Oz stood near the potion shop’s front door, wearing his scale mail vest. He had a sword on one hip and a short dagger on the other. The same equipment she had seen him wear on the night of the attack. None of it looked to be in a good condition anymore. The scales in his vest were torn here and there, including a fairly large gash around the side of his ribs, though it didn’t cut far into the under armor. Alyssa couldn’t see the sword with its sheath in the way, but the dagger’s formerly sharp edges were dinged and chipped while the tip had broken clean off. Still, he was smiling and didn’t appear to be injured.
It was a fairly charming smile. Not too wide but still managed to show off his teeth. They weren’t bleached white but… well, she should stop comparing people’s dental health with Cid’s. It just wasn’t fair. Still, it was a favorable expression. When combined with his messy red hair and his well built physique, it probably would have given silly giggles to a few of the girls she knew from high school.
Not that it lasted.
Tzheitza marched into the room, still swearing up a storm. Her words had once again reached that peak where Alyssa couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was saying. The meaning was fairly clear even if the words weren’t.
Ozheim was not welcome here.
That didn’t make him leave, however. “Tzhei,” he said with a smile. “No need to get so worked up.”
“Worked up! Yer roundabouts wearin off the boot! I renner ye dustmites an’ japing hocks!”
Alyssa blinked twice and shook her head, not understanding a single word. Tzheitza, as it turned out, could speak in a relatively normal manner. When she was calm. The more agitated she got, the less her words made sense. But she hadn’t ever been this bad. Well, except for right after they had been captured by Bercilak, just before she got a gag shoved in her mouth.
“Yeah. I’m glad you’re doing well too,” Oz said, making her wonder if he understood any of it either as he tried to smile again. “I meant to stop by earlier, but some things came up. You know how it is.”
“Haberin whore rottymix.”
“Uh huh. Anyway, I was wondering if you wanted to go on a little expedition with me and a few Knights. You know, come out of retirement… for… uh… Tzhei?”
Standing behind her, Alyssa couldn’t see Tzheitza’s face. For which she was mildly thankful for, given the look Oz had. However, she could see the potioneer’s fingers tightening around the glass orb in her hand.
“Tzheitza?” Alyssa said softly, not wanting to startle the woman. She really hadn’t wanted to say anything at all as it risked drawing the woman’s ire from its current target. At the same time, she really didn’t want any accidents that might possibly fill the entire shop with poison gas… or whatever that orb did.
Thankfully, it got her grip to go slightly slack. Unfortunately, it also got Oz looking in her direction.
“Oh! I’m glad you are here. I need to get my payment from you.”
Alyssa put on her most polite smile. “I’ll tell you what, Oz. You don’t ask for my money again and I don’t go telling people that you abandoned a contract midway, promising to come back only to not show up for three days. I would hate to hear that no one wants to hire you because of your poor reputation.”
“We had a contract,” he said, tone firm and serious.
“A contract you broke. But I admit my ignorance. Should we go down to the guild and speak with that nice scribe and see if she can clear up the proper protocol in this situation? I’m sure Tzheitza would love to attend as well as an entirely impartial commentator on the series of events.”
“Hmph.” At first, he scowled, but that scowl disappeared quick enough with a good natured grin. “I’ll let you off this time. Don’t have time to argue over one altus. Tzhei, this job is from Vizier Setesh himself. Three hundred altus.”
Tzheitza took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and slowly let it out. “Three hundred altus I’ll never see after yeh leavin’ me trapped ‘neath ten hoggle stone!”
“In my defense, I couldn’t have known that you survived after that whole tomb collapsed on you. Besides, this will be different. I’ve already spoken with Lumen and Catal. They both agree that if you join us, we’ll use the upfront to pay for your entire share.”
“Zoast bekked kott,” Tzheitza mumbled under her breath. “What’s the job?”
“A simple investigation. A fairy was captured during the attack. It apparently came from a small community in the northern desert. There’s a little oasis where they make their home. We’re to observe any oddities and, if possible, discover any Juno Federation outposts near the area.”
“Four Knights Solaris to scout?” she said with a scoff. “Tell me everything, Ozheim.”
“Well, three and a retired—” He jumped back as Tzheitza’s muscles tensed. “There’s a… side objective.”
“’Course there is.”
“We’re to annihilate the fairy commune. Lumen can cast spells, but she specializes in precision. Your potions are more wide scale. We could destroy it from a distance.”
Alyssa pressed her lips together and furrowed her brow. For two reasons. First, he sounded far too casual about destroying a village, or the fairy equivalent. They were monsters, but they hadn’t done anything wrong. The one Bercilak had in a cage had clearly not been there willingly. It wasn’t like the fairies had joined up with the other monsters to attack the city.
Secondly, from context, Lumen was an arcanist. If she specialized in precision spells, it would make sense for her to be unable to deal area damage on the fly. But they were being informed of this well in advance. What was stopping her from just going and preparing a few cards that acted like bombs? Unless they were leaving literally right this second. “When are you leaving?” she asked.
“Toward the end of next week, some time. It is a fairly urgent quest and someone else will be given the opportunity if we take too long, but one does not simply head into the desert without preparing. Need to get my gear repaired which will be a week at minimum.”
“Huh.” Alyssa deepened her frown. Even if Lumen didn’t know any bomb-like spells, was a week not enough time to find out? Maybe she wasn’t allowed in the Observatorium for some reason and none of her fellow guild-mates would share spells under the assumption that they might be able to take the quest instead.
“Nosee village. Never find it. Waste o’ time. Three hundred altus? Totcount for the side quest? Two I’ll bet.”
Oz shifted his weight from side to side. When he didn’t respond, Tzheitza shook her head with a scoff. She headed straight into the back room without another word, leaving Alyssa standing awkwardly in the middle of the shop.
“How about you?”
“Me?” Though surprised at first, Alyssa quickly put on a scowl. “I’m not going to destroy a fairy village… uh… with my gun,” she quickly added. “It isn’t that destructive.”
“Aren’t you some sort of arcanist? What specializations have you picked up?” Oz, thankfully, didn’t seem to notice the slight slip in her words.
“I… don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alyssa said, somewhat honestly. Aziz’s notebook had mentioned magic specializations, but given that he couldn’t even cast Rank Zero spells, they hadn’t been too heavily mentioned. All she knew was that most higher tier magic was divided into classes. The spell Irulon had given her had been a Death spell, a subdivision dealing with a variety of dark effects. Supposedly. The Spectral Chains spell Bercilak’s goons had used was apparently Death magic as well. Both seemed entirely innocuous to Alyssa unless the chains spell was using actual souls to bind people. Given Tenebrael’s dietary habits, she doubted it was anything like that.
“Guess I was wrong,” Oz mumbled. “Still, you do owe me at least a little, right? At least for introducing you to Tzheitza. Maybe you could talk to her? She seems to like you a whole lot more than me.”
I didn’t leave her buried in a tomb, she thought. No wonder Tzheitza was willing to put up with her if something like that was in her past. Left behind in a tomb by what were presumably trusted comrades? Still, as much as she wanted to speak her mind, she didn’t. Nodding her head, if only to get Oz to leave for the time being, Alyssa said, “I’ll think about it, though I don’t know how convincing I’ll be.”
“Just get her talking about the good old days when she was a Knight. She’ll remember how much she loves the job.”
“Well, I am a little curious. No promises on the results, however.”
“I’ll leave you to it then,” Oz said with a grin, opening the front door. A light ring echoed off the jars and bottles from the little bell. “Do hurry though. I’d much rather have Tzhei watching my back than anyone else I could grab.”
“Surely there is someone among the guild you can trust.”
“Trust isn’t the issue. I’ve never met a woman with more sheer destructive potential when compared to Tzhei. When I was young and stupid, Tzhei was in her prime. She and her group were the highest tier the guild had to offer at the time—they took on all the most difficult quests. Everyone looked up to them. Oh, you would not believe how starstruck I was when she spoke to me the first time.” Oz chuckled to himself with a shake of his head, though his smile didn’t last. “That was a long time ago though. Now, well…” Shaking his head again, he gave Alyssa a far more sardonic smile. “Maybe avoid the topic of the tomb. And avoid the dragon incident. Oh, and don’t mention that time when she slipped into the pool of living slime—it’s a real laugh but a sure way to tick her off. Stick with how she got into adventuring with the guild in the first place. That should be a safe topic.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, wondering far more what exactly made her stop adventuring than what got her started. Oz sounded like a kid with major idol worship going on. If the guild could be likened to celebrities, what got her into it was probably far less interesting. Of course, it sounded like something bad had happened to get her to quit. Maybe avoiding it would be for the best.
“Anyway,” Oz said, smiling once again. “Good luck. You’ll need it.”
As soon as he shut the door behind him, Alyssa walked up and latched it closed. How annoying. Maybe she was being a bit harsh on him. His history with Tzheitza aside, he didn’t seem like such a bad guy. Not pressing for the money she might technically owe him hadn’t hurt her impression of him. Though how much of him dismissing it was because of her threats and his greed over this new job’s pay did make her wonder whether he would have pressed harder under other circumstances.
Ah well. He was a mercenary. Everything he did was for money. Of course, ditching her for three full days was completely unprofessional. Sure, he might have left her in the hands of some legendary former knight, but he could have at least followed through on his promise to get back to her in the morning.
And was Tzheitza really all that legendary? She had gotten captured just as easily as Alyssa had and even went off the cliff at the end.
Maybe she was rusty. Or maybe she was used to real teammates backing her up, rather than Alyssa.
Reentering the back room, Alyssa found the potioneer seated in front of the fireplace, drinking a red liquid from a glass. A real glass, not a wooden mug or tankard or whatever else most people drank out of. It was some kind of wine. The one glass Alyssa had tried had been a bit too fruity for her tastes, but both the wine and the glass spoke of her affluence. None of it could be cheap. One of her deliveries today, a dozen or so high-end potions, had gone for thirty altus. Did she even need to go on a long, tiresome, and potentially dangerous quest for… what… Seventy-five altus? Assuming the three hundred would be split evenly between her, Oz, and the two others Oz had mentioned. Sure, there was a cost to making the potions in terms of materials and labor that Alyssa didn’t know, but it obviously wasn’t enough to impact her fine wine drinking.
It seemed ridiculous that she would even consider going. Not unless she wanted to relive the glory days or something equally foolish.
Rather than take her seat again, Alyssa moved to one of the wooden crates in the corner of the room. She flipped open the lid and pulled out a cold slab of meat. One of Tzheitza’s many potions was a blue gel that radiated cold. It made a fairly effective refrigerator. Of pretty much everything Alyssa had seen in this world, the refrigerator made her happiest. It meant that not only was food kept good longer than normal, but that the people of this world knew the value of refrigeration.
Unfortunately, aside from Tzheitza, it apparently wasn’t that common. Merchants used it. Nobles as well—the palace was one of her largest customers. Regular people didn’t stockpile much food. Especially not things like meat.
Having already asked where everything she needed was the night before, Alyssa got started slicing the meat and some vegetables—carrot slices and potato chunks for the most part. Using just a pinch of steak seasoning from her pack, she pressed it into the meat. There were these metal skewers all around the potion lab. Alyssa wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be for, but Tzheitza had said that they should be alright to eat off. She still soaked them in boiling water for a good twenty minutes before sliding the meat and vegetables onto them.
Taking them back to a rack near the fireplace, she got them started cooking. The rack was probably for heating potions, but it would work just fine for food. “Shish kebabs,” Alyssa said with a smile to Tzheitza. “Though I assume you have a similar dish here. It isn’t that creative. I wish I had some good sauce, but this will still be delicious.”
Since she had met Tzheitza, Alyssa hadn’t eaten poorly. Porridge still, yes. For breakfast in the mornings. But the porridge wasn’t half as watery. It was a whole lot more like good oatmeal. Still, the experience of two weeks of travel bread and runny meals in the villages was fresh in her mind. As it turned out, Tzheitza could make all sorts of potions, but a good meal wasn’t in her skill list. Hence things like porridge or dried jerky.
“Smells good,” Tzheitza said after a few minutes of them cooking. “Greasin’ me up afore asking about my past?”
“Heard that did you? But no. I asked you if I could make this the night before. I’m just following through on that plan. If you wanted to talk, I wouldn’t stop you. But honestly, you seem to make plenty of money here. I don’t know why you would even consider Oz’s quest.”
“Coins ain’t an issue. Mayhaps were I another potioneer. One less respected. But it isn’t… impactful. I see little result from my efforts. Not like my old days where I hunt down some rottymix and save a village.”
Silence fell over the two. Using a thick cloth, Alyssa rotated the kebabs as she thought. Glory sounded like a much more understandable reason for going on quests. At least for someone like Tzheitza. Or maybe not glory. Just knowing that her actions were resulting in something worth the effort. Stuck here in her potion lab all day, she never even got to see how her potions were used. Sure, she could imagine that her explosive orbs would be used to clear away some debris from the wall. It was a far difference from seeing them used herself.
It was probably why she had jumped at the opportunity to attack Bercilak and his goons. Alyssa had barely needed to say a word to get her going to the Brechen Overlook. Tenebrael had mentioned Divine Inspiration, but unless that permanently altered Tzheitza’s personality, the potioneer would likely have headed up to the overlook anyway.
Maybe she was yearning for those old days. Well, if she did end up leaving on her little quest, hopefully she would let Alyssa stay in her shop.
At the moment, Alyssa wasn’t paying anything. No rent. Not even for food. While she didn’t think she was too hard up for cash with Svotty’s haul, it would be great if she could make that last just a little bit longer.
“Think they’re about done.” Using the cloth, she pulled off one of the kebabs. After blowing for a moment to cool down the first chunk of meat, she pulled it off and popped it into her mouth. Hot. Really hot. But tender and just a bit smoky. For her, used to propane grilled steaks, the camp fire taste to it was surprisingly good. A bit overly juicy. She actually wasn’t sure what kind of meat it was. It looked like a nice cut of steak, but it wasn’t quite.
She was a bit too afraid to ask… What if it was a slice of whatever species Rizk was?
Suppressing a shudder, Alyssa finished off the rest of the meat and vegetables crammed on the rod and picked up a second helping. To her side, Tzheitza was eating as well. Though she had yet to comment, she was on her third stick. So she must be enjoying them.
Ah well, eating in silence was fine with Alyssa. Tzheitza was fairly calm at the moment with her food and alcohol, but her words got increasingly headache inducing as she got herself worked up over something. Asking her about her past would almost certainly delve into unintelligible territory sooner rather than later. So Alyssa stood after finishing off the food. “I’ll keep delivering your potions for the next few days. Maybe after, but I wouldn’t count on it for long. I have appointments and other things to do.”
“Thas fine. We’ll work something out. Ye headin’ to bed?”
“I’m pretty used to walking around all day, but it’s still tiring,” Alyssa said, punctuating her statement with a yawn. “There will be more things to deliver in the morning, right?”
“Mixed up a few today. Will have more tomorrow after I set some cookin’ o’er night.”
“Alright. I’ll see about taking care of them tomorrow. Good night, Tzheitza.”
Alyssa’s room was attached to the back room. A back-back room. It was right next to the storage room and had been a storage room at one point in time with plenty of not-so empty shelves. However, Tzheita had put a bed in it. The bed had been there long before Alyssa, so it wasn’t like she had turned it into a guest room just for her. Even though it was a bit cramped, she wasn’t about to complain.
It was a safe spot to store her gear. Every time she entered, she still checked to ensure no one had disturbed it. Just in case. But no one ever had. It was probably safer here than any inn. Another reason why she wanted to stay if at all possible.
After ensuring that nothing had been touched, she flopped down onto her bed.
And promptly regretted flopping. It couldn’t hold a candle to a modern bed. It was hard, lumpy, and somewhat scratchy. Not nearly as much as the bed in Yzhemal’s inn; it was so much better than any night between Teneville and Lyria, that was for sure. Even still, she was using her sleeping bag to help give additional padding.
Before actually sleeping, she sat back up and pulled out both Aziz’s notebook and the deck of spells she had stolen from Bercilak. She had cross referenced a few to discover what the spells were, but not all of the cards were in the notebook. The only reason she had found out which were fireballs was because Bercilak’s deck had some while his goon’s deck didn’t.
She had figured out which were Spectral Chains in much the same way. When confronting Tenebrael and Iosefael, she had grabbed a handful of the cards in each hand and had hoped that the chains were among them.
As she huddled near one of the jars of light, the air shifted. The door hadn’t opened, but something still moved.
“Hello, Kasita,” Alyssa said without looking up. “Nice of you to finally show yourself. What have you been disguising yourself as all day?”
“Ufu~ I wonder.”
The voice was far too close to Alyssa’s ear for her comfort. She jumped and scooted down the bed a bit, glaring at the buxom woman.
Which had been just the reaction Kasita had been looking for. Her soft giggles filled the air. They slowly died off as she schooled her expression. “What are you going to do about the fairies?”
“What? Nothing. Why would I do anything to them?”
“You’re not going to save their village?”
Alyssa took a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “Look. I might have given you the wrong impression of me. I’m not someone who wanders around looking for monsters to save. I don’t have anything against monsters in the slightest; I didn’t grow up with all the indoctrination that these people have. But I’m not some savior either. Even if I was going to try to stop this little quest, I don’t know how I could. Maybe I could convince Tzheitza not to go. Maybe I could convince Oz not to go. The guild would just get more people to do it in their place.”
Kasita went utterly still. It was like looking at a photograph for all of three seconds before she heaved an exaggerated sigh. “I know. I never assumed you were that altruistic. But I did feel you tense when they mentioned destroying the fairies. I assumed you had a plan.”
“You felt me tense? Just what were you?” Alyssa said as she started looking around for anything missing. Her watch was still there. She didn’t wear any earrings or other jewelry. Her belt, pistols, and holsters were in place, both the hip and arm holsters. Ugh. What else had she carried around with her all day close enough to feel her skin?
Of course, Kasita just giggled again without answering.
“Don’t worry about it too much. Since you were obviously on me, you heard Tzheitza say that the village would be hidden. Or invisible. Whatever nosee means. I assume it means that people won’t be able to find it easily.”
“Bercilak found it.”
“Well, I can’t help that.” For just an instant, Alyssa almost asked if Kasita had a better idea. Her decision not to wonder about it aloud was solely because of her fear that Kasita did have a plan. “I’ve got too much else to worry about.”
“Those invisible creatures from the other night? I must say, I’ve never encountered a monster I could put my hands through like that. Well, slimes. But that’s different. Slimes are tangible. Those things… I could tell something was there but I couldn’t understand what. You’ve been awfully cagey about them, even to Tzheitza.”
“Yes, well…” They were already speaking quietly. Alyssa dropped the volume of her voice even more until she was barely whispering. The door, though made of thick wood, wasn’t thick enough for her comfort. “I don’t know if there are laws against heresy or blasphemy, but I do know that no one here likes ‘those heretics in the Juno Federation.’”
“Heresy or blasphemy?” Kasita leaned in closer, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Against who… Tenebrael?”
“Please don’t tell me that monsters worship her too.” That would be just her luck. Maybe she should try crossing the desert to find this Federation. The only problem was that crossing green hills, forests, and plains had been enough of a nightmare. Crossing a who-knew-how-wide desert would be a literal Hell.
“Not so much as how the humans do. Tenebrael is definitely a creature that exists. There is enough empirical evidence for that. But she is more thought of as something akin to the Monster Lords. You’re… not telling me that I put my hand through Tenebrael’s body, are you?”
“No. No. One of her friends? Co-workers? A being cut from the same cloth as Tenebrael.”
“There were two of them though. One in the chains and one that broke out almost instantly.”
“They call themselves angels,” Alyssa said, avoiding answering directly. “I don’t know why I can see them. No one else can as far as I can tell. Well, not unless they’re dying.”
“Angels,” Kasita repeated as if she were tasting the word.
“Never heard of them?”
“Nope. Never. So there’s more than one creature of Tenebrael’s type?”
“There isn’t supposed to be. That’s what they were fighting about, more or less. It’s… complicated. I don’t even understand it all. I just get caught up with their shenanigans on occasion because I can see them.” And isn’t that the understatement of a lifetime. Shaking her head, Alyssa glared at Kasita. She really didn’t want to get on the topic of angels. In fact, she probably shouldn’t have said what she had already said. It was interesting that monsters believed in but didn’t worship Tenebrael, but what if Kasita had been just as sycophantic as Lazhar? Things could have turned out poorly. They technically still could if Kasita was lying. Alyssa didn’t get that impression though.
“Anyway,” Alyssa said, forcing the topic away. “I’ve apparently got a long day delivering packages tomorrow. So I’m going to get some sleep. And no offense intended, but I would rather have you not in my room while I’m sleeping. On a related note, I don’t mind at all if you follow me around, but please tell me first. It’s creepy finding out that I’ve been carrying you around all day.”
Crossing her arms, Kasita huffed. “You’re no fun at all.”
“Yep. No fun. That’s me. Now get out!”