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Alyssa sprinted back to the city, not even caring if it had been long enough to avoid plausible deniability about meeting with a slave buyer. There might be systems in place to defend against a horde of monsters. Her efforts might not be needed in the slightest. But she couldn’t take the chance that she wasn’t the only one who knew about the approaching army. This city was the only thing she knew about that might help her get home, kill angels, and otherwise accomplish her goals. If it were ransacked, even a little, it could set her back months or years.

Hardening her face in determination, Alyssa doubled her speed up the dirt road to the northern gates. It felt like she had been running for an hour despite not having walked even half that long in the first place. Finally the city gate was coming into full view. There were more guards now. Double the number, in fact, bringing the total armored people up to four—two gate guards and two on the wall with bows and arrows. But nobody was hurried, panicking, or otherwise alarmed about the monsters! They were just changing shifts.

The guard she had spoken with on the way out noticed her rapid approach. He moved forward, out of the gate’s alcove, and put his hand to his sheathed sword. “They escaped?” he said with notable alarm in his voice.

Alyssa couldn’t respond right away. Physically fit though she was, sprinting with a heavy backpack up a shallow hill would tire anyone out. Bending, resting her hands on her knees, she gasped for some fresh air. “No,” she eventually said between breaths. “Never mind that. Isn’t that something to worry about?” Taking one hand off her knee, she pointed at the desert and the slightly illuminated cloud of smoke hovering on the horizon.

Shifting, he looked over her shoulder. There he stared for a moment or two before his eyes found Alyssa once again. “What’s wrong?”

“You see that smoke cloud in the desert, right?” She had to make sure that this wasn’t some Tenebrael thing that nobody else could see. To her relief, he nodded his head. “That light at the bottom of the cloud? That is fire from hundreds of torches, each carried by a monster. So unless this city is allied with a hundred angry-looking monsters—”

“Allied with monsters?” He scoffed hard enough to show just what he thought of that idea.

The second guard—a new man who Alyssa hadn’t seen before—stepped forward. “What monsters? And how do you know?”

“I… don’t know what they’re called around these parts. I’m newish to Lyria. But there are big ones and little ones and… here, see for yourself.” Pulling out her binoculars, she offered them to the first guard. He didn’t make a move to take them, deciding instead to just look at her like a confused idiot. “Do you have spyglasses, telescopes, binoculars…” Not a single thing she said got any reaction from the man. “Look, these let you see far away things. You just hold them up to your eyes and point them at what you want to see,” she said, demonstrating on herself before trying to hand them away again.

This time, he took the binoculars. He didn’t look out at the desert right away, of course. Like any child handed a set of binoculars, he had to stare at Alyssa first. Which promptly caused him to stumble back. Did these people really have nothing similar? Well, probably not without magic. They didn’t even have a way to light a fire naturally. When had the telescope been invented anyway? Pirates had them in movies, but pirates were a whole lot more recent than medieval times. Not to mention how wrong about everything else Hollywood had been thus far.

After giving him a minute to look around at his fellow guards, the stars, and whatever else he pointed it at, Alyssa cleared her throat. “The desert?”

“Ah. Right.” He finally aimed the binoculars at the smoke cloud in the distance. Color drained from his face as he stared, but he didn’t stop for almost a full minute. When he did, it was because his fellow guard moved up, making noise with the metal armor he wore. “T-this isn’t a trick?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“What is it?”

He licked his lips before answering the other guard. “Trolls. And goblins. Too many to count.”

“Trolls? From the desert?” Guard Two shook his head. “Trolls live high in the mountains. They wouldn’t be coming from the desert. Now, if you had said the ant army was attacking again, I might have believed you.”

Alyssa blinked twice in confusion, not quite sure she had heard the guard properly. Ant army? Like little ants? Well, judging by the bee girl, they were probably at least human-sized creatures. Though that raised a question she hadn’t considered before. Were there actual ants and bees in this world? She couldn’t remember having seen any despite two weeks of walking, but she hadn’t really been looking or paying all that much attention.

Not something to concern herself over now. Guard One whirled on his companion and held out the binoculars. “Use these and tell me it isn’t something to worry about.”

Guard Two didn’t take them, even taking a step back. “I ain’t touching those. They’re probably cursed to make you delusional. We should take you to a mender.”

“I’m going to the captain,” Guard One said after a moment of pressing his lips together. “We can send out scouts and confirm the claim. Then we’ll see who is delusional.”

“Captain Oxart? At this hour? Ipo, you’ll be on cleaning duty for weeks if you go now.”

“Better to scrub latrines and prepare than sit around with our thumbs up our asses while Lyria burns to the ground.” Without waiting for the second guard to continue the argument, Guard One—Ipo?—started marching into the city at a brisk pace.

Alyssa stood by, just watching him leave for a moment before realizing that he still had her binoculars! “Hey! Wait!” He didn’t. If anything, his pace increased. So, slipping around the lone gate guard, Alyssa ran after him despite the light burn in her thighs. Thankfully, he wasn’t that far away. Her pace slowed to his brisk walk once she reached him. “I’d like my binoculars back, if you please.” They were literally irreplaceable. Unless her father had a set back at the house that she didn’t know about. Doubtful.

She wondered if it wasn’t too late to convince Tenebrael to make everything she had taken indestructible and un-stealable. And something to auto-replenish ammunition in her guns. But that was probably a pipe dream. Although she had given in without too much effort, Tenebrael had been at least a little reluctant to actually fulfill the request for the phone.

“I might need this to convince the captain,” the guard said without stopping or handing her binoculars back.

“Then I’m coming with you.”

“I’ll be back at the wall shortly, if you want to wait—”

“Nope! I am not letting my binoculars out of my sight. In fact, why don’t I hold on to them and wait at the wall for you. Then I can let your captain borrow them when he needs to confirm the monsters’ presence.”

“You might run off with them.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together. “How about this: I hold on to them and I come with you. That way you can keep me in sight and I can help act as a witness. Two people telling this captain about the monsters would be more believable than one, right? If this captain is as irritable as the other guard implied, you could use all the help you can get. I’d rather not see this city attacked any time soon.”

He slowed just enough to avoid tripping over the uneven dirt street while looking at Alyssa from the corner of his eye. After sizing her up, he nodded and held out his hand. Alyssa did not hesitate to grab the binoculars back. But, true to her word, she kept walking alongside the guard. “Let’s move then,” he said. “The Northgate Barracks isn’t far, but we should hurry anyway.”

“Lead the way.”

As it turned out, the Northgate Barracks really wasn’t that far away, as he had said. It sat right alongside the wall practically adjacent to the gate itself. Apparently there was a second gate on the northern side of the city on the opposite side of the guardhouse. While the guardhouse was a taller building that rose up above the wall, it wasn’t one of the three towers around the city. Rather, it was smack dab in the middle of two of the towers. There was a gate outside a small fenced-off courtyard, separating the larger building from the rest of the city. Stables had been built into the wall itself with about a dozen horses grazing in a small enclosure just to the side of the main building. It looked like the wall could be opened, letting horses outside the city.

The guard walked right in, moving past two other guards without so much as acknowledging their presence. Feeling somewhat awkward, Alyssa followed hot on his heels. She didn’t want to get separated. Surprisingly enough, no one stopped her, asked her for identification, or otherwise paid her any attention. If she had tried to walk into a modern military installation, she would have been tackled to the ground before she made it ten steps to the front gate. That was assuming they simply didn’t shoot her.

He walked right through some sort of training room that made up most of the ground floor. A few of the guards nodded at him or even welcomed him back by name—Ipo, definitely—but he didn’t do anything but nod in return. One of the smaller doorways in the back led to a staircase. The second floor, with its open door allowing Alyssa a quick peek inside, was proper sleeping quarters filled with rows of bunk beds alongside either wall. But Ipo skipped it, heading straight to the third floor.

The third floor was more of an administrative section. Inside the large room, there were two boards with little wooden nameplates hanging from hooks. Each board looked to be associated with one of the northern city gates. There were markers beside the names, filling out time slots. A schedule.

A single woman sat at a desk just in front of a wide window that looked out over the farmlands around the city. A glass jar hanging from the ceiling had one of those magical lights sitting inside. It staved off the darkness around her desk where she was bent over pieces of paper, reading. She wore a uniform, though it wasn’t the armor that all the gate guards wore. It was more like a black military coat that wouldn’t close all the way normally, but it had an extra wide piece of cloth over her front, connecting the two sides of the coat by way of bright silver buttons. Her long black hair was tied into a low ponytail and ran all the way down to her waist.

A secretary? She didn’t look up even when Ipo coughed into his fist, continuing to peruse the papers lying on her desk. Undeterred, Ipo tried again. “Captain, I apologize for the disturbance, but… have you looked outside?”

That got the woman, Captain Oxart, to look up. She quirked an eyebrow and said, “This had better be important.”

“I hope it isn’t,” Ipo mumbled barely loud enough for Alyssa to hear. If the captain caught it, she didn’t react, standing and turning instead. A slight jangle from the woman caught Alyssa’s attention. Like Irulon, she had a tome hanging from a belt around her waist. An arcanist then? A better question: Had she been promoted to captain for her ability to cast spells or for management skills?

She clasped her hands behind her back as she walked up to the window. “The desert?” she asked with a quick glance over her shoulder. “Sandstorms are nothing to disrupt my work over.”

“It isn’t a sandstorm, Captain. Trolls. And goblins. They’re charging here, kicking up dirt and carrying torches. Judging by the smoke, I’d say they stopped at the tar pits for their torches.”

“Trolls? From the desert?”

That was second time someone had been incredulous about monsters coming from the desert. Was there something that kept them from migrating around?

“It’s true. I saw it with my own eyes. At least a hundred trolls. More goblins. A few were riding wogs, but most were on foot—”

“You left your post?” There was a certain edge to her voice that made Ipo stiffen.

“No. I…”

Alyssa cut in, hopefully saving the guard. “I have a tool in my possession that allows one to see things from a distance.”

Captain Oxart spun on her heel, keeping her hands clasped firmly behind her back. “And who might you be?”

“I’m a traveler. I was outside the city and noticed the monster army,” Alyssa answered before Ipo could do something like claim that she had been selling monsters. She wanted to keep that off the record if at all possible. “Once I noticed, I ran to the gate and informed the first guard I found.”

The captain eyed her, looking her up and down. Yes, her clothes might not exactly be native, but did literally everyone she came across have to do that? They weren’t that strange, were they. She just had on a long sleeved shirt with horizontal stripes and jeans. And her giant backpack. Her hair didn’t even have any funky highlights, it was just plain brown.

Oxart didn’t say anything and just kept staring. Alyssa couldn’t just sit there. “Shouldn’t you be organizing a defense? If you want, I could loan you my binoculars if you want to see for yourself. They should work just fine from here,” she said with a gesture to the large windows.

After narrowing her eyes for just a moment, she marched back to her desk and flipped open the cap of one of the series of brass tubes near her chair. “Yenkins,” she barked out.

“Yes, captain?” came the metallic response from the tube without a moment of delay.

“I want two riders heading north immediately, scouting out a suspicious dust storm. Send a third rider to the garrison. Let them know that we have a potential incursion from the desert with confirmation still ongoing.”

“Right away, ma’am.”

Nodding at nobody in particular, the captain flipped the lid closed with a light clack and looked up at Alyssa. “You have my thanks for bringing this issue to my attention. Now get out of my barracks.” Her eyes snapped over to Ipo. “We’ll review the policy regarding handling potentially magical items later, guardsman. Dismis…” She trailed off with a slight hum. “Actually, no. As punishment, you can go to the guild and inform them of the situation.”

“The guild?” he said with a notable grimace. “Surely there’s no need to rely on those mercenaries. With this much warning, the city guard—”

“I’d rather have dead sellswords than let my men die out there. Go. They’ll want payment before they lift a finger, but that will be up to the nobles once they’re apprised. You tell them to get ready just in case.”

Ipo nodded his head. Not a happy nod, more like he was resigned to carry out his apparent punishment. “Very well. I’ll leave immediately?”

“Indeed. Carry on.” Oxart’s narrowed gaze snapped back to Alyssa. “You’re still here?”

Alyssa jumped. The woman had scary eyes. They were normal eyes, natural brown without anything inhuman. They were just scary. It was like having her mother angry at her for her poor grades back in high school. “Leaving now,” she squeaked in a higher pitch than intended. And she did. Ipo managed to get to the stairs before her, but she was practically stepping on the backs of his feet as she made her way back downstairs. Ipo stayed in front of her all the way out to the street, maintaining that same almost power-walk that he had used on the way here in the first place.

The streets. Alyssa paused and looked around. She really didn’t have anywhere to go. With the captain of the guard warned about the monster army and taking action, presumably she didn’t need to worry about that anymore. For a moment, she considered heading back to the gate to see if she could watch the battle. Almost as soon as she thought that, she dismissed it as ridiculous. While she was curious about what kind of magic the city’s defenders would use, she would not only be unwelcome, but also probably a burden. Even with her guns, she would probably wind up dead.

The inn she had used the previous night wasn’t far away, but she wasn’t about to go there again. Too many… undesirables knew that she had slept there. Cid and Bacco, mostly. In fact, now that it was night, should she really be wandering on her own? Her eyes flicked to the guard. It should be safe walking with a member of the city’s defenders. She had been expecting him to take a horse, but he stayed on foot. Maybe this guild wasn’t too far.

After he warned them, maybe she could convince him to escort her to a semi-reputable inn.

Plan in mind, she skipped forward and caught up with Ipo. “So,” she said, announcing her presence. “This guild. What is it? Why did you sound so irritated about them?”

He flinched a little before glancing at her from the corner of his eye. “You’re still here?”

“Well… I can’t exactly just go home and sleep while knowing the city is under siege.”

Stopping so fast that Alyssa bumped into his arm, Ipo turned and grabbed her shoulder. “Keep it down, slaver. Do you want to start a panic?” He glanced about, but now that it was after dark, the streets were practically deserted. Him grabbing her shoulder drew more attention to them from the only two other people around than her quiet tone of voice. “We’ll need these streets clear. Moving the garrison knights up here will draw enough attention as it is.”

“Shouldn’t you warn the people?” Alyssa asked in a lower voice. “Give them an opportunity to seek shelter or prepare to fight?”

“The city guard will protect them. We’ll likely be fighting beyond the fields—can’t lose crops at this time of year. The average citizen doesn’t know how often the city comes under attack thanks to our vigilance. As for fighting, if they wanted to help, they should have joined the garrison…” He let out a small scoff. “Or the guild, I suppose.”

“Which you still haven’t explained.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it, being a slaver.”

Alyssa mentally groaned. Since arriving in this world, she had heard variations of that phrase several times, and this probably wouldn’t be the last. And also he had called her a slaver, which she really wasn’t, but she couldn’t argue that without revealing what she had actually been doing. Hopefully Kasita and the other monsters were heading away from the desert, otherwise they might be found and caught by the guards as they went to scout the trolls. Well, that was out of her hands now. Whether they made it to safety or died was up to them. This, however, could be important for her. “Humor me,” she said. “I’m relatively new to Lyria.”

“Huh.” He maintained eye contact for just a moment before he started walking again. “They call themselves the Knights Solaris, but everyone knows them as the guild. Knight is far too great a word for the ragtag mercenaries they are. They have no loyalty to anything but money. They’d even accept a monster’s request to kill a human so long as the pay was good. Despicable.” Shaking his head, he sighed. “But they are skilled. Worse, they’re necessary. Lyria maintains an army, but there are so many regulations and nobles in the way that the city guard can’t be deployed for every little thing. If you’ve got harpies attacking your livestock and you want them gone, you don’t go to the city guard, you pay the guild to send someone out to deal with the problem.”

Mercenaries. That could work. Convincing Ipo to show her to an inn while the city was under attack wouldn’t work too well, but a mercenary? She didn’t even need their strongest guy. The unpaid intern would work just fine so long as he knew his way around the city. Unless their prices were outrageously expensive. They shouldn’t be. A short escort was a quick job within the city with no expected combat. What she borrowed from Svotty should hopefully pay for what she needed.

Happy she had found a proper immediate path to finding a safe place to stay, Alyssa kept right on the guard’s heels. “I think I’m heading in the same way as you, so I might as well stop by and see what this guild is all about.” Given his distaste for the mercenaries, she wasn’t about to admit that she was planning to hire one. But he didn’t seem to mind. He just grunted and kept on the path, not caring that she was following along.

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