The air had changed. The night before, when she had been following after Cid and Bacco, and earlier in the day, when she had visited the Observatorium and the Waterhole, everything had been peaceful. Calm. Maybe not perfectly peaceful. She had passed by one or two more energetic arguments, but nothing that seemed like it would have affected her.
There was a tension in the air that could be cut. A palpable sensation that something was wrong. Alyssa already knew what that something was, but for everyone else, they just saw the army on the move with no explanation.
She and Oz had barely made it two streets before they had to stop and stand aside. Perhaps three hundred people, coupled with several dozen horses, were marching in a parade from the center of the city to the northern gates. They weren’t trying to be subtle in the slightest. So much for not starting panic.
Compared to the city guard, some of this army had far fancier armor. Especially those on horses. Many of those on foot were wearing standard city guard garb including the beige tabards and iron armor. The fancier armor lacked tabards and their armor was a solid black with gold edges. Even the horses had matching armor. Some kind of elite knights. It couldn’t be real gold… that would be far too expensive.
Or would it? Maybe gold was exceedingly plentiful on this world.
People lined the streets. It was after dark, but every single person in the area had to be out tonight, whispering to one another. Which was extraordinarily bad for Alyssa and Oz. The parade of knights blocked the street enough as it was. The people just made it worse.
“Ahh,” Oz groaned. “I hope I make it back in time.”
“I accepted the quest. It’s my fault.” So he said, but she couldn’t help but notice his eyes darting about, looking for any way through the crowd. “Not sure why you need an inn on the opposite side of the city though. Plenty of respectable establishments ‘round here.”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t pry.” Once again, she was almost regretting hiring a mercenary. As the guard had said, their loyalty was to money. What was stopping Cid from walking into the guild and either asking about some woman with a large backpack or simply putting in a request to find her. Of course, if the guild had trackers that were any good, they probably would have been able to find her just off a description. As such, she was trying not to worry about it too much.
“Just trying to make small talk. We might be here for a while. We need to cross here but crossing in front of the parade is likely to get us thrown in a cell for the night. Let’s squeeze past these people and try to get on a less crowded…”
Oz trailed off. He wasn’t the only one. The entire street fell silent and it didn’t take Alyssa long to figure out why.
Someone new just turned the corner of the street. Maybe a knight. Maybe not. She barely paid the person any attention. It was what he rode that stole her attention. At first, perhaps because of Irulon’s soul, she thought it was a dragon. Almost twice the size of a horse, it was a lizard that walked on two legs. It had two smaller arms that didn’t touch the ground. Bronze scales coated its belly and underside while bluish-grey scales covered the top portions. Three sharp horns went straight back from a crest on its head and sharp spines and spikes lined its neck, back, and tail. It was more like a Jurassic Park velociraptor than a dragon, if Steven Spielberg had glued spines and well-defined scales all over them.
And there was a rider on the back. Some kind of saddle protected him from the thick, rock-like spikes. He wore armor much like the knights, except where they had golden trim, his was a deep purple that almost glowed in the dark street. While his armor was almost glowing, his sword literally was. The metal was black, narrow, and long with a crescent-moon hand guard around the hilt, but it was surrounded by this aura. A strange yellowish-orange glow ran from the tip of his blade all the way up to the elbow of the arm he held it in. Even with the full library of Hollywood behind her, she didn’t think she had seen anything remotely like it. The way the aura shimmered made it difficult to tear her eyes away.
Thanks to a small grunt from Oz, she managed.
“Huh. The Black Prince has descended from his tower. This must be a bigger threat than your guardsman friend made it out to be.”
“The Black Prince?”
Oz glanced over his shoulder to meet her eyes. “Second Prince Brakkt. Sort of the black sheep among the royal siblings. That and his armor resulted in his nom de guerre that he has fully embraced.”
Black sheep? Irulon was supposedly the outcast of the family. Bacco hadn’t specifically used the phrase, but Alyssa had when she heard the princess’ situation. This Black Prince was also the second royalty she had met in the one day since arriving at Lyria. Well, not met. Seen. She had no intention of drawing more royals’ eyes to her. It didn’t look like this prince was going to stop and chat either. He was already riding past without so much as turning the thin slit of his helmet in her direction. Still, she was starting to sense a pattern. How many siblings were there in total and how many were outcasts? There was at least one more judging by this one’s status as the second. Unless the world had strange naming conventions, there would be a First Prince. Alyssa opened her mouth to ask, but Oz spoke before she could.
“You really don’t know him? You must be from further than I’ve ever traveled.”
Alyssa felt like smacking herself in the face. Every single person she had met had asked that question. She couldn’t help that common knowledge wasn’t common to her. “I’m not from Lyria or the surrounding area,” she said with a withheld sigh. “I don’t even recognize the creature he is riding.”
“Well that’s not surprising. Drakens normally only live in the volcanoes of Sawtooth Mountain or the Islands of Fire. Hot places, you know? Don’t let their appearance fool you, they’re highly intelligent. They can’t speak, but that’s likely because their mouths don’t allow it rather than an inability to comprehend language.”
“You know a lot about them.”
“In my business, the more you know about monsters the more likely you are to survive an encounter with one.”
“Drakens are monsters?”
Oz snorted. “Do they look like people to you?”
“Well, no, but are horses considered monsters?”
“Point,” Oz said with a smile. “But horses aren’t smart like people or monsters.”
So intelligence played a part in what was considered a monster. That almost made sense. Were there no purely bestial monsters? Maybe she just had misconceptions due to being from Earth. Something fantastical to her like a cockatrice might just be a regular beast to these people, no different than a bear. Though, watching the spine covered tail swing back and forth as the Black Prince passed by, she had to ask, “The prince rides around on a monster in the middle of town?”
“Caused quite the stir when he first showed up with them. A whole dozen or two. City guard thought he rebelled. Took the Pharaoh himself to come and sort things out. Rumor has it he saved that clan from a rival faction, they swore loyalty to him, he brought them home.”
“Simple as that?”
“Doubt it, but ah, looks like the prince was at the tail end of the army. Let’s get moving again before more show up.”
Sure enough, there were only about ten knights following after the raptor and the prince. Though, as they passed, the streets still didn’t clear. People resumed their whispering. Maybe it was a bit more of a hostile tone now? Focusing on any one conversation was difficult with so many going on around her. She did catch little snippets.
“Mobilizing at this hour?”
“—Those Tenebrael-less heathens to the North. Attacking them?”
“Or being attacked. Should we flee?”
“Monsters roaming the streets. Disgusting.”
“Who does he think he is, inviting monsters to live here.”
“The Pharaoh’s predecessor would never have let this happen.”
“They should all be destroyed.”
It went on and on. Surprisingly enough, most of what Alyssa could pick out was about the raptors—or drakens, apparently. People were more concerned about them than the fact that a whole army was marching to the gates. At first, she thought it was the result of drastically misplaced priorities, but then she thought about it a little more. With what Kasita had said earlier, monsters and humans effectively caused a genocide of both species, though she had been sure that the humans would place the blame on the monsters and vice versa. The people didn’t view it as friendly monsters inside, enemy monsters outside. They viewed it as enemies inside, enemies outside. With the former being far more obvious given their walk down the street, it was only natural that they would be the topic of conversation at the moment.
If the trolls and goblins actually made it to the city, they might be singing a different tune. Until then, the raptors were the focus of their hatred.
It all seemed a bit hypocritical to her. There were tons of elf slaves running about and she hadn’t heard a word complaining about them. Maybe the raptors were treated better and that angered the people? Or it could be that elves were ‘human enough’ in appearance for most to ignore them.
“Come on,” Oz said. “People will be standing around gossiping all night now. We’ll take some of the back roads, follow along the northern wall until it turns to the eastern wall. We should be able to find some good inns there. That works for you, right?”
“You know the city better than me.”
“Right. Keep up. I’ll be moving quick,” he didn’t even finish speaking before he was already halfway across the street. Alyssa hiked up her backpack and ran after him. Without the bulk of a massive pack, he slipped through the crowd much easier than she managed. It took an “Excuse me,” and “Pardon me,” every now and again, but she made it to a narrow alley and the side street on the opposite side where Oz held up for her.
“Looks heavy,” he quipped with a glance over his shoulder. He didn’t stop moving. Before the army rode by, they had been keeping a fairly languid pace. Apparently that time had passed. “I could carry it for a few prav.”
Alyssa snorted. “I don’t think so. It isn’t that heavy, I’m already paying you far more than a job like this needs, and I keep well in shape.”
He eyed her up and down with a slight smirk. “I can see that.”
Pressing her lips together, she sighed. “Besides, you need to keep ready in case someone attacks.”
“Please. Even if you were being chased by the Waters Street gang, they’d notice who your escort was and run off in fear. There’s only one person in the Waters Street gang who I might have a little trouble with and I think you’re a little too low profile for him.”
That might be closer to the truth than he thought. Not that she was going to tell him that. “You’re well known then?”
“Well, I don’t like to brag,” he said with a hefty chuckle, “but I’ve made something of a name for myself. I’m among the top ten Knights Solaris in terms of confirmed monster kills. A lot of which were high level monsters. No wimpy slimes or goblins.”
“Oh? What constitutes high level monsters? Dragons?”
Oz actually stopped in the middle of the street. Alyssa almost bumped into him. He stared for a moment before shaking his head. “You really don’t know anything do you? I thought you were joking for a moment, but your face is stone cold.” Alyssa had to frown at that, but she didn’t interrupt. “I might be able to take down a whelp or two, but they like to gather in large groups when they hatch. Anything larger?” He shuddered. “That whole army we saw might just take down an adult dragon if they pulled in every high ranking arcanist from the Observatorium. Most of them would probably die. If they’re unlucky, all of them would die.”
“They’re that dangerous?” She had been wondering if dragons actually existed. Now it seemed like they did.
“Oh, aye. Of course, with the Black Prince with them, maybe they would come out with a strong victory. Rumor has it that his sword has been bathed in dragonfire. It could slice off a dragon’s head in a single blow! Just a rumor though.”
“Lots of rumors about him…”
“Mysterious guy. He frequently travels and always returns with something new. Nothing quite so shocking as a horde of monsters following after him, but whether it’s that armor, that sword, or a chain gang of prisoners from across the desert, it’s always something. He never goes with guards, but he is probably the strongest person in the world. He likely doesn’t need any protection.”
Alyssa hummed. The prince definitely sounded like someone she didn’t want to cross, though most of that was surely exaggeration. Everything she knew about him thus far had the word ‘rumors’ tacked on. But there was always some truth in rumors, so it would be best not to take him lightly. And his little sister was learning magic. Given how larger than life the prince apparently was, she wondered just how accomplished Irulon was at casting spells. Was she capable of Rank Three? Four? Thinking about Irulon, Alyssa couldn’t help but ask one more question. “Hey, Oz. You know a lot about monsters. Do you know if dragons can change their form?”
“Change their form? Like a mimic? I hope not. Never heard anything like that, but it sounds terrible. Imagine that, you’re drinking from your flagon when your table turns into a fully-grown dragon.” He shuddered again. “Nope. Mimics are annoying, nigh impossible to kill, intelligent, but also weak. A dragon mimic would be a nightmare.”
That was good to know. Irulon was almost certainly a regular human then. Everyone else had a soul that looked like a creature, so hers was nothing out of the ordinary then. Of course, given how scary real dragons apparently were, upsetting the princess would still be a bad idea if she took any personality traits from them.
Alyssa and Oz fell silent as they walked—power walked—along. He went quiet likely because of his professionalism. She because of her thoughts.
It had only been half a day since she had met the princess at the Observatorium. With everything that had gone on, it felt a lot longer than that. That meant that there were still six and a half days before she could go back to meet with Irulon and actually learn some magic. Hopefully the coming days wouldn’t be quite so exciting as today had been. She could use a day or two of nothing more than relaxing. Maybe a chance to get some local clothing and accessories. Above all, she didn’t want to have to carry her backpack around everywhere. It was far too distinctive, heavy, and cumbersome.
“We’ll be entering the primary trade quarter shortly,” Oz said after they had been walking for about a half hour. “There are shops everywhere in the city, of course, but any merchant worth their salt comes here to buy and sell. Because of the large congregation of traveling salesmen, there are also a number of inns. Some more long-term than others.”
“I plan on staying in the city for the foreseeable future,” Alyssa said. She just about stumbled over a piece of loose brick that looked like it had come from the city wall. Stupid poor lighting. “I would prefer something secure. An individual room with locks on the door.”
“Plenty of those. Merchants have to keep their goods from thieves. I think I know just the…” He trailed off, slowing his power walk to a complete stop.
Alyssa tensed, half expecting to be ambushed by Cid and Bacco or maybe some of Oz’s friends. Looking around, she couldn’t see any sign of anyone. They were right up against the northern wall, far out practically at the eastern side of the city. It was a dead zone. Nobody up on the wall, guard or otherwise. The only buildings around were smaller, single-room homes without any lights in their windows.
A raise of Oz’s hand silenced Alyssa. He looked around for a moment before staring up into the sky. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Wait. She did hear something. It was like thunder except without the loud crack, just the low and rumbling echoes afterward. “The rumbling?”
“We need to get away from the wall!” Oz grabbed Alyssa’s wrist, almost pulling her to the ground before her feet caught up to his words and she started running with him. They barely made it to the darkened homes a few paces away before the rumble crescendoed.
Brick exploded from the wall, filling the air with dust. Not enough to block out the view of the monster. Large. Ugly. Alyssa could stand on her own shoulders and only reach its chin. One of its legs was as big as she was including the backpack and it only got bigger from there. Warts covered its face. A troll. Just like what she had seen through her binoculars. Two smaller and much greener creatures clung to its legs. They had large floppy ears and pointed teeth in worse shape than Cid’s. The goblins.
“Looks like I’m getting that combat bonus after all,” Oz said through grit teeth as he drew his sword. “Find a spot to hunker down.”
Alyssa just about ran, but a shimmer in the sky made her freeze. “More smoke along the wall. These aren’t the only intruders. Running won’t be safe.” She didn’t understand. She had seen the army with her own eyes. There was no way they could have crossed the entire desert and the fields already. And where was the army? Alyssa and Oz had been heading in the opposite direction from the parade and the north gate where she had escorted the monster girls. Was this some vanguard? Some distraction? Or was the big fiery army the distraction?
“Can you fight?”
“Not like you.” Alyssa readied her shotgun. Her hands were shaking worse than they ever had before. She could feel her heart beat. It hammered hard enough, pumping so much adrenaline around her body that she worried she might just explode. But she had to keep calm. This wasn’t like Kasita and the others. The goblins hopped from the troll’s legs, letting out high-pitched shrieks as they pulled out rusty daggers. These things wouldn’t be open to negotiations. “I might be able to handle the little ones.”
“Their daggers will be poisoned. Don’t get cut. And keep away from the large one unless you like being flat—”
The troll opened its mouth, revealing rows of misshapen teeth. A horrid noise came from the back of its throat, followed by ten tons of spittle flying about. The roar triggered the others. The two goblins echoed its noise in far higher pitched screeches before charging forward, flailing their little daggers around.
Oz kicked the one that ran at him, sending the tiny thing flying into the side of a building. He didn’t follow up on the kill, charging forward to the troll instead, shouting as he moved.
Alyssa couldn’t pay attention to him any longer. The unkicked goblin was charging right at her! Finger already on the trigger, she fired.
The shot went wide, missing completely between her own panic and the little monster hopping to the side. It was faster than it looked. Quickly running along the ground, it closed the distance. Gritting her teeth in an attempt to steady her nerves, Alyssa fired a second time before it could reach her. This time her shot struck true. Its chest exploded as it went tumbling backward, end over end. Knowing how strong the monsters she had encountered were, she didn’t give it an opportunity to get back up. A third shot turned its head into chunky salsa.
The noise of her shotgun had not gone unnoticed. Although the goblin looked a little dazed from his kick into the wall, it was staring at her along with the troll and even Oz. The latter recovered first, taking the opportunity to sink his sword deep into the troll’s side behind the metal plates. Wailing, the troll slammed its meaty fist into the ground right where Oz had been standing only seconds before.
Not wanting the other goblin to recover enough to dodge her shotgun, she fired while it was still against the wall.
There was no need to fire a second time. The goblins were apparently as fragile as thin glass. The splatter of orange-red blood had Alyssa grimacing.
Another roar from the troll stole her attention. Oz was circling around the monstrosity, looking for another opening while dodging the thick punches. As soon as it swung, he darted in closer, swiped his sword across the back of its bare leg, and kept going until he was on its opposite side. A thin trail of blood started running down to the ground, but it wasn’t enough. The troll didn’t even stumble as it pivoted to slam a fist into the side of the darkened building. Bricks and stone flew off, but Oz had sidestepped once again, slashing at its underarm as he moved.
She wanted to help, but even with the troll’s bulk in the way, she didn’t trust herself not to hit Oz. If he dashed around at the wrong moment to dodge or attack, he would be the one lying on the ground. But they had to hurry. This death-of-a-thousand-cuts tactic Oz had going might work eventually if he managed to avoid every single attack, but it wasn’t fast. There were other breaches in the wall and potentially more monsters just beyond the rubble in front of them. Her shotgun was loud. Drawing more trolls and goblins would… complicate matters.
Alyssa slung the shotgun back over her shoulder and pulled the pistol from her hip. It didn’t have bullet spread. With how tall the troll was, she shouldn’t be in danger of hitting Oz so long as she aimed for its head. Grasping the gun with both hands just like her mother had taught her, she aimed up. Alyssa took a deep breath as she flicked off the safety.
She pulled the trigger.
Alyssa clenched her teeth and closed her eyes. Calm. She needed to calm down. Her hands shook too much to hit the broad side of a barn. So calm down. Opening her eyes, it took only a few leaps of mental gymnastics to rationalize away the troll’s threat. It might be big, but it was slow. She could run faster than it. It wasn’t looking at her. It didn’t even care for her while Oz kept poking at it. It really wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
Steadying her hands, she gave the trigger a light squeeze.
The troll’s head snapped to one side and it stopped moving. Blood started trickling from just above its ear. But it didn’t crumple to the ground. It snorted like someone sick hocking up mucus as it turned to look at her.
It didn’t even have a helmet on, just how thick was its skull!
Panicking, Alyssa squeezed the trigger again.
And missed completely. Having its little beady eyes looking at her made her hands start trembling again.
At the same time, Oz sunk his sword deep into the troll’s back. It howled again, moving enough that Oz lost his grip on the sword, leaving it embedded in the leathery hide of the monster.
Alyssa scrambled backward. The troll didn’t even care about the sword. It lumbered toward her, flailing its fists. She could feel the wind rush at her as the troll swiped at the air. Fully focused on escaping, Alyssa ran in a full on sprint down the nearest street, only stopping once she heard the heavy footsteps stall.
Throwing a glance over her shoulder, she saw Oz catch up to the troll. He tore his sword from its back and plunged it into the troll’s leg. It pierced clean through, though the tip just barely made it. With a loud shout and a heave, Oz sliced a diagonal cut to the troll’s foot, freeing his sword.
It tried to turn and attack again, but its leg gave out. The troll fell to the ground, cracking the earth as it landed on its face.
Oz didn’t hesitate to climb onto its back and slam his sword down at the base of its neck. When the thing kept moving under his feet, he pulled back his sword and stabbed it again and again until its head was nearly decapitated. Only when it stopped twitching did Oz pull his sword out. He stared down with a look of disgust for just a moment before that look turned to a thin-lipped grin. A quick swipe of his sword severed most of the troll’s pointed ear.
Breathing far too hard for how little she had run with her heart feeling like she had just finished a marathon, Alyssa slowly approached. “A trophy?” she asked between breaths, incredulous as he tucked the ear into a little pouch he had on his side.
“Proof. I can sell this to the guild as evidence of both slaying a troll and that I have helped defend the city. Whatever the city is paying the guild, this ensures I’ll get a cut of it. And a troll ear? With no one to split the reward with?” He chuckled.
Alyssa almost protested that she should get a share, but realized the moment she opened her mouth that she really didn’t care that much. “Let’s get out of here,” she said instead.
“Not yet. The goblins might not be worth as much, but they are worth something.” Hopping off the troll’s body, he started heading back to where they had first fought.
“Are you insane? What if more come?”
He didn’t even stop moving. “Then more ears for me!”
Alyssa ground her teeth together, but stayed close to him anyway. She didn’t know her way around the city. At least with him around, she wouldn’t have to fight one of those giants alone.
He knelt by the first goblin she had killed and let out a low whistle. “Sweet Tenebrael’s titties! What did you hit them with?”
“A limited weapon.” Alyssa groaned internally. Her first day in the city and she had already used up several shotgun shells and a few pistol bullets. How much did she have left? With how much adrenaline was running through her body, she could barely concentrate. “Would you mind hurrying? Other monsters probably heard the fight. They’ll be drawn to the noise.”
He huffed a bit, but sliced off the left ear. Not that it took much slicing. The goblin’s head was barely intact. “Sure didn’t do much to the big guy though.”
“My weapons don’t discriminate between friend and foe. I used a smaller one to avoid hitting you.”
“Glad you took me into consideration,” he said as he pocketed the other goblin’s ear.
“Yeah, whatever. Let’s go alrea…” Alyssa trailed off as she turned to face the gaping hole in the wall. More rumbling thunder without that initial crack was creeping closer. Lots more.
“You hear that?” Oz asked in a low tone of voice.
“More ears for you?”
“How many trolls can you take on with that thing assuming I’m out of the way?”
“Limited weapon. If there is an army out there…”
“Right.” Oz started backing away. “Maybe we should leave this to the city guard. I’m sure they’re rushing over as we speak.”
Alyssa backed away as well before they both turned to run. “Best idea I’ve heard from you yet!”