Sometimes, in fiction, people who were on the receiving end of being mind controlled couldn’t remember a thing they had done once freed. A kind of amnesia for a block of time. Sometimes, they could remember but pretended that they couldn’t because whatever they had done or discovered was embarrassing, awkward, or otherwise inconvenient to let people know they knew about.
At the moment, Alyssa really wished that the fairy’s mind control would have wiped Oxart’s memory.
Waking Oxart had been one of the worst things Alyssa could remember. And she had been disemboweled. The moment Oxart’s eyes focused enough to be cognizant of what she was seeing, her expression changed. Alyssa knew then and there that whatever rapport she had built with the guard captain had been thrown into a sinkhole, lit on fire, and trampled on by a horde of dung beetles. In fact, Alyssa would probably have found herself with a brand new ventilation hole in her throat courtesy of Oxart’s dagger had the captain been in a better condition. As it was, the woman was too weak to move all that much. Being awake for far too long and being forced to walk through unforgiving terrain in unsuitable clothing for several hours apparently did funny things to someone’s stamina.
“And you’re going to shield her, aren’t you. Anyone else parading a fairy around the city would have seen them exiled to the First City.”
Exhausted body or not, Oxart could shout. Though, for the first time since she woke, that voice wasn’t directed at Alyssa.
“Quite,” Irulon said, looking bored. “One of the benefits of my station is the ability to ignore such consequences.”
“The Pharaoh will overrule you. He won’t let something like this stand. There are limits to what you can protect her from. Impersonating a princess? Treason. Giving magical secrets to monsters? Treason. Harboring a fairy? She’ll be lucky if she is only exiled.”
“All in the name of saving the city and the royal family. The unfortunate fact of the matter, Captain Oxart, is that you are the sole victim of her clumsy handling of the fairy. Dismantling the Society of the Burning Shadow’s actions saved far more than the harm caused. And she even rode all the way out here to rescue you, to set her mistakes right. You will recover with rest. There is little harm done and, in the process of finding you, we may have gained a clue indicating the Society’s next plan of attack.”
Oxart clenched her teeth together, tearing her eyes from Irulon to glare at Alyssa.
Alyssa winced, but didn’t look away. She felt she couldn’t. It was her fault that Oxart was out here in the first place and if being shouted at was part of her penance, then she should take it like a man. Not even Tenebrael popping into being to collect several souls had been enough to distract Alyssa.
“Does her obvious remorse not warrant clemency given the situation as a whole?”
Irulon’s words only made Oxart clench her teeth harder. Alyssa could almost feel her ire pressing against her. Something told her that no, Alyssa did not deserve anything in Oxart’s eyes. Those eyes flicked over to the side, looking just over Alyssa’s shoulder. Kasita stood with an amused expression on her face, currently appearing in her sisterly form.
“That’s just the fairy,” Oxart continued. “Offering human magic to a monster—”
“I gave the mimic Loophole. Or an aspect of myself did so, which I suppose I must take responsibility for. Would you see me exiled as well?” Irulon shook her head. “The fact of the matter is that the mimic, monster though it may be, contributed to saving my life. This wouldn’t be the first time that my family has consorted with the more agreeable monsters,” she said with a casual wave of her hand toward the two draken, who were currently enjoying a feast of diced horse with some human mixed in for spice.
Alyssa tried hard not to look in that direction.
“For what it is worth, I am sorry,” Alyssa said, speaking for perhaps the first time since Oxart started shouting at her. Thus far, she had been happy to leave Irulon speaking in her defense. As the saying went, one who defended themselves had a fool for a lawyer. This wasn’t really a legal proceeding, but Irulon definitely knew how this world operated far better than Alyssa did. And Irulon wasn’t even doing a bad job of it. At least she hadn’t threatened Oxart yet, something that Alyssa had to admit to being worried over.
Maybe because she was a guard captain or maybe because she was some kind of noble, Irulon was treating her with respect. Not a lot of respect, but far more than she had shown to Tzheitza and especially Oz when she had fixed up Kasita in the potion shop.
“I don’t like this. My job— My duty is to protect the city and its inhabitants from any threat.”
“I’m not a threat. I want to help the city.”
“By bringing a fairy—”
“I didn’t bring the fairy to the city. It was already there. And I stopped it from doing anything more. Yes, I had a lapse in judgment. I didn’t listen to people who are far more knowledgeable than me regarding monsters.”
“More knowledgeable? I thought… You lied to me.” Oxart’s eyes narrowed. “I should have known. Everything else as well? Lumber hauler? Medical expert? Are you even a potion seller?”
“First of all, I was delivering potions on behalf of Tzheitza, not selling them. Secondly, lumber hauler isn’t a lie, though it isn’t precisely accurate if you want to get pedantic. It’s just that my former profession doesn’t have an exact analogue here and lumber hauler is close enough. Lastly, I believe I explicitly told you that I was not a medical expert.”
“And a monster slaver?”
Irulon cut in before Alyssa could answer. “It is unlikely that Alyssa had ever heard of a monster prior to a… month ago, was it?”
“More or less,” Alyssa said with a sigh. Had it really only been a month? Well, a month and a week or so. A third of which had been spent rather uneventfully traveling between Teneville and Lyria. But still, a month of being in this world. It felt longer. A lot longer.
She leaned back, propping herself up on her elbows against the ground. Irulon stood, as did Kasita, but Alyssa found herself exhausted. Not just from the realization that she had been bumbling about this world for a full month. She felt sore, having taken a bit more of a ding than she had thought from her fall from Izsha’s back. Talking with Oxart wasn’t helping either. To make matters worse, Tzheitza probably wouldn’t be too pleased to see her when she got back. By carrying around that fairy, it had effectively been her fault that the potion shop’s front windows and doors wound up trashed.
And, despite having rescued Oxart, they couldn’t even go back yet. Not before scouting out the fairy commune. Though, technically, that was the guild’s job. Irulon had given no indication that the task would be left up to Oz and company. Just the opposite.
But aside from that, where was Oz? The draken were fast, true. Not so fast that he shouldn’t have caught up by now. Maybe it was the mirrored dome. It clearly stopped horses from charging out of it. The inverse probably held true. Could Irulon take it down or would it expire after a set amount of time? Alyssa opened her mouth to ask, but Oxart spoke first.
“You hadn’t heard of monsters? I can understand not having seen one. People living within the city likely never see one unless they venture outside the walls with any regularity. But even children are taught.”
“Like I said, I’m from far away, though Irulon isn’t quite correct. We did have legends of monsters. Harpies, for instance, are a well known creature where I’m from. A fictional creature, as far as my people are aware.”
Irulon actually looked interested at that. “You have legends of creatures that exist here? Which ones?”
“That’s a hard question to answer. Dragons are probably the big one, but I don’t really have a list of all the creatures here. My phone can look them up, so we can scan through a list of them sometime. Not now though, we should find Oz an—”
“What about mimics? Do you have us where you’re from?”
Alyssa looked up, meeting the smiling face of Kasita. “We don’t have any monsters, but I’m pretty sure mimics exist in some form or other. I don’t know about something exactly like what you are, but I’ve heard of mimics somewhere.” Probably in games rather than mythological legend, but Kasita didn’t need to know that. Just telling her that people had heard of mimics put some pride into her smile.
“A land with no monsters,” Oxart mumbled to herself. “Unbelievable.”
“Yes, finding that out does explain many of her more foolish actions, doesn’t it?”
Oxart looked over to Irulon. “You knew?”
“And a few other things. If you were considering such a thing, I can say with absolute certainty that Alyssa does not have ties to any organizations, such as the Society of the Burning Shadow, that are hostile toward Lyria. I have speculated on a few other things regarding oddities surrounding Alyssa as well, but I’ve yet to voice my speculations. I was wrong about several things in merely determining what Alyssa is. My pride can’t take many more voiced inaccuracies, so I am waiting for more information before actually speaking of my theories.”
“What do you mean, what she is? Is she— Are you not human?”
“Don’t— Ugh. What are you doing?” Alyssa asked with a scowl aimed toward Irulon. “I am just as human as anyone else here.”
Alyssa’s mouth clamped shut as she turned her glare on the mimic. “Don’t you even start. Look. What is done is done. I’m sorry for many of my actions and I’m trying to make up for it. Part of that is this little quest we’re on. But what about you?” Alyssa said, glancing to the princess. “She’s in no shape to go fight more of those people.”
“I’m tougher than this,” she said, pulling herself to her feet as if to prove that she could. Keeping her stance wide for extra stability, she did manage to stand with only a little queasy wobbling.
“You’re dehydrated and likely suffering from hunger pains,” Irulon said with that same air of unimportance. “The fairy made you grab a few provisions, but you didn’t consume any, did you? Not to mention your sleep deprivation and exhaustion from walking for several hours.”
Oxart ground her teeth together, a sound that Alyssa had grown used to over the past several minutes.
“Nothing a body as well trained as yours won’t recover from,” Irulon said, apparently taking no notice of Oxart’s ire. “You haven’t been without food for so long that you’re suffering from anything truly debilitating. But you are not fit to fight.”
“I don’t need to fight. I need to get back. Though it was against my will, I’ve left my post. I’ve been gone one full day and it will be another full day and part of the night before I can get back, if I had a horse. Which I don’t.”
“That issue can be rectified.” Irulon turned away from their small group, raising her voice to be heard a distance away. “Musca, Izsha!”
At being addressed, the two draken looked up. Alyssa failed to suppress a shudder at the red jelly running down their faces. Izsha in particular. Over the last day and a half, Alyssa felt like she had… maybe not gotten to know Izsha given that the draken couldn’t talk, but had grown to trust the draken. Watching it crunch down on a chunk of bone, happily use its long tongue to curl around a cube of muscle and fat, or run its snout through the pile of viscera that had once been a living person and an equally living horse… Just seeing a long drip of red swinging back and forth beneath Izsha’s chin but never quite dropping to the ground sent a chill through her body. It was a reminder that, as much as Izsha had been nice and considerate while she had been using it as mount, it was definitely a dangerous creature. One that cared little about whether it was eating a person or a horse.
Freaking out over fairies eating people was seeming somewhat silly in comparison. Perhaps it did go without saying that most monsters didn’t distinguish between foods. Though, at least the draken weren’t going to make people want to be eaten. A fairy could probably get someone to put a pot on the fire, toss in all the seasoning, and then happily climb in until boiling to death in the stew.
It really made Alyssa reflect back on the other monsters she had encountered. Obviously, gaunts and shadow assassins ate people, though the latter might have done so more out of a desire to hide the bodies than any hunger or sustenance need. She had watched a gaunt do so right in front of her and had seen evidence of an assassin eating someone else. But what about elves? Presumably, people weren’t feeding their monster slaves humans, so they didn’t need humans if they did eat them. Given their physical similarities to humans, Alyssa decided that it was unlikely that they also ate people.
Maybe that was a bad assumption to make given that there were and had been real people on real non-monster-infested Earth that ate humans. Enrique had mentioned a feast should she ever encounter Alyssa again, as thanks. Presumably that wouldn’t be a feast of people. Alyssa wouldn’t appreciate people served up as food at all and Enrique had to know that.
Pho? What did bees eat anyway? Flower nectar and pollen for Earth bees, but a human-sized bee? One would have to eat an entire field of flowers just to have the energy to move about its body. They surely were not meat-eaters, at the very least, being some kind of herbavore if they only ate flowers… but how could flowers possibly be sustainable for a colony of bees? Unless they had some magic way of eating. Kasita, for instance, hadn’t eaten anything as far as Alyssa knew.
Rizk’s lizard race probably ate people. It was doubtful that they—or any species, really—ate humans exclusively or even sought them out. Humans weren’t exactly designed for consumption. Not a lot of edible meat, nothing like a cow, anyway. But gaunts, draken, and whatever else ate people probably wouldn’t care on a moral level if they were hungry and the only thing around was a human.
That harpy she had encountered in the mountain pass north of Teneville. Meeting that harpy, coming across it while it was injured and clearly vulnerable, helping it, and befriending it in an odd sort of way had shaped the way Alyssa had perceived monsters ever since. After how much Lazhar and Yzhemal had warned her about the harpies attacking people, finding one that had been so grateful to her that it had brought her a fish had taught her more than anything else that monsters weren’t all that monstrous.
Which was something that she might need to reevaluate. Had that harpy not been injured, would she have been in trouble? Very possibly. Though wary at the time for anything swooping down on her, she had ignored the brothers’ warnings, taking pity on the injured bird. It had turned out well enough, but continuing to think that all monsters were just misunderstood and unfairly persecuted might not be the wisest option.
Keeping an open mind was important. If she had completely fallen to the prejudice of the humans in this world, she likely wouldn’t have helped the monsters of the Waterhole. None of whom she had yet regretted saving, she rather thought that the conditions in the Waterhole were abhorrent and no one deserved to be there. Her relationship with Kasita might be entirely different as well. While annoying at times, Kasita had proved to be quite the friend. Had she started out paranoid and prejudiced, she probably wouldn’t have mentioned Tenebrael to the mimic, among many other things. Getting a few complaints about that angel off her chest had been worth if even if nothing else had been.
Going forward, she needed to take care. Paranoia was bad, but so was completely trusting monsters to not be… monsters. There was a careful balance there and she needed to find it before something came back to bite her. Literally, in some cases.
Completely unaware of Alyssa’s thoughts, Irulon continued addressing the draken.
“There is a horse running around within this dome. Corral it and return to us… without hurting it, Musca. And without overly frightening it too much. Just get it near me and I’ll handle the rest.”
Musca ran off immediately, turning away from the carnage to carry out Irulon’s task. Despite Irulon singling Musca out, Alyssa was a little worried for the horse’s safety. Whatever concerns she had about monster morality, the horse was just a horse. A dumb animal. Two had already died plus that one they had left behind that may or may not be able to survive in the desert on its own. It was a shame that they had died, but Irulon clearly didn’t care about the collateral damage she had caused and Alyssa couldn’t really fault her for doing what was necessary to take out the Society members. Now that the fight was over, hurting the poor and lightly frightened horse would leave a bad taste.
“Make sure Musca isn’t too rough, Izsha,” Irulon said, apparently having similar thoughts.
The sole remaining draken bent, took one large mouthful of meat, and ran off to follow the other. Izsha didn’t charge away with quite the energy that Musca had. Still, it would probably follow Irulon’s orders far more faithfully than Musca would. Even now, Alyssa wasn’t sure why Irulon liked that particular draken. The Black Prince had more than just the two in his stables. There had been a dozen of them.
Maybe all the others were worse? Or maybe Irulon was just insane.
The latter option, surely.
“Consorting with such beasts,” Oxart said, disgust palpable in her voice.
“They have their uses,” Irulon said with a casual shrug. “And my brother cares for them. They served as quite the shock value a year ago when we last fought off the Juno Federation. A dozen draken charging against mere foot soldiers? Don’t tell me that you were displeased when we routed them faster than any year prior. Surely that saved a lot of lives.”
“But now we’ve faced at least two separate attacks carried out by monsters under their direction. Where do you think they got the idea from?”
Irulon shook her head. “No. The research and development needed to create the mist they’ve been using to control fairies would be a significant investment for a magically deprived people like the Juno Federation. This has been in preparation for a decade. Minimum. That they’ve begun using monsters is nothing more than a coincidence. Given how ineffectual their attacks have been, though the most recent less so than the first, I wonder if our stunt with the draken forced them to accelerate their plans for the monsters, causing them to make mistakes and show their hand early.”
“Is the royal family working on countermeasures? Because I haven’t heard anything.”
“I believe it is being looked in to. The second is heading defensive projects. This expedition may reveal some clues, though I am personally here solely for revenge.” Irulon’s voice dropped an octave as she narrowed her eyes, staring toward the remains of the battle. “They think they can draw my blood and not suffer? Hm. We’ll see. But,” she smiled, voice returning to normal. “I’d like to acquire a sample of that mist they were using. Unfortunately, the mist that filled the pouch with the fairy had all dissipated before I could approach and I didn’t see any more. The sole surviving spell deck had only Rank Two and lower spells, none of which would conjure more of the mist. I don’t suppose you can shed any light into where it came from? If it was a spell or some potion bottle that wound up destroyed? I’m leaning toward a potion, but again, I couldn’t find anything intact among their cadavers. Of course, I didn’t exactly go digging through the remains of the one…”
Oxart stared for a moment before slowly shaking her head. “I just remember wanting to rush forward as fast as I could and being extremely—unnaturally happy about doing so. I remember seeing them,” she said with a nod toward the deceased Society members. “The fairy panicked. They hit me with… something. Woke up in… less than welcome company.”
Alyssa winced as the captain turned her cold eyes down on her.
“More welcome than waking up in an interrogation chamber.”
There was a bit of hesitation before Oxart answered. “I suppose. Though, regardless of the… company you keep, I regret that I cannot be more useful against our enemies.”
“Put it out of your mind. I was not counting on you for information when we began this excursion. However, I do request one thing of you. When you return to the city, find my brother—the Second Prince, that is, none of the less useful ones—and inform him that we may need to prepare defenses capable of withstanding one million ants.”
“O-One million?” Oxart wobbled. Alyssa got to her feet, moving to catch the woman if she fell, but she didn’t. “What do you mean by that?”
“He’ll know what I mean. Namely, that a million strong army of ants might march on the city soon. I believe it would be best if my father were to return to the city as soon as possible. And if I do not return within… one week, do have him accelerate whatever plans he is making.”
“Quite so. I don’t often fabricate events of this magnitude. Sometimes, but not in this case. When the draken return, we will send you on your way. Both Alyssa and I can spare a small portion of our provisions for your return trip if whatever you have on your person is lacking. And, when you return, do tell my brother that the draken are doing just fine. I’m sure he will be worried about them.”