it was. Of course, monsters blame the humans and humans blame the monsters. Really, it was probably everyone’s fault, even if the king actually performed the magic in the end. Then again, I have a bit of a different perspective than most monsters because I can blend in so easily. I’ve lived in human towns just for fun and curiosity.”

Alyssa didn’t know what to say. A king killed and then effectively nuked his own people? Maybe even larger than a nuke. The bombs dropped in Japan had destroyed a city each, both of which had been rebuilt in the following years without too much trouble. Relatively speaking anyway. This king’s bomb turned a country into a desert for two thousand years? And the monsters… He couldn’t have done that lightly or without thought. He must have felt backed into a corner. Could they not have made peace? Kasita, at the very least, was highly intelligent. As far as she could tell, the same extended to Enrique and even Pho. Surely some of these Monster Lords were smart enough that they could have brokered for a ceasefire.

What had been Tenebrael’s role in it all? Surely the angel had known what was going on. Had she tried to stop it? Doubtful. She enjoyed eating souls too much. A genocide like that would have been a feast for her. But… then again… she had that book. A book that, as far as Alyssa understood it, foretold everyone’s exact time of death. It was a book that she had apparently never been able to change no matter what she did up until Alyssa came along. So had those people been destined to die anyway?

Maybe Alyssa would have to ask the next time the angel showed up.

But the monsters and humans… that had been two thousand years ago. Even with the genocide on both sides, it seemed like a long time to hold a grudge. Or… maybe it wasn’t such a long time. Alyssa deliberately kept herself from glancing back at Enrique. In Tolkien’s books, elves were effectively immortal. Apparently she wasn’t, but there could be plenty of monsters that had lengthy lifespans. Those Monster Lords, for instance.

“We’re almost there,” the elf said, her voice soft and slow.

Alyssa blinked. She hadn’t been paying proper attention to her surroundings. Sure enough, Enrique was right. They were now walking along the wall that surrounded the city. Only a few dozen paces ahead was a gate. Much smaller than the main gate she had used to get into the city. That one could have fit a pair of cars side by side. This one could maybe fit one, but it would be a tight squeeze for anything that wasn’t a compact car. Like the front gate, there were guards. Unlike the front, there was only one guy on the ground and one archer up on the wall. If this entrance got attacked, there was no way they could defend long enough for reinforcements to come along.

Who would attack? Monsters? Most of them would be south of the Fortress of Pandora, presumably. Other humans? Were there other nations? Alyssa needed to add geography lessons to her list of things to do. There was a desert north or the city. Not the desert. Just a desert. Beyond that? She didn’t even know if these people knew. Aziz’s map hadn’t extended that far north.

“Look… depressed. Or something. More depressed. You’re not free of this until we’re outside the city and the guards are out of sight.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together and set her face in stone, considering this hurdle. Hopefully the guards wouldn’t question her. They would. Almost assuredly. It was their job. In that case, she needed to look pissed off, irritated that she had to leave the city to sell these mangy monsters. With that in mind, she furrowed her brow just a bit and shifted her walk to be more… angry. Heavier footsteps.

Even though he was watching the other side of the wall, it didn’t take long for the archer guard to notice them walking up. He put his fingers to his lips and gave a sharp, high-pitched whistle. The lower guard, who looked like he was taking a nap as he leaned against the wall, shoved off and actually drew his sword. Looking outside the wall, he didn’t even spot Alyssa until the upper guard shouted down at him. The relief on his face was plain to see. Apparently there were enemies that worried the guards.

While the guard did let out a sigh upon seeing that the gate wasn’t being invaded, he did distinctly narrow his eyes as Alyssa and the monsters approached. His lips curled into a scowl. As soon as they were close enough for him to be heard without shouting, he said, “Just where do you think you’re going?”

“Selling these useless wastes of space.” Sorry everyone. “I’d appreciate if you didn’t hold me up longer than necessary. I’m already running late.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you set off in the morning? It’s nearly dark.” As he spoke, he turned from Alyssa to look over the monsters. His eyes lingered on Enrique long enough to make the elf shift where she stood.

A chill tingled at Alyssa’s toes. Remembering the encounter on the way here, she realized that this guard could easily recognize three of the four monsters. After a long day standing out in the hot sun on a boring job, spending the evening in the company of women, drugs, food, and alcohol… He could visit the Waterhole every single night if he didn’t care about any illegalities going on. That was assuming that prostitution was illegal, which Alyssa somehow doubted.

Letting out a loud huff to draw attention back to her, Alyssa shook her head. “Don’t have far to go. Only an hour’s trip. Maybe two if these slaves slow me down. I just have to meet with a creepy old man a bit out of the city. Said his name was… Dumbledore.” Sorry J. K. Rowling. She leaned in close and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I don’t have much pity for monsters, but this guy was really disgusting. I shudder to think what ‘experiments’ he has planned for them.”

The guard just hummed. It seemed like there wasn’t a problem leaving the city to sell slaves. For which Alyssa was grateful. At least, he hadn’t called for the other guards and, while his sword was still drawn, he held it in a loose grip at his side. But she didn’t like the way he was acting. Like the front gate guards, his helmet’s face plate was less of a plate and more of a wire mask. As such, it was plain to see that his eyes kept wandering over Alyssa’s shoulder to Enrique.

“How much?”

“I’m sorry?”

“How much are you selling them for?”

Alyssa mentally grimaced. Money matters. Her greatest weakness. A bit of porridge and bread could be purchased for one to three prav. A meal with meat was a medi with maybe a few prav thrown in depending on exactly what the meal was. The tailor who had lost his sheep to harpies in Teneville wanted one full altus for a wool cloak even though they were normally only around seven to ten medi. With six prav to a medi and eighteen medi to an altus… how much would a slave be worth? She had no other reference to monetary costs.

The answer came to her in only a moment of thought. “I’m not selling them to you, if that’s what you’re asking. Dumbledore already paid me twenty altus. I’ll be getting the rest on delivery. If I show up with less than he paid for, or don’t show up at all because you bought all four, then I’ll have to deal with him far more than I want. I already told you that this guy is disgusting and I will be minimizing contact as much as possible.” She glared for a moment before huffing and turning her head. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I’d like to get there and back before it gets too late.”

With a light tug on the rope, she started walking again. The guard let her go this time without another word. Thankfully. If he tried to detain her, she didn’t know what she would have done. Killing a guard or even attacking one seemed like a surefire way to never be allowed back in, assuming she got away and wasn’t put to death. Running away with an overweight backpack on, even from a knight in heavy armor, didn’t seem feasible either. Not having to worry about it was the best option. A bit anti-climactic, but she had already had an exciting enough day as it was.

This exit from Lyria looked to be on the northern side. Fields of some kind of food continued out for a long distance, but it slowly faded out with a bend in the river that ran through the city. Desert extended further outward. Not the sand and dunes type of desert. There was plantlife out there. Sagebrush, mostly. Pulling out her binoculars, she scanned it over. There were actually a few buildings out there too. Nothing large. Single shacks. Residential homes? It didn’t seem like it, but they were too small to be guard watchposts.

A large dustcloud had kicked up into the air far on the horizon. Without her binoculars, she might have thought it was a mirage or other illusion. A sandstorm? Hopefully it was far enough off that it wouldn’t come her way before she got back into the city.

“Well,” Alyssa said, pocketing her binoculars. “We’re out. Sorry for anything I said that was rude. Have to keep up the facade.”

“Words. Un. Import. Ant… Out. Doors… Happy.”

“Can we take off these things yet?” Enrique said, rattling her chains. “I just really want them off.”

Glancing back, Alyssa frowned. They were still in sight of the city walls. She didn’t know if they had binoculars or some magic to replicate them. If she were a guard, she would definitely be keeping an eye on four of humanity’s enemies as they left the city. “Better wait until we’re completely out of sight. Just in case.”

Enrique nodded with a hefty sigh, but smiled. The first time Alyssa had seen her smile since taking her manacles off back in Svotty’s office. It was an alright smile, but really didn’t look like she had much practice with doing so. There was a strain in her lips that normal people didn’t possess. And judging by her words, Pho was happy as well.

It was a good feeling. Between killing four people, being thrust into another world, not understanding anything, and literal angels following her around, something as simple as helping people was a nice change of pace. Of course, she wasn’t just helping them carry their purchases to their car. She was helping them escape from slavery. Somewhat more of a profound helping than Alyssa was used to. Still, she had gotten information on monster-human history, and general history of this world. It wasn’t like she was doing it all for their sakes.

They kept their pace brisk as they moved away from the city. There were people in the fields, getting some work done before night fell for the day. A few passed them on the road, heading toward the city or maybe one of the little villages that had latched on to the exterior walls. Every single one stared. Not a one stopped or commented on her and the monsters. Most looked too exhausted to raise much of a fuss. Toiling out on the farm all day to feed a full city without machinery and vehicles had to be a tough job. There were some early industrial revolution machines that might help if she could find someone to make them. Things that didn’t need electricity. Steam power was another thing entirely, but how hard could it be to kick off an industrial revolution anyway? First, she just needed to teach people that they could light fires without magic.

No. No. Too many things on her list as it was. Until she crossed off a few of the items, she should try hard not to add more. Especially not anything that didn’t directly benefit herself. Sure, she might get rich. But that didn’t seem like an immediate get rich quick scheme. If she truly could use Rank Three spells, apparently there was some good money to be made casting spells for people who couldn’t. Unless she misunderstood something, that seemed a far more reliable way to make money if she needed.

Besides, it wasn’t like they desperately needed agricultural improvements. They managed to feed this city. Teneville hadn’t looked short on food either even with the festival in full swing. Maybe they used magic to help. Maybe they were merely agriculturally advanced. Either way, she didn’t need to go around looking for problems to solve. Not while she had so many of her own.

Speaking of her own problems…

Alyssa glanced back. The city walls were out of sight. No one was around them here on the road either. The last person to pass them had been a few minutes ago and nobody was in front of them. Like the road she had taken into the city, there were little glass jars with glowing lights inside them set up on wooden posts periodically. Beyond them, the fields started almost immediately. The closest field to the road was… corn? It was a bit hard to tell as the plants weren’t fully grown—it must be early in the season. Not being a farmer, she didn’t know most agricultural plants before they were fully grown. But they were tall. Tall enough that some monsters might be able to hide in them as they were making their getaway from the city.

“Do you guys think you’ll be able to escape safely from here?”

“Enrique is a druid. Nature is her domain. She’ll be able to lead everyone to safety.”

Alyssa raised an eyebrow. Now that she thought about it, she had been referring to Enrique as an elf mentally since the moment she saw her. Bacco had called them elves. But that could be common slang… Was she an elf? Did they call themselves druids? “Good.” Watching Enrique pull out the keys and fumble with them for a moment was a pretty sad sight. In her overeagerness, she missed the keyhole three times before dropping the keys entirely. Alyssa picked it up for her. “Allow me?” Grateful for the help, Enrique thrust her arm out. As Alyssa unlocked the first manacle, she asked, “Sorry if this is rude, but is druid a profession?”

“I uh… thought humans had druids too.” She glanced over to Kasita, looking for confirmation.

“They do, but she already admitted to being from somewhere far off. Perhaps they’re called something different where she’s from.” Kasita shimmered for an instant. When the shimmer ceased, she was back to her normal form. Or the first form Alyssa had seen her in. Given that she was a monster, human was probably not normal for her. “Druids are specialists in nature magic. It’s a bit different for humans. They have those papers with all the squiggly lines. But the effect is the same. They commune with nature, whether that be listening to the trees to locate and avoid pursuers, growing plants to entangle things in vines, or talking with squirrels to find their way through unfamiliar territory.”

“I see.” Alyssa finished with Enrique’s ankle chains and moved on to Pho. All the while, she just thought how strange that sounded. Talking to squirrels? Or trees? It was like a Disney movie. But Kasita didn’t look like she was joking around. She hadn’t even done one of her ufufu giggles. Enrique wasn’t contradicting her either, though she wasn’t paying much attention anymore either. With her manacles off, the elf was spinning around in some kind of dance with a wide, happy smile on her face.

Pho’s face didn’t change expressions. Given how stiff it looked, Alyssa wasn’t sure it could. But she had started buzzing. Her wings, ruined though they were, were twitching back and forth behind her back. Her hands and arms were much like her face. Hard. No squishy flesh to them. What Alyssa had thought were black gloves that ran up to her shoulders were her actual arms. Maybe Alyssa had been wrong earlier about monsters looking like humans. If it was only Pho’s silhouette, maybe. No one would mistake her for a human up close. “Thank,” she said as her manacles hit the ground.

Lastly, Rizk. The lizard girl was turning her slit-pupiled eyes around, looking far more aware of her surroundings than she had been back at the Waterhole. Gently, careful to not startle the poor and likely traumatized woman, Alyssa took her hand. She offered no resistance. When the manacle clicked loose and fell to the ground with a thud, her eyes snapped down to her wrist. She just stared at the vacant spot, unmoving, unblinking as Alyssa brought up her other hand.

The manacle clicked, falling from her wrist.

Before it hit the ground, something scaly wrapped around Alyssa’s throat. With a slight jerk, she found herself having to use the tips of her toes to keep touching the ground.

Alyssa’s blood ran cold as she stared into those slit pupils that were now looking directly at her. Her hands snapped up to Rizk’s wrist, trying to keep herself from being strangled. The lizard wasn’t squeezing, but she could easily start.

Kasita, sprouting scales on her arm, broke the eye contact with her hand. She placed a claw on the scaled outstretched arm. “Rizk. She helped us.”

“A human.” The voice was raspy and dry, like she had guzzled a glass of sand.

“Yes. A human that helped us. She undid your bindings. Look around you. We’re outside the city. You can go home. But you don’t have time. This is a human road. If any spot us, they’ll call for the guards and you’ll be killed. You’ll get Enrique killed. You’ll get Pho killed.” Kasita rested her own scaly hand on the blunted claws around Alyssa’s throat. With a featherlight touch, she started prying Rizk’s fingers away.

Alyssa fell to the ground, free from the claw’s grip, and landed on her butt. She scooted backward, taking in deep gasps of breath as she moved. Her throat still hadn’t been squeezed, but there was something about having a noose around her neck that made her appreciate fresh air all the more.

Rizk had completely forgotten about her. She reached down, gripping the latch of her ankle manacles with both hands. The iron snapped in her grip with only a slight strain. Completely free from her bindings, she tore the burlap sack off her chest, looked both ways up and down the road, then jumped into the tall maize. The rustling in the plants faded moments after.

“Rizk!”

“Si. Lence.” Pho put her hand on Enrique’s shoulder. “No. Atten. Tion.”

Enrique bit her lip, nodding her head. “Right. We shouldn’t let her get far. Does she even know where she came from?” She took a few steps toward where Rizk had disappeared, but paused. “Thank you! If I ever see you again, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll treat you to a feast!” With that, she kicked off, leaving a small cloud of dirt in her wake as she dashed into the field.

Pho just gave a slight nod of her head toward Alyssa before following after the other two.

For her part, Alyssa let out a long sigh. That had been unexpected. Scary too. With how Rizk had torn off her ankle bindings, it would have only taken a slight squeeze to have taken off Alyssa’s head. It was all thanks to the only monster still standing on the road. Alyssa owed the mimic a deep debt of gratitude.

Said monster turned, facing Alyssa, scales vanishing from her body as she flashed back into her human appearance. The scales must have been a calming tactic. Something familiar for Rizk to latch on to. “Sorry for that. I do appreciate what you’ve done for them. I couldn’t just let you get killed, even if you are just a human.” With that snide remark, she smiled and extended a helping hand out to Alyssa.

Hesitating for just a moment, Alyssa eventually decided that Kasita must not mean any harm given how she had just saved her life and accepted the offered hand. Once back on her feet, Alyssa frowned down at herself. This was her last pair of relatively clean clothes. Now it was all covered in dirt. She just sighed as she looked up at Kasita. “Thanks. Thought you hated humans.”

“I do. But I like people. And, before the Waterhole, I encountered a decent number of humans I liked. Easy to forget in there.”

Alyssa… didn’t quite know what to say to that and filled the short gap in their conversation with a bit of rubbing at her throat. Despite having those claws around her throat, Rizk hadn’t actually hurt her much. Surprised, yes, but not hurt. “Shouldn’t you be chasing after them as well?”

Kasita shrugged. “I don’t have a home to go back to. I only stayed in that whorehouse to support my fellow monsters. Now that they’re free, I don’t know what I’ll do. No matter what, I can adapt and blend in, so don’t worry about me,” she said with a grin.

“Right.” Glancing around, Alyssa frowned. A dozen manacles were lying in the dirt. They would almost assuredly draw attention from anyone who passed by. If said anyones mentioned the manacles to the gate guards, it probably wouldn’t take much for them to decide that the monsters had escaped. They might start up a search to find them or even to find Alyssa herself for questioning purposes. They probably shouldn’t just be left lying about. Shallow ditches lined the side of the road, separating it from the fields. Tossing the manacles in there should keep them hidden at least for a while. Especially with darkness approaching. If people found them in a few days, it wouldn’t matter so much. She would be safely on the opposite side of the city. So long as she found a place to store her gear, she should be able to hide among the people. “Would you help…” Alyssa turned back to Kasita only to trail off. The mimic was gone. Nothing but air remained and there was no sign of her up or down the road. She must have jumped into the corn field as well.

Oh well. It didn’t matter much. Alyssa didn’t want to go back to the city too soon. She had told the guards that she would be walking for a few hours. If she returned right away, it might draw uncomfortable questions. So might as well clean up the road herself.

Bending, Alyssa grabbed hold of one of the chains in each hand. Hefting them up made her grunt in exertion. Comparing them to bowling balls might have been putting it lightly. These were Rizk’s chains, the largest and heaviest of the bunch, but still. To have been walking around with these… she was surprised her arms hadn’t fallen off. It wasn’t like Alyssa was weak either. Before coming to this world, she spent a full hour at the gym every day, moving between weight machines and more cardiovascular activities. Sundays were her one day off. She wasn’t bodybuilding or anything, but she was fit and fairly strong. Having to carry around heavy loads for customers while working at her home improvement store helped as well. Since coming to this world, she hadn’t really done any explicit strength training besides carrying her backpack literally everywhere, which she had done for two weeks straight while walking to the city.

It just further compounded how utterly screwed she might have been had Kasita not stepped in to defuse Rizk.

Dumping the set of manacles into the ditch like she was finishing a dead-lift, Alyssa had half a mind to take a break. But there had been foot traffic on the road recently. Getting rid of the other chains sooner rather than later was a must if she wanted them to remain secret. So she started moving them one by one. Pairs were just a bit much, even if the others were lighter than Rizk’s chains.

Finishing up, Alyssa froze as she noticed something red sticking out of the dirt. A small red cylinder. Picking it up, she found it to be exactly what she feared. A spent shotgun shell.

Alyssa tore off her backpack and started inspecting it for any holes. Unless someone else had traveled here from her Earth with a shotgun, the shell was hers. Which meant that it had come from her pack. If it had ripped and torn a hole when she fell, she needed to patch it up as soon as possible to keep from leaking items. But after searching for a few moments, she couldn’t find anything. A bit of fresh dirt dusted over caked-on-mud from her travels where the dangling tent had hit the ground, but no hole. Just because she couldn’t find one didn’t mean that there wasn’t one, so she would have to keep an eye behind her until she got to a place where she could completely unload and inspect the bag. For now, she just dropped the shell into the main pouch and zipped it up.

It was still a bit early, but Alyssa started heading back to the city anyway. She took her time on the way back, just enjoying the crisp air. That was one thing this world had over Earth. It didn’t matter where she was, even in the city the air just felt fresh. Like a permanent wilderness camping trip.

Well, it did somewhat matter where she was. The Waterhole reeked of smoke.

Night fell just as fast as always. She was pretty sure she knew why it came so quick. This planet had rings around it and when the sun passed behind them, it went from fully illuminating the land to obstructed. Saturn’s rings supposedly were fairly sparse and a good deal of light should pass through them, but this wasn’t Saturn at all.

The lights on the side of the road lit up enough that she didn’t feel in danger of tripping even without her flashlight. There were a few other lights out in the fields. Maybe a few farmers straggling behind to finish a bit of work. Or maybe they intended to stay out after dark given that they prepared by bringing a source of light. With the wall in the way, Alyssa could only see one tower of the city. It was surprisingly dark, save for a few small lights at the very top.

One other light source caught Alyssa’s attention. A light far out in the distance, off in the desert where she had noticed the dust storm. The whole cloud was lit up with an orange glow. Curious, she pulled out her binoculars again. Was it not a dust storm after all? Maybe some sagebrush had caught fire.

“What is that?” Alyssa whispered under her breath. It wasn’t a fire. Not a wildfire in any case. The dust cloud was much closer than it had been just an hour or so ago. And she wasn’t so sure it was dust. It was smoke.

A hundred things were marching toward the city. They weren’t humans, that was plain to see. Most of them were large and bulky. The exact size was difficult to tell with the distance and without much for reference, but she guessed at least twice as tall as an average person. They had tan skin, large and round bellies, and a face not even their mothers could love. At least half carried a flaming torch above their head. Some were armored, some less so, but the armored ones didn’t have anything proper. It looked like they had chained together a few sheets of metal and hung it from their necks by said chain. The largest plate covered their bellies, but the smaller plates didn’t connect to each other, leaving a large gap in the chest area.

They weren’t the only things. Tiny monsters that only came up to the taller beings’ knees ran around in between legs and monsters. They somehow avoided being squashed underfoot despite there being twice the number of them as the larger things. Most of them had torches as well, along with short stubby swords.

Monsters. Real monstrous monsters. They had to be. And they were marching on the city.

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