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When she had been told that the assassin was nothing more than a kid, Alyssa had thought it was some kind of exaggeration. A euphemism for the assassin being inexperienced or something similar. But this…

“How old is she? Twelve?”

The assassin, tied and bound to a chair, refused another spoonful of stew. Her face was round, looking just like most children, but her height and build might as well have been stolen from a tantrum-throwing pre-teen. Her mannerisms as well. The way she turned her head to avoid the spoon, she looked just like a petulant child who wanted ice cream instead of vegetables. Except for her eyes. As soon as Alyssa spoke, the assassin glared.

Never before had Alyssa physically stumbled back at nothing but a glance from a child.

“I’m six—”

Sixteen, Alyssa assumed. She had to assume. The assassin didn’t get a chance to finish speaking before Tzheitza used the opportunity to shove the spoon into her mouth.

“Eat,” Tzheitza said.

“Better do what she says.” Oz stood against the door, the very picture of relaxed… on the first glance. Actually looking at him for an extra moment told a different story. His hand rested on the grip of a smaller dagger. The smile he had on wasn’t nearly as natural as it was supposed to be either, barely reaching above his lips. His eyes were almost as cold and hard as the assassin’s. “You can’t try escaping if you’re weak from a lack of food.”

The assassin didn’t listen, spitting out the food, getting the black scales of her bodysuit dirty in the process. “How dare you. Do you know who I am?”

“Haberin kids don’t know nothing,” Tzheitza mumbled to herself. She dropped the spoon back into the bowl, stood fast enough to tip over the chair, practically shoved Oz out of the way, and slammed the door behind her as she left the small storage room.

“Aw, now you’ve made her mad.” Oz shook his head as he walked closer. With that same smile, he righted the chair and spun it around so that its back faced the tied up assassin. He plopped down, letting his arms dangle over the back. “But now you’ve only got me to watch you.”

The assassin leaned forward, as much as she could given the translucent magical bindings, with a vicious grin that didn’t suit her face in the slightest. “I am Octavia! Apprentice to the most feared killer in Lyria. Do your worst.”

Is that really something to be proud of? Alyssa thought, raising an eyebrow. She could understand being apprenticed to some skilled monster hunter given that they had a profession needed for the humans of this world. It might be prestigious to be learning under a knight of the kingdom or even a well renowned mercenary. But how could someone say that they were proud of being a subordinate to a killer with a straight face.

“The most feared killer?” Oz said, voice carefully neutral. “Remind me again who that would be?”

Octavia’s smile slipped. “What? What do you mean?”

“The most feared killer. You’re talking about the Crusher? Or maybe the Writer? Or just the Black Prince?”

Those couldn’t all be real people. Could they? Alyssa frowned as she watched Oz… do whatever he was doing. She wasn’t quite sure why he was taunting the assassin. But still, did everyone in this world have some kind of title that they went by?

“Stop screwing with me. I know you were after the Taker. He told me so himself.”

Oz burst out with a blast of laughter. “The Taker?” he said, stifling another outburst. It sounded forced to Alyssa, but Octavia leaned back in her chair with wide eyes. “You think the Taker is the scariest guy in Lyria?” He shook his head with a half-chuckle and shoved his thumb in Alyssa’s direction. “You recognize her, right?”

Alyssa met Octavia’s violet eyes for just an instant before the latter flicked her gaze back to Oz as he continued talking.

“Yeah. I know you know her. Because you didn’t attack us until she went into that house. Surely you don’t think the Taker just let her leave? Yet here she is with just a few minor injuries that will be healed by morning,” Oz said, to which Alyssa could only think, If only that were true. “The same cannot be said for your beloved Taker.”

“You’re lying.” She snarled, jerking her chair forward as she fought against the restraints.

But Oz just shook his head. “Not at all. How else can you explain her presence? She didn’t even run away from the Taker. She let him live. Look at her.” He turned in his seat to stare along with the assassin. “Lax stance. Soft eyes. No weapons. No armor. No other equipment. All the wrong muscles trained… I doubt she’s been in more than one serious fight in her entire life.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, shifting under their scrutiny. Oz was clearly trying to do something, so she didn’t open her mouth. But she didn’t like the way they looked her over. When they were away from the assassin, she just might give him a punch to show which muscles she had trained. Though maybe not with all the bandages still on. They were the big reason why she hadn’t reequipped her pistols.

Octavia turned, huffing. If her arms weren’t bound, she probably would have crossed them. “She’s an arcanist. They don’t need muscles. Just cards.”

“Oh? Are you saying the Taker would lose to arcanists?”

“What!”

“Pretty big weakness for the most feared killer in all of Lyria.”

“No! The Taker is the strongest! He crushes arcanists like the rats they are.”

“You sound like you’re confusing him with the Crusher.”

Letting out guttural growling from the back of her throat, Octavia ground her teeth together.

“So let’s go over what we’ve learned. The Taker is a weak coward who needed mercy from untrained idiots even when he had the upper hand. And he is a terrible teacher.” Oz chuckled again. “I mean, even a baby would have accidentally put a scratch on me or Tzheitza while waving around as many knives as you had. Were you trying to avoid hurting us?”

Octavia thrashed back and forth, but the bindings holding her down were too strong to release her. “Let me go and I’ll show you hurting!”

“Oh! Scary,” Oz said, glancing over his shoulder to glance at Alyssa before turning back to Octavia. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I am famished. Good thing there is a nice big bowl of stew in the other room.” He stood, stretched just enough to make it look like he was taunting her inability to move. “We’ll check up on you later.”

Alyssa stayed where she was, expecting him to go grab food and eat it in front of her. That seemed like it would fit in with his other tauntings. But he nodded his head toward the door while looking at Alyssa. Just a slight tilt of his head. Enough for her to catch his meaning. With one last look at the glaring Octavia, Alyssa followed him out.

As soon as the door shut behind them, she slammed her elbow into his stomach. He let out a slight oof, grunting as he bent forward.

“Untrained idiot?”

He coughed, but righted himself with a smile. It wasn’t much of a surprise that he got up. Between his armor providing padding, what were probably fairly impressive abs underneath, and Alyssa not really intending to break his ribs, the initial oof might have been more humoring her than from any actual pain. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“As long as you—”

“I’ve insulted idiots everywhere. Not even the greatest fool in the city would have walked into the Taker’s arms willingly. Sorry idiots.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together. She wanted to refute that, but… she couldn’t. Of all the foolish things she had done in her life, following the Taker down to those cells had definitely been the biggest mistake. Her confidence in her weapons and in the spells that Irulon had provided, going up against a regular human of this world had clearly been overstated. Her experience with Svotty and the whorehouse guards had colored her perception of this world too much.

Really, she should be thanking her lucky stars that she managed to escape with such relatively minor injuries.

Instead of commenting on the mistakes that she already acknowledged, she shifted the topic back to their captive assassin. “What were you even trying to do there? I thought you were interrogating her, but you didn’t even ask a question.”

“I said I don’t like killing children, but I will if I have to. You saw how she was. It would be best if her… strong personality could be tempered a bit. Mostly, I just wanted to get her thinking about you and the Taker. Based on our short conversation, you surviving the Taker doesn’t fit within her view of the world, yet you obviously did. I hope that knocks him off the pedestal she has put him on. At least a little.” Oz shrugged and smiled. “But who knows. Might be best to kill her before she becomes a real problem.”

“That’s…” If Octavia grew up to be even a fraction of what the Taker was, she wasn’t sure that she could honestly disagree with the notion. She was a kid now, but that short conversation had felt so warped. So disconnected with reality. Or maybe that was just the reality of this world. Monsters attacked regularly, there was apparently a periodic war with a neighboring nation, and a half-dozen humans killed themselves annually just to prove that Tenebrael existed. It led the people to violence, making things like Octavia a less noteworthy occasion.

Back on Earth, a child being that psychotically deranged, just callously talking about hurting and killing people as well as idolizing a known murderer would have seen them sent to therapy right away. Somehow, Alyssa doubted that there were many therapists here.

Oz started walking further into the main room. Tzheitza sat just in front of the fireplace, staring into it without acknowledging their presence. Whatever occupied her thoughts was far more important than her guests milling about. Bacco still slept on the floor as he had been in the two hours since Alyssa awoke. Just seeing him again made her click her tongue in annoyance. He could finish his nap as thanks for helping walk her out of the basement, but that was it. As soon as he woke up, she wanted him gone.

Putting a hand on Oz’s elbow made him pause before he got fully within the fire’s light. “Should she even be kept here?”

“Tzhei does have magical protections set up around the shop. Even if she escapes her bindings, she won’t be able to break out of the room. Don’t worry about her coming after you.”

“No, not that. Isn’t this like false imprisonment?”

Oz looked to her with a puzzled expression. “Not sure what you mean. She’s actually imprisoned in that room unless Tzheitza’s spells have worn off. Let’s ask her to double check them all.”

He reached out to tap the still potioneer on the shoulder, but paused when Alyssa groaned. “No. I mean, shouldn’t we hand her over to the state? The city guard or whatever? Don’t they have proper facilities for handling violent criminals? What I’m asking, is it really our job to keep some assassin locked up? Even a bad one? What are you even going to do with her in the long-term?”

“Ah. I see what you’re thinking.” He turned to fully angle his body toward Alyssa, but looked toward the closed door of Octavia’s makeshift cell. “We could turn her over. Maybe it would be for the best. But one of two things would happen. Neither ideal. The best option would be that she continues to spout her nonsense about being the Taker’s apprentice. Even if the city is truly as corrupt as Princess Irulon implied to you, they couldn’t just release her without officially condoning the Taker’s actions. She would most likely be exiled to the lands south of Pandora. An effective death sentence for someone almost as foolish as you.”

Again, Alyssa pressed her lips together, but she still didn’t interrupt, waiting for Oz to continue with the other option.

“If she was smart, which I doubt, she would keep her mouth shut. The city guard would probably release her because, let’s be honest, she’s a kid. Then she goes back to the Taker and maybe tries to kill us again. Maybe the Taker just kills her then and there. It’s clear to me that he didn’t want her around anymore, otherwise he wouldn’t have sent someone so unskilled after Tzhei. Her lack of skill is probably why he was getting rid of her in the first place. Whatever the case, it isn’t a desirable option.”

“So what is then? Just keep her here forever?”

“Obviously not. We’ll take her to the guild. As bounty hunting falls under our purview, we have long-term… residences. If she changes her tune, someone might pick her up as a proper apprentice. Assuming she can display the slightest modicum of talent.”

“She won’t,” Tzheitza said, still staring at the flames. “Tommik wouldn’t have gotten rid of her so easily if the lass had any capability.”

“Tommik?”

Oz chuckled. “You didn’t think his mama named him ‘The Taker’ now, did you?”

“Well, no… but how—” Right. She had forgotten. Or perhaps it had just slipped her mind. Tzheitza knew the Taker. He had been in the guild before… “What happened—” Alyssa cut herself off before she could ask how he turned into what he was now. Oz waved his hand behind Tzheitza’s back, shaking his head as he pressed a finger to his lips.

“Ozheim, yer efforts at sparing my feelings are far from subtle.” Tzheitza stood, turning to him just enough to glare with her one eye. “It’s funny how ye think I’m bothered. Ye know I’m nothing like the others. I don’t need yer pity.”

“It’s not pity…” Oz shifted, glancing around the room at anything but Tzheitza. Even when she had been about to toss a potion orb at them, he hadn’t looked the slightest bit nervous. But now, he actually looked like he was sweating.

All Tzheitza was doing was staring. Not even a hard stare; she blinked at a regular rate. Alyssa would classify her speech as normal too, rather than the unintelligible nonsense she spouted when agitated. Though maybe that was more her fault and less that she was completely calm. It hadn’t been long since she had made the quip about Alyssa failing to understand her.

There was a distinct difference between failing to understand the potionspeak and disregarding the advice Tzheitza had given. That particular incident had definitely been on the latter side, which Alyssa fully admitted; however, she wouldn’t say it out loud. Not if it meant that Tzheitza would go back to her usual speech patterns.

“I just know what happened to your old team. It isn’t really the most… pleasant of tales.”

Tzheitza turned away, clenching her fists. “It isn’t a tale. And ye don’t have a haberin clue what happened, Ozheim. You weren’t there.” She looked back, opened her mouth as if to say something else, but snapped her jaw shut as she thought better of it. Without another word, she stalked off toward her room.

The slammed door made enough noise that Bacco jerked and snorted. He woke with a clipped cry of… pain? Whatever the noise had been, it stopped as soon as he rolled back away from the fire. He blinked in confusion a few times, looking around with bleary eyes, first at the fire then Oz before he finally settled on Alyssa. After two more blinks, he flinched back. “I’m sorry.”

Alyssa groaned, narrowing her eyes. “What did you do now?”

“N-Nothing. I swear.”

“Then don’t apologize. Just…” She ground her teeth together, thinking back to the Waterhole. “Leave. You’ve had your nap. Tzheitza has wasted some bandages on you. You don’t need to be here anymore. Looking at you infuriates me.”

“Oh?” Oz said. “The way you two came out of that house holding onto each other made me think you were closer than you are. Or is this the Tzhei thing where she acts all mean but actually loves me deep down. Really deep down. Deep deep—”

“Love him?” Alyssa laughed. An obviously forced laugh, but it got the point across. She hadn’t really been in a state of mind to properly explain things the night before—she couldn’t actually remember going to bed or even whether she met Tzheitza and Oz on the streets or all the way back at the potion shop—so there might have been some wrong impressions. Impressions she would be correcting with prejudice. “Allow me to introduce you to Bacco of the Waters Street gang. Scum. Generally loathsome person. And, oh yes, one of those idiots who tried to sell me to the Waterhole in the first place, starting this whole mess.”

“Ah. So not a Tzheitza situation.”

“Not. At. All.” She looked back to the overly large man on the floor of the potion shop’s back room. “Do not think we’re friends. I let you out solely because the Taker is more monstrous than any actual monster I’ve encountered.”

“B-But the Taker… He is still alive?”

With a half nod, Alyssa opened her mouth to respond.

Her own voice spoke first from behind her back. “I tried to finish him off. I failed.”

Alyssa spun around. “Kasita?” she said before she had finished, though what she saw made her pause. She stared at herself standing in the open doorway between the main shop floor and the back rooms. There weren’t any bandages around her mirror’s arms, but something was wrong with it. More than just the natural unnatural feeling that came with looking at Kasita when she was appearing as Alyssa.

It was the face. Kasita normally looked just like a human. Her normal form was far too beautiful to be real, but one would only notice on a lengthy inspection. When she had appeared as Alyssa, there had been the strange effect of looking into a mirror, but it was otherwise nearly flawless. Right now, her face looked as if it were made of Play-Doh. It was a blob that someone had used their fingers to draw Alyssa’s face with. They were a good sculptor, but there was a drastic difference between using fingers and using actual sculpting tools.

Looking below her neck sent prickles of fear down Alyssa’s back. Kasita had her own body. Voluptuous breasts, petite waist, and her scandalous dress barely covering her alabaster skin. But it wasn’t perfect. The tan of Alyssa’s fairly dark skin merged messily with the lighter skin exposed above her breasts. Continuing the Play-Doh analogy, a child had taken two colors and started mixing them together only to give up halfway, leaving it only partially merged. One arm was clearly a man’s arm. Maybe even Oz’s arm.

“Kasita, are you—” Alyssa flinched back as she stared into the Taker’s dark eyes. Purely on instinct, she tried to grab at her pistol with her broken arm. Which didn’t work for several reasons, the least of which was the lack of her holsters at her sides. But before she could properly freak out at the Taker’s face, it shifted again. Brown hair turned red as the jaw squared off.

Oz stood in front of her. With breasts.

To her side, the real Oz had his sword drawn, though he wasn’t attacking. She hadn’t even noticed when he had moved.

“I seem to be having difficulty maintaining my form. I didn’t even notice myself until I ran into someone on the street. He started screaming and ran off, ufu~. Sadly, I couldn’t enjoy the situation as I had decided to hide instead.”

“Are you… alright?”

“I’m not in physical pain, if that is what you are asking.” As she spoke, both her face and her body shifted into some kind of monster. One Alyssa had never seen before. It had a single eye occupying most of its face and razor sharp teeth split into a wide grin. Black oil dripped down from where her hair should have been, coating her face in streaks while maintaining volume as hair in the back. “Though I do believe I felt some earlier,” she continued without pause despite the changes. “Mentally, I admit some distress. The thought that I can’t hide if I need to—” Her head turned into a Play-Doh version of her usual appearance, but her body didn’t stay normal, turning into a translucent version of a man’s body. This time, she noticed, scowling as she looked down at herself. “I can’t even go outside.”

“I’m sorry. This… This is all my fault. I shouldn’t have asked you to go in my place. And then that spell. It didn’t do what I thought it did… I’ll fix this. How, I’m not sure yet.” Maybe Tenebrael… but that could be forever away. It probably said something about Religions on Earth that, despite knowing angels existed, she couldn’t get a single one to come answer her prayers. Or demands, as the case was. Apart from Tenebrael, there was only one person that Alyssa knew of that might understand what had happened enough to fix things. “You can’t leave. Which means she has to come here.”

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