The city of Lyria was roughly triangular in shape, though the walls followed the terrain more than they bridged straight lines between the towers. Buildings had been built outside the city as well, rounding out the angled borders. Those exterior dwellings were considered entirely separate villages by the city, apparently populated with farmers that tended the exterior fields for the most part, but they intermingled enough with the main city for that distinction to only matter to tax collectors.
To the south, there were rivers, forests, mountains, and eventually Teneville. To the east, an ocean, though it was far enough from the city that it couldn’t be seen while still inside. Great plains stretched out over the land to the west. South of those plains in the far west, the Fortress of Pandora stood tall, protecting the human lands from the monsters beyond. North of the city was a desert. Said desert marked the end of the Pharaoh’s influence. It was something of a no-man’s land between Lyria and the Juno Federation, a second government that ruled the lands north of the desert.
Right at the border of the desert and Lyria’s farmland was the Brechen Overlook. A lone rock formation that looked surprisingly like Pride Rock. A pillar of stone stood tall in the middle of the otherwise flat plain. It was more than just the pillar. Rocks littered the area including one with a flat top that jutted out from the main pillar at a slight angle. That was the Overlook.
Alyssa turned her binoculars to the fields closest to the desert. The city guard and army were indeed clashing with the monsters she had first spotted approaching the city. The battle was taking place in the fields furthest from the city, right on the edge of the desert. Flames had started in the dry wheat. Crops were burning, pumping even more smoke into the skies overhead.
Making out details was a bit too difficult even with her binoculars, but she did manage to catch a few seconds of the Black Prince. He didn’t so much swing his sword as he just held it out as his monstrous mount carried him around. Anything that touched his sword simply fell apart. Unfortunately, he was just one man. Watching the chaos, Alyssa could barely believe that there were only a hundred trolls. If anything, they outnumbered the humans two to one. That wasn’t even counting the goblins swarming the area.
It painted a depressing picture. Even if only a few dozen monsters had breached the city walls, the humans couldn’t run back to assist with the defense without turning their backs on the hundreds of monsters in the fields. Hopefully people like Oz could handle the ones inside the city. And if she and Tzheitza could get rid of the ringleaders, maybe the humans could decisively end the battle sooner and begin to clear out the city.
She could easily imagine a different world in which the monster army had gotten closer and burned more than just the furthest field. In a medieval time like this, famine could be a real issue if too many crops wound up destroyed. There weren’t any other countries that could provide relief aid if the city started starving.
Shaking her head, Alyssa turned back to the Overlook. It stood out against the rings in the sky, but it was otherwise completely dark. No lights and no sign of life on the tall rock. Of course, she didn’t have the best angle from where she was. Even if someone were seated right on the edge, she still wouldn’t be able to see them.
“I don’t like this,” Tzheitza said with a deep scowl. “No monsters. I can hear ‘em, but I can’t see ‘em.”
“I know what you mean… I think.” Since setting off from Tzheitza’s shop—where Alyssa had left her gear except for Aziz’s satchel filled with spare ammunition—they hadn’t seen any monsters. No trolls or goblins. Every few steps, Alyssa would jump at a vague movement in the very corners of her vision, but could never spot anything that might have moved. Sometimes the fields would rustle like something was moving through them. Yet nothing ever popped out to attack.
It meant that they were being watched. Frankly, Alyssa almost would have preferred trolls and goblins every ten steps. Like this, it was almost like they were being invited to try to stop these puppet masters, which only made Alyssa more nervous about the situation. Would Tenebrael have set her off on a quest sure to result in her death? Honestly? Maybe. She wouldn’t pretend to know what a being like that was thinking.
A flash of light tore through the sky. Alyssa winced at her eyes having to adjust, but that light didn’t do anything to illuminate the land around her. Tzheitza didn’t even blink. Tenebrael and Iosefael were nothing more than streaks of light in the sky, one dark and one light. For the most part, they avoided each other. The lights would occasionally dart in near the other, but they backed away from each other more often than not. Whenever they did meet, it was like a flash of lightning that only Alyssa could see.
Unless something changed soon, she wouldn’t be getting any help from that corner.
That meant she had to rely on this person who she only just met and could barely understand—thankfully, the potioneer became more intelligible the less agitated she was. On the plus side, that tar bomb had been an impressive display of the older woman’s capabilities. In the short time it took Tzheitza to talk about Brechen Overlook, the troll had melted into nothing more than a puddle of foul-smelling goop. If the other orbs slung across her chest were even half as destructive, she could probably handle getting to the Overlook on her own.
“They have to know we’re coming.”
Tzheitza hocked back and spat on the ground. “‘Snot my first idiots who’ve needed knuckling. Afore, when I were an active Knight Solaris, why, I knuckled down a hundred of these fools a week.”
“The city gets attacked a hundred times a week?”
Glancing at Alyssa, Tzheitza shifted. “Well…”
“Right.” Alyssa had no doubts that Tzheitza was dangerous. Hearing that she had been a mercenary like Oz only compounded that feeling. But how long ago had that been? Shaking her head, Alyssa focused on the rock in the distance. “It doesn’t look far.”
“Ten minute walk.”
“Probably more if we’re going slow and careful.”
Alyssa started walking. She hated this. Every step of it. Why her? Even ignoring the whole part where she had been thrust into a whole other world, which she had mostly come to terms with even if she didn’t like it, why did she have to get involved with all the stupid wars and petty fights. Tenebrael had known this would happen well in advance and she hadn’t mentioned a thing despite having had two opportunities to do so. Couldn’t she have just dropped a simple ‘Oh, might want to avoid the north side of the city tonight. Wink wink,’ during one of those meetings?
Actually, Tenebrael probably hadn’t considered such a thing. And she probably hadn’t for the exact same reason that Alyssa was marching across a corn field at this very moment. Were this a situation on Earth where she found her city under attack and knew where the enemy commanders were, she would have gone to the police or the army or someone official. Never in a million years would she have thought to solve the problem herself. Tenebrael allowing her to get wrapped up in this nonsense meant that she had a definite need to run and try to salvage the doomed city.
But Tenebrael’s little black book changed everything. Alyssa had a bad feeling about fate. According to Tenebrael, Alyssa had warned the city guard before they would have marched out otherwise. But that angel had also said that, despite that change, not all that much would end up different in the near future. Was there some rubberbanding effect on fate where it would try to snap back in line with the book? Tenebrael had apparently tried tons of things all without results up to and including having monsters around when they were apparently not supposed to be here. If Alyssa had to act directly to get things to change, then she couldn’t just tell others about it. Fate would snap them back to their supposed path. Hypothetically, anyway.
She didn’t have any proof. It was entirely possible that cause and effect worked perfectly normally and she had only alerted the city guard two minutes before they otherwise would have noticed, thereby not changing all that much on the bigger scale. But she had read enough books and seen enough movies that she had to wonder about the exact mechanics of fate. As much as she had thought about how Hollywood got plenty of things wrong, it got plenty of things right as well.
Just thinking about it disturbed Alyssa on a primal level. Before Tenebrael appeared, she hadn’t really believed much in higher powers or fate. Just free will. But how much free will actually existed? Knowing what she knew now, not much. Some, for sure. Cid and Bacco surely wouldn’t have tried to sell her to a whorehouse had she not been pulled into this world. Given that, according to Tenebrael, Alyssa seemed to be outside the book’s purview, that would never have happened otherwise.
“Roundabouts this way,” Tzheitza said in a whisper, gesturing to a beaten path that wrapped up and around the stone pillar.
Alyssa blinked twice. She hadn’t even realized how close they had gotten. It was lucky nothing had jumped out and torn her head off while she had been lost in her existential crisis. Shaking her head from side to side, Alyssa focused. Getting distracted in her thoughts could get her killed. Gripping her shotgun, she started up the path just behind Tzheitza.
The rock was worn and smooth. People had clearly been going up and down this way for years and years. And why should they not? It made a great natural watchtower. It really made her wonder why the city guard didn’t have people stationed out here permanently to watch for situations just like the one going on now.
Her foot knocked into something soft. Looking down, she suppressed a startled squeak. A body—a human body lay across the path. Blood leaked from its wide-open eyes, running down the beige-colored clothing. The same color as the gate guards, though this body didn’t have the dark iron armor. Maybe the city did have scouts and they had just been the first fatalities of this invasion.
Tzheitza had her eyes on Alyssa, though she didn’t say anything. With a gesture of her hand, she pointed off the path toward the rock wall. There was a small ledge sticking out which the older woman immediately gripped. Digging one foot into the side of the wall, she hefted herself up and onto the ledge with little effort.
Alyssa just stared. She wasn’t as tall as the potioneer. Reaching the top of the ledge was just out of reach for her. With her shotgun, pistols, and Aziz’s satchel filled with ammo, it would be even more cumbersome. Alyssa had just watched and still didn’t understand how Tzheitza had managed to climb up without breaking any of the glass orbs on her chest.
Apparently noticing the problem, Tzheitza bent down and held out a hand for Alyssa. With the older woman’s help, she managed to get up on the ledge.
Unfortunately, the next ledge was even higher. Tzheitza twisted her bandoleer around so that the orbs were hanging off her back rather than her chest. She jumped and kicked off the main rock pillar to grab hold of the higher ledge, whereupon she climbed up just as she had with the smaller one. Alyssa wasn’t sure what to do in the slightest. Her gym did have a climbing wall, but she had never made it a regular part of her workout. In fact, it was more like she had tried it once just for fun and only got a foot or two off the ground before deciding that she had gotten high enough.
It wasn’t like she would ever need to scale a rock face in real life.
Tzheitza had her back, again. She had to lie flat on her stomach for her hand to reach Alyssa’s, but with her support, Alyssa managed to find a few footholds to walk herself up the cliff. Once she got her elbows over the edge, she had enough strength to pull herself onto the ledge.
They continued upward, climbing from one brief resting platform to the next in complete silence. Even when she scraped her elbow on a bit of jagged rock, Alyssa bit down on her tongue and kept quiet. No matter how narrow the spot was, Alyssa never made a sound. All the while, she kept her eyes upward, trying hard to not think about how slipping could see her rolling down the miniature mountain one ledge at a time. They eventually ran out of ledges to climb to. The tall rock continued upward. Tzheitza could probably have continued climbing it just through strength and experience, but there was no way Alyssa would be joining her. Alyssa was too busy hugging the wall, trying to keep both her feet fully on the foot-wide segment of stone they had stopped on.
Tzheitza didn’t even glance up. She just started edging around the central pillar. From far away, it had looked like a narrow column, maybe not bigger than her bedroom, though not quite as square. Actually climbing all over it and being pressed up against it made the Brechen Overlook feel like Everest.
Now that Alyssa was looking less at where she had most recently climbed from and more over the entire surrounding farmlands and fields, the whole thing felt even taller. Alyssa’s stomach dropped out from under her like she was on a roller coaster. Her fingertips grew slick with sweat. When Tzheitza brushed her fingers on Alyssa’s hand to get her attention, she jumped. One foot went off the edge. The rest of her would have followed had Tzheitza not had decent reflexes.
With Tzheitza pressing her up against the wall, Alyssa took a moment to close her eyes. She focused and centered herself. It was foolish to be afraid of heights anyway. Even if she had slipped off this ledge, she wouldn’t have fallen clear to the fields. Just down to the most recent ledge. It was a fairly wide one at that. No. There was no danger at all. Not one little bit. She definitely would stop on that ledge and not tumble all the way down. Opening her eyes again, she kept her gaze from wandering down below. Alyssa focused on the back of Tzheitza’s head as the woman carefully edged along, moving around the larger pillar.
As it turned out, this ledge was actually higher than the modest plateau that she had spotted from outside the city. Only about ten feet higher. There were some bushes growing along the rock wall that provided a modicum of cover, not that it would hide much of two people. Darkness was their real cover. A small building had been constructed on the tip of the outstretched cliff. A little one-man guard post. It was more of a shack than anything else, it wouldn’t provide much protection from anything save for the sun and maybe some light rain. It certainly hadn’t protected the poor guard down the cliffs.
The shack wasn’t the only thing on the plateau. Six candles, all too weak to count as a real light source, were set around in a circle on the ground. In the very center, a small cage made of metal rattled back and forth. It was like a little birdcage built for a single tiny bird. Except it didn’t have a bird inside. It was a tiny… person. Maybe as tall as from the tips of Alyssa’s fingers to the base of her wrist. Pulling out her binoculars, it was definitely a person. A naked little man with iridescent wings that caught in the faint candlelight as it panicked in the cage. Despite throwing himself against the metal grating as hard as he could, it was barely enough to make a sound. Definitely far from enough force to actually tip it over.
“A fairy,” Tzheitza hissed, barely audible even with her being only inches away from Alyssa. “Don’t be meeting them eyes. They got mesmer magics. Mind and illusions. It’s what got the monsters acting smart.”
“It didn’t lock itself into that cage. Who is controlling it?”
“Don’t matter. Squash it and the monsters will lose.”
“Or, we could free him. He would be grateful and maybe just send the army away, saving tons of lives. And he could tell us who the actual perpetrators are?”
Tzheitza’s head whipped over to Alyssa. “Are ya addled in the head? Ya want to be enslaved to that thing? Don’t smallthink it because its small.” Looking back to the fairy, she tugged free an orb from her bandoleer. One that looked like it had fire trapped inside. “Na, it dies now.”
Before Alyssa could try to argue, the orb left Tzheitza’s fingers. It flew through the air on an arc straight to the poor fairy.
It didn’t make it to the ground. Ten feet away, the orb froze. The air around it shimmered into the form of a dark cloak with its hand outstretched. The figure pivoted on his foot and, like a baseball pitcher, tossed the orb from the rocky plateau. It exploded harmlessly a short distance away, filling the air with heat and the unpleasant scent of sulfur.
While Alyssa stared, stunned at the sudden appearance of someone else, Tzheitza already had her hand on another orb.
She didn’t get a chance to throw it.
Two more cloaked figures appeared on either side of the first. Both had cards in their hands. Alyssa couldn’t see a design in the dark, but it didn’t matter. “Spectral Chains!” they intoned as one. The cards vanished in minor flashes of light. Ethereal chains, glowing with a sickly green light, wrapped around both Alyssa and Tzheitza. They wrapped tight without making a noise, burning her skin like ice while pinning her arms to her side. She tried to struggle only to fall forward as the two people down below tugged on their end of the chains.
Alyssa pinched her eyes shut, wincing and preparing herself for the impact of the rapidly approaching ground.
But it never came.
“Fools,” a voice said, making Alyssa peek her eyes open.
The ground was close enough to her face that her hair, swinging forward, was brushing against the dirt. She sucked in a breath, realizing that the rest of her was floating a few inches in the air.
“You’ll kill us all if those orbs crack.” Whipping her head up to find the speaker, Alyssa scowled. It was the center-most of the three cloaked people. A man whose face she couldn’t see. He had his hand outstretched toward her… well, her and Tzheitza. A faint white glow clung to the tips of his fingers. He must have cast a spell. Some levitation magic. With a flick of his wrist, Alyssa found herself staring up at the stars.
Alyssa hit the ground a moment after. Hard. A sharp rock dug into her back and her head thumped against a rock, sending her vision askew for a second. To her side Tzheitza was snarling something undoubtedly unpleasant, but Alyssa couldn’t quite make any of it out. The woman had descended fully into potionspeak and Alyssa’s sudden headache wasn’t helping matters.
“Secure their weapons,” the man said, ignoring all of Tzheitza’s rambling. “And take care not to damage anything lest you destroy us all.”