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“Look out!”

Alyssa fired her shotgun, flaying another goblin before it could jump on Oz’s back. He barely paid any attention to the body as it fell from the roof. Another of the diminutive creatures was trying to slash his kneecaps out. As with most of the things, her shotgun was loud enough to shock them, creating an opening for Oz to take its head off. Which he promptly did.

“Not taking their ears?” Alyssa said with only a mildly snide tone in her voice.

“Keep moving unless you want to be overwhelmed.”

“Thought they were more money for you? Evidence of your city defending skills.”

“Useless city guard,” he hissed through his teeth, not even bothering to respond to Alyssa’s jab as they jogged up the street. “Where are they? No wonder they have to rely on the guild. Can’t handle matters outside the city and can’t handle matters inside it either.”

“Probably trying to fend off more incursions. Or dealing with the large army…” Alyssa trailed off, glancing around the empty streets. “Where is everyone? Just the regular people? Is this an abandoned section of the city?”

“No. They’re probably hunkered down, trying to stay unnoticed. And as long as we keep making so much noise, I doubt they’ll have any problems.”

He had switched from complimenting her shotgun to whining about it every time they encountered more monsters. Which, since the initial break of the wall, had only been three times. None of which had included trolls. Just the little goblins. Thankfully. Given that they had already killed one, a second troll shouldn’t be beyond their abilities to dispatch. It would take longer to fight a troll than a few goblins, however, leaving them open to being ambushed by too many goblins or even multiple trolls.

Although Alyssa couldn’t see any enemies at the moment, she could hear them. Aside from the heavy footsteps the trolls made, she could hear fighting. The clash of metal on metal echoed over the tops of the low buildings, accompanied by the occasional inhuman roars of the trolls, the screeches of the goblins, or shouts of men and women. “Should we not join up with other people fighting?”

“My current duty is to see you to safety.” He paused at the corner of a building, holding up a hand to stop Alyssa. After glancing around the corner and ensuring safe passage, he quickly moved on. “Other people will have different goals. Anyone wanting to make coin off this situation is fighting for ears. Some fight to protect themselves. We may even cross ruffians using the lack of city guardsmen to ransack homes or shops. Joining with any would only extend my contract with you.”

“What if someone needs help?”

“Well, I am currently contracted out to you,” he said, voice a bit tense as he looked around another street. “If they want to get in touch with the guild, I’m sure someone else will jump at the job.”

Something about his tone gave Alyssa the impression that he was ever so slightly annoyed at the moment. She stayed silent, not wanting to get him more snappy. Instead, she focused on the buildings, watching the ledges for any sign of more goblins. Now that she was actually looking, she couldn’t help but notice that they weren’t moving anywhere near the same direction they had been before the wall breach. They were almost headed back the way they came—toward the guild hall.

“Where are we headed?” Alyssa asked after another two streets passed by without a change in direction back to where they should have been moving. “Not back to your guild, surely?”

“Naw. To a friend of mine. A potioneer. A bit… barmy, but she’ll be able to keep you safe. And, if I ask nicely, room and board until all this blows over. I know it isn’t quite what you wanted, but she’ll be far safer than any inn. Of course we can defer payment until tomorrow when, provided the city is back under control, I can lead you to a proper place.”

Alyssa opened her mouth to protest. That was not her requested job and she wouldn’t pay for it—mostly because she wanted the excuse to not spend her increased but still limited funds. However, after registering his words, she thought better of it. A potioneer. That sounded interesting. Something new that she hadn’t heard of yet. Was it magical? A technologically early chemist? An alchemist similar to the charlatans of her own world? The prospect of meeting such a person intrigued her. And if it was safe, then who was she to argue? Safe sounded great right about now. So instead of protesting, Alyssa said, “Alright. I can agree to that. How far?”

“It’s right around—”

A wailing roar of a troll split the air, cutting Oz off. Alyssa didn’t even need to look around. The noise was coming from directly ahead. Right around the corner of the nearest building.

“Another one,” Oz hissed. “This far into the city? The guardsmen have a lot to answer for. Come on.”

Oz moved around the corner with his sword drawn, staying slow and quiet. Alyssa followed just behind while leaving enough space for him to dodge around or swing his sword if he needed to.

A troll stood at the far end of the street, well away from Alyssa as she leaned around the corner. It stood there, unmoving, not even doing anything save for breathing heavily. Which Alyssa found strange given the fact that someone else stood right in the center of the road. Not Oz. He was pressed up against the building’s door frame, cloaked in shadows.

The person was a human. A woman. Maybe as tall as Bacco, though not quite as wide. That wasn’t to say that she was a thin twig. Her muscles, on show with her sleeveless shirt, beat out Alyssa’s by orders of magnitude and Alyssa was fairly proud of her strength. Her white hair, swept back over her head in a messy mane, nearly glimmered in the light from the tallest building on the street. The building she stood in front of. Maybe twenty glass orbs hung from a bandoleer slung from her shoulder to her hip. They had something in them, but Alyssa couldn’t see what with her angle and the poor lighting.

“C’mon,” she said in a gruff voice, staring right at the troll. “I’m just an ol’ dugger. What’cha thinking I can do to yeh?”

The troll let out a low grumble from the back of its throat. It took a few steps forward like it was about to charge at her, but it stopped short and actually moved backward.

“Yehan’t scared. S’why not fight me?” the woman practically shouted at the monster. As she did, she gripped one of the orbs from her chest. It was probably slightly smaller than a baseball, but her large hands made it look absolutely tiny. With a flick of her wrist, she tossed it. The glass bounced once. Twice. With the third hit against the ground, it rolled right between the troll’s legs. The thing stared down at it in curiosity.

Though it didn’t have long to stare. With the crack of breaking glass, the orb shattered. In an instant, the troll found itself encased in thick, dripping tar. Amazingly enough, very little splashed around the street. Almost like the tar had known exactly what its target was to be. The troll staggered, but couldn’t actually move while glued to the ground.

And then it started. The troll screamed. Not the angry shouts of battle like what Alyssa had heard before. Its noises were of pain, deep and guttural. Its long scream continued for a full minute without it drawing in a single breath of fresh air, growing wetter the longer it went on. Wisps of steam escaped from the gaps in the tar, flooding the street with the smell of overcooked beef. Eventually, the noise cut off. The troll slumped forward, though it couldn’t quite collapse to the ground. Tar propped up the steaming body, keeping it as if it were a statue despite its clear death.

Oz let out a low whistle, to which the woman spun around. She grasped another of the orbs from the bandoleer.

“Woah, woah. Tzheitza. It’s me! Oz!” When she didn’t put the orb back, he started shifting uncomfortably where he stood. “You know me.”

“I know. Trying to decide if yeh deserve it anyhow.”

Oz backed up and put his arm right over Alyssa’s shoulder. “You’ll catch this poor innocent girl in your misaimed vengeance. Besides, I wasn’t the one who—”

Tzheitza’s hand gripped the orb tighter. “Ozheim. Speak yer short gottermore an’ it won’t matter if tha’ lass be the Pharaoh’s wed.”

A short moment of silence followed before Alyssa burst out with a flat “What.” She might have understood a few words there, but on the whole, the woman was absolutely unintelligible. It all sounded like nonsense words. Given that everyone else she had encountered since arriving in this world had spoken clear English, she doubted that anyone else could understand the woman either.

“Never spoken with a potioneer before, eh?” Oz whispered. “They all talk like that. Apparently there’s only so much time to say ‘add the yellow liquid’ or ‘it’s going to explode!’ and still give people time to duck for cover. So they slur their words together which forms a habit and eventually winds up with that trite coming from her mouth. It’s also a good way to tell who is a novice and who is a master potioneer. The more they potionspeak, the better they are.”

“Wassa quietlike yonder? I’ll demonfire up yer—”

“Tzhei,” Oz said with a tense smile. “Calm down. You’re getting worked up to the point where even I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Worked up? I’ll show yer ugly mug worked up.”

“I know we parted on… bad terms—” he paused for a moment as she snorted. “But this is an emergency if you haven’t noticed.”

“‘Course trolls in the streets ain’t normal.”

“It’s worse than that. They’re acting strange. Intelligent. Look at that one,” Oz said, waving his arm at the tarred troll. As soon as he did, its arm slopped off, coming free from the rest of the mass and hitting the ground. A foul stench filled the air. “When have you ever seen a troll that didn’t stupidly charge anything it sees? More, apparently there’s an army out in the desert carrying torches and kicking up a lot of dust. But these ones just breached the wall, completely unnoticed?”

“Someone puppeting ‘em?”

“Aye. They’ve got someone smart tugging on their strings. Someone or something who can communicate with magic as well, unless this troll was special somehow. Not only that, but after killing a troll, we’ve only encountered a handful of goblins despite making a great deal of noise. Goblins whose brains are probably too tiny to follow orders.”

“Who would attack Lyria?” Alyssa couldn’t help but ask. “Just more intelligent monsters?”

“Believe it or not, despite the animosity between humans and monsters, they don’t attack here all that much. The Juno Federation, on the other hand… They send an army down here like clockwork.”

Alyssa hesitated, already knowing the response she would get. Still, she had to ask. “Federation?”

Oz quirked an eyebrow. “Haven’t heard of them either, huh? Heretics and heathens that live across the desert. They send an army our way every other year or so. Not usually to siege us, but to thin our ranks and ensure that we can’t attack them. Though they would constantly be on our doorstep if not for the desert giving us a buffer.” He paused for a moment, thinking to himself as he glanced over at the melting troll. “They never sent monsters before, but it wouldn’t surprise me for those scum to ally with such creatures.”

Tzheitza cracked her knuckles together. At some point, she had replaced the orb with the others on her bandoleer, thankfully. Though Oz still had his hand on Alyssa’s shoulder. “The who is for the Pharaoh. Take me to the puppeteer an’is face’ll wallobe right off.”

“Nope. You stay put. Not that you’re too old or anything,” he said as fast as he could as Tzheitza’s eyes narrowed in his direction. “I need you to keep an eye on this lass. Keep her safe.”

Alyssa winced as Tzheitza turned to fully face her. Her wince was for two reasons. First, the woman was really good at glaring. Second, one of her eyes was milky and white while the other was a normal blue. A long scar started above her eyebrow, ran straight down through her eye, and ended right near the corner of her lips. Just imagining what could have happened sent a slight queasy feeling through Alyssa’s stomach.

“Whoser?”

“My current contract. I’ll be back to finish said contract as soon as things calm down. In the meantime, someone has to clean up the city. Might as well be me. Without her noise, I should have plenty of time to collect some ears on my way.” He paused as if he just thought of something and turned to Alyssa. “Leave the fighting to Tzhei. Your weapon thing will just draw more and more. Unless the puppet master thinks you’re too much trouble, that is. I wouldn’t risk it.”

Alyssa nodded her head. That was sound advice. Glancing over Oz’s shoulder, she watched as the tarred troll slumped down in a pile of mush not much higher than her waist. With those melty bombs, her shotgun would scarcely be needed. And Tzheitza had more than just the tar orbs hanging from her chest. There were red, green, yellow, and blue orbs as well. She looked like a Christmas tree. Besides that, she wanted to save her ammo as much as possible.

Though she would need to be reloading soon. Just in case.

“Can you do that for me, Tzhei? Just stow her away in the back of your laboratory and I’ll give you fiv… three! Three whole medi next time I see you.”

“S’not my trouble. Gonna need an upcost.”

“F… Four medi,” Oz said, sounding like he was having his teeth pulled at the same time.

“Six.”

“Six!” His lips puckered up. Tears touched at the corners of his eyes. “You are still paying me the full combat bonus, right?” he whispered. “I know this is a bit off the plan, but surely you can see that there is no other choice.”

Alyssa just sighed. “It’s fine.” If she argued, he might decide that their contract was nullified and she might get left out on the street.

“Thank you for your understanding. Alright Tzhei. Six medi. But for six, I expect a dragonsfire orb as well.”

Tzheitza snorted, gripped one of the red orbs, and tossed it. With his arm around Alyssa’s shoulders, he just about threw her to the ground in an effort to catch the thing. It still bounced off his fingertips straight up into the air where he barely managed to grab it. Oz clutched it to his chest like she had thrown a newborn baby and glared at the potioneer.

“Careful! Do you want the whole street to go up in flames?” Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. “Just stay here. You as well,” he said with a glance to Tzhei. “And stay safe. It’s unpleasant going through dead contractors’ belongings to get paid.”

“Go fall into a grave and get yerself burried.”

“Yes. Good luck to you too.”

With that, he took off running down the streets back toward the walls. Would he be alright on his own? Alyssa had thought that she had saved him at least once by killing the goblin that had been about to pounce on his back, but maybe he hadn’t needed her help. He was some veteran mercenary, after all. The receptionist lady at the guild had even said that a lowly escort quest would have been a bit under his notice normally.

Trusting him was the only option, she supposed. She wasn’t about to rush after him into danger. And if he didn’t come back, she didn’t have to pay. Though that was a slightly morbid thought.

“C’mon lass. Doublegood inside tonight. Wareroom’s ain’t got windows.”

“Right.” She still couldn’t understand most of what the woman said, but she understood inside and windows and could guess the full meaning easily enough. Just as Alyssa started toward the lit up building, she saw it.

A feather.

A black feather.

Her head snapped around to find Tenebrael standing with her back toward the tarred up troll. “Alyssa Meadows! Just how is my little reaper doing tonight?” Before Alyssa could offer up any protest to the angel’s nickname, she continued right along. “I’d love to stay and chat but busy night. I’m sure you understand.” The tips of her wings brushed right through the tar, coming away perfectly clean so long as one didn’t count the swirling white mist that was the troll’s soul.

“Wait!” Alyssa practically shouted before the angel could disappear again. Tzheitza said something, but Alyssa barely understood what. She didn’t look around. If she did, Tenebrael might have disappeared again by the time she looked back. “Can’t you stop all this? Snap your fingers and put the city back to normal?”

“Weren’t you paying attention? I can’t change anything no matter how hard I try. I could send all the attackers to the other side of the world, but people would still die. The book would stay the same, having accounted for my actions. Perhaps a civil war would break out. Or disease. The book is fairly vague on exact details. It’s more like it details what actions I need to take to fulfill my job. All I know is that a lot of people are going to die tonight. Even keeping the monsters from fading out with the Age of Legends still doesn’t change my book. People die or live according to the whims of fate… except for you.” Tenebrael paused with a hum, running her black fingernails over her chin in thought. “I can’t change it, but maybe you could. You’ve changed a few things already, true. I assume you want to save the city?”

“Is it doomed if I don’t do anything?”

“Well, not completely. Lots of people die. Monster and human. The royal family eventually clears the streets anyway. Right now, you’ve rallied the city guard earlier than they were supposed to have been ready, but I’m not sure doing so has changed all that much for the immediate future.”

“What about this puppet master? I assume you know about Oz’s speculation. Is that a real thing?”

“Oh yes. Almost exactly spot on. Is that what you want? To take out the puppet master?” Her black lips parted into a wide grin. “That will most certainly change things. Probably for the better of the city, but even I can’t know for sure.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, wishing Oz hadn’t left so soon. She could have just pointed him in the right direction with Tenebrael’s information. Though, if Tenebrael could just teleport her in right behind this puppeteer, she could just shoot them in the back and solve everything in one second. But… was that what she wanted? “No,” she said. “I want to go home. I want to be left alone by you and by—”

A shout that pierced the heavens crackled like lightning over the city. “Dominion Tenebrael!”

The golden-white form of Iosefael hung in the air, glowing with a blinding brilliance against the night sky. Spear in one hand and sword in the other. Her radiance was so bright that Alyssa could only look for a moment before she was forced to avert her eyes.

Tenebrael didn’t have the same problem. “Iose! I’ve been looking for you. So nice of you to come to—”

“I can’t let you continue like this, Tene. If the Concord… if the Astral Authority finds out what you’ve done… You’ll… you’ll… I have to stop you!” Iosefael’s golden wings wrapped around her body. Facing the ground, she dove like a lightning bolt from as high as the towers around the city.

Tenebrael’s feathers remained unruffled. She held out one hand. “Vector repulsion angles calculated.”

Sword and spear crashed into a black ring of runes and diagrams at the tip of Tenebrael’s fingers. There was a bare instant where Iosefael’s surprised face could be seen in the glow before she went flying in an arc through the sky. Tenebrael just sighed.

“I think she’s a little upset. I should calm her down. What you want is irrelevant, ultimately. What you need is for this city to remain intact so that you can continue your research.” The dark angel’s lips drew back into a thin smile, sending a chill all the way to Alyssa’s toes. “Yes. I know what you’re doing here.” She paused for a moment. Somewhere in the distance, Iosefael hit the ground, sending a low rumble through the streets. “For now, that means that the people you’re looking for are on the Brechen Outlook. That woman should know where that is. And with a bit of divine inspiration, she may just lead you there without any arguments.”

Four black wings spread out as armored plates formed over Tenebrael’s dress. With a half smile to Alyssa, she took to the skies, following the same smoking archway that Iosefael left in her wake.

Alyssa just stared. Could Iosefael even harm Tenebrael? It didn’t seem like it from that short encounter.

A heavy hand on her shoulder broke Alyssa out of her gaze. “Yer gonna insane, eh?”

Great. Thanks for that, Alyssa thought, mentally cursing the dark angel. Would it have been too much to ask for her to stop time so that she didn’t look like a fool? Ugh. “I’m fine,” Alyssa said. “I know where the puppet master is. Can you point me to the Brechen Outlook?”

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