The hellhound wasn’t attacking. So that was nice.
That was about the only thing that was nice. Alyssa’s carefully preserved rations from home were gone. The hellhound hadn’t been able to open her bag the proper way, so it now had a hole in it. The medical kit had been opened and its contents strewn about. Whatever little sterilization there had been was gone now. The sunscreen was leaking out onto the floor, apparently having been stepped on.
And now the black furball was eying her fresh-from-Earth food.
“What did I tell you?” Alyssa barked as she shoved a compass into her bag. The hole was in the top, thankfully, so it could still hold things. Maybe a tailor could give it a patch job when they got back to Lyria. “Sit down, right there. Put you hands—paws—whatever they are on your knees. And don’t move.”
“And you,” Alyssa said, glaring at Kasita. “Just… Ugh. What are you even doing here anyway?” she said to the hellhound.
“I found two more people and killed them,” the hound said, tail whipping back and forth excitedly. “I wanted to tell you, but you disappeared. Your smell stayed though, so I followed it back here.”
Alyssa felt her stomach drop at the mention of killing more people, but she didn’t say a word against it. She couldn’t. The hellhound had acted on her orders. Alyssa had told her to go kill more humans. Biting her lip, she looked down to the mess on the cave floor. “So you thought you would tear through my stuff and eat all my food?”
“I was hungry. We didn’t get much food in the…”
“Right. Of course you didn’t.” It was a wonder that the hellhound had any muscle on her at all. Maybe she had been captured only recently and hadn’t had time to atrophy. Looking at her now in proper light and without the threat of death hanging over her, Alyssa frowned. The hellhound, like a great many of the monstrous species, looked like a person. Mostly. Her face, her torso, and her upper legs and upper arms might as well have been transplanted from a bodybuilder. Her extremities changed. From the elbow and knee down, she had fur. Her hands were large paws like that of a dog or a cat. Her tail was thick and bushy as were the tall ears on top of her head. She wore… something. Bits of metal over her breasts and crotch. It couldn’t provide armor, so it was for modesty?
Maybe the Society of the Burning Shadow had forced it on her. Given their use of a cross, they might have the same aversion to undress that most Catholic organizations possessed. If the metal had been attached through piercings or magic, that might be why she hadn’t removed it since being freed.
She had probably suffered more than just starvation under their hand. Just thinking about it made Alyssa clench her fists. Knowing that, she couldn’t be quite as mad about her ransacking the supplies. But still… “Did you have to tear it apart to get to the food?” Alyssa grumbled. “And why didn’t you just eat one of those people you killed?”
“Eat people?” the hound said, making a face. “I’ll bite off your head if I need to, but eat people?”
Wow. How novel. A monster that doesn’t eat people. Alyssa was starting to think that all of them did. Imagine that. A furry thing with razor sharp teeth that had been beyond open to violence against humans thought that eating people was bad.
“Well, not your head.” The hellhound averted her flaming eyes, looking off to the side as she rubbed her knees together beneath her paws. “You’re not too mad at me, are you?”
Alyssa buried her face in her hands, giving a few sad chuckles. Imprinting. That was what Kasita had said. Hellhounds imprinted on strong people. But what did it even mean? Surely the Society of the Burning Shadow had demonstrated strength in capturing the hound. Maybe it was different when that strength was used against the hound versus against the hound’s enemies.
“What’s your name?”
“Fela. I’m sorry if this is insensitive, but don’t you have somewhere to be? A village? A home? Family?”
The dull claws on the ends of her paws dug into the ground. Her ears flipped around, laying almost flat against her head as her face twisted into a tight grimace. The swishing of her tail went still. Alyssa’s hand slowly moved to her pistol. Even Kasita took a cautious step away.
But Fela didn’t move more than that. She just stared at the ground, leaking fire from her eyes as her paws clenched then relaxed over and over again. “There is no home,” she said softly. “Not anymore. I got caught. They got killed.”
“Sorry. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want.” She didn’t need to. Alyssa could guess what happened easily enough. Perhaps through trickery, subterfuge, or luck, Fela wound up captured. But the rest of her family had definitely fought back. And they had been overwhelmed. Or maybe they all had been exposed to the Society of the Burning Shadow’s mist and the society decided they only needed or could only contain one hellhound.
Sighing, Alyssa moved over to the pile of food and pulled out a hamburger. She really didn’t want to waste all her good food on… people who weren’t her, but she could spare one for a bit of comfort food. And anti-starvation food. “Have this,” she said, handing it over. The hellhound promptly started sniffing at it, seeming interested. “It’s probably better than those things you ate earlier.”
Those protein bars had been coated in a thin layer of chocolate. Dogs… weren’t supposed to have chocolate, were they? Hopefully that wouldn’t cause any problems. It was bad enough having a hellhound hang around. She didn’t need a sick hellhound. Unless she was an obligate carnivore. The lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, bun, and whatever else was on the burger might not be the best for her either.
Alyssa was just about to ask Fela to wait when the hound opened her gaping maw, shoved everything inside including the cardboard container, and started munching down. Snapping her own jaw shut, Alyssa could only sigh again. Well, whatever. If her first reaction was to shove anything that seemed like food into her mouth, the hellhound probably had an iron stomach.
After wrapping the food back up in the tablecloth, Alyssa took a seat, resting on the flattest… stump in the cave. It wasn’t a tree stump. It was a sort of… platform of rock. The sides were lined vertically with thick tubes of more rock, making it look like a candle that had dripped wax all over. It was probably some kind of stalagmite, but she had thought they were pointy normally.
Whatever it was, it was close enough to the cavern wall to act as a chair. That was all she cared about at the moment. Having skipped over a nap on Earth—something she was sorely regretting at the moment—Alyssa felt exhausted. Irulon sleeping on the bedroll she had brought was only making Alyssa more tired. With the draken at the cave’s entrance and the hellhound not… unfriendly, Alyssa wanted to get a few minutes of sleep as well.
Of course, she would probably wake up to find the hellhound having eaten every scrap of food in the cave. Out in the desert like this with no easy way to resupply, that would be far from ideal.
What to do about the hellhound? Fela clearly lacked anywhere to go. No home. No family. But she couldn’t go to Lyria. The people would eat her alive. Probably not literally, but maybe. It would have to be up to Irulon. The royal family could shelter her like they did the draken. All that assumed that the hellhound wanted to go with them. She very well might decide to run off on her own. Maybe try to find other hellhounds to get along with.
Regardless of Fela’s desires, Alyssa needed Irulon to wake up. She had twice checked the princess’ vitals, even pulling up a quick video on her phone to check that she was reading the heartbeats properly. Irulon was alive. There was no doubt about that. She just wasn’t conscious. It left Alyssa with little to do but twiddle her thumbs and alternate between glaring at Kasita and Fela.
Covering her yawn with her hand, Alyssa rested her head against the hard rock. It wasn’t comfortable. That should keep her awake. But maybe a minute of resting her eyes would help pass the time.
Alyssa jerked, feeling like she was falling. Her feet moved unconsciously to catch herself from the perceived threat. But that was all it was. Perceived. She blinked twice, wondering what had happened.
The cave was darker now. Even though they were around the corner from the entrance, enough light flooded in during the day to keep it bright. But the only light at the moment came from the flames at the corners of the hellhound’s eyes. It flickered off the walls, barely enough to illuminate anything.
Grabbing her flashlight, Alyssa swept it around the room. The food was intact, she was happy to see. Irulon hadn’t moved a muscle, though Musca had come back from the cave entrance and was resting next to the princess. That sight made Alyssa a little nervous, realizing that she must have fallen asleep for quite some time. The hellhound… had multiplied? One was curled up in a ball, eyes closed. Every few seconds, a slight tremble would run through her body. The other was upright, gently stroking a paw through the first’s hair.
It took Alyssa’s hazy mind a moment to catch up.
The conscious hellhound put a paw in front of her face. “Shhh.”
Alyssa dropped her voice to a whisper. “Sorry. I take it I fell asleep.”
“Ufu~ Too adorable to wake.”
Shifting, not quite sure how she should take being called adorable, Alyssa ignored it. “How long?”
“Night only fell a few minutes ago,” Kasita said, shrugging. As she did, her form shifted, shimmering momentarily until it was back to her usual. Usual being her guise as Alyssa’s sister, it seemed.
Night falling meant that it had been about six hours. Pulling out her phone to double check, she nodded. The last time she remembered looking at her phone had been just before cleaning up the mess the hellhound had made. Roughly seven hours ago. Six hours fit nicely with that. She didn’t feel fully rested. A kink in her neck from sleeping upright against the stiff rock had her rubbing at her shoulders. Still, better than nothing.
Now that it was night time, it was the best time to travel through the desert.
“I think our princess has slept long enough,” Alyssa said, grabbing a water bottle. Taking a quick drink to get rid of that nasty sleep taste in her mouth—I should have grabbed a fresh toothbrush and toothpaste while on Earth—she slowly walked over to the princess. She only made it half of the way before freezing.
Musca was eying her. That narrow, evil eye tracked her every move.
Alyssa took in a sharp breath. “I’m just going to dump some water on her face and see if we can wake her up.”
The draken didn’t respond. Alyssa actually took that to be a good sign. The only times she had really heard Musca make noise had also been the main times Alyssa had feared that she would be eaten. Musca was still staring, but, even though not a scale on its face had changed, Alyssa felt like the stare wasn’t quite so intense.
Emboldened by the lack of sharp teeth bared in her direction, Alyssa slowly resumed her approach. She made it right up to Irulon and knelt at her side. After making sure that the princess’ tome was well out of reach, Alyssa took one last drink from the water bottle.
Then she upended the entire thing over Irulon’s face. A waste, but she had more bottles stored away. Plus a few sodas. It got Irulon sputtering, which was all Alyssa wanted at the moment.
“T-Tess? What do you think…” She snapped her eyes open, staring up at Alyssa with violet eyes. A blink turned those eyes black and white. As soon as they changed, she drew in a sharp breath and clutched at her chest, rocking back and forth on the ground.
Alyssa went into full panic mode. “What’s wrong? Irulon?” The princess was gasping for breath. Hadn’t Tenebrael fixed her properly? The skin had been unbroken and all the bones had felt firm. Alyssa had confirmed that for herself. So what…
“It… is… nothing.” Irulon’s voice sounded short on breath. Each word came out labored. But her rocking slowed down as she let her arms drop to her sides. “I reviewed… my most recent… memories. Pain included.” Her breathing was slowly returning to normal. Once she was back to regular steady breaths, Irulon moved her hands up to her face, pressing her palms to her eyes. “This is pathetic. Once again, I am lying on my back with you standing over me.”
Irulon’s fist slammed into the ground at her side. “I am better than this,” she snapped.
Alyssa licked her lips, whetting them as she considered what to say. “To be fair, I don’t think you could have done anything about… The angel attacked you.”
“So I surmised.” Her hand ran down her face, taking some of the water with it. “But I could have done something. I got greedy. I had ample opportunity to flee. When the angel first appeared and scared away the guild. When the angel appeared before us. When the angel appeared following our freeing the monsters. When the angel directly acted against us by creating those traps. All of them were warnings. Instead, I pursued. And what did I get for it? A hole in my chest—in my heart the size of my fist.”
“Yeah. It took Tenebrael to put you back together.” Alyssa had considered trying to hide that fact from Irulon, worried that it might inflate her ego a bit too much if she knew that her deity had personally intervened. But it was also the biggest thing that might help Irulon feel a little better about herself.
That and Irulon would probably figure it out on her own. She was good at putting pieces together like that.
Sure enough, Irulon opened her eyes. They were once again violet as they stared deep into Alyssa’s eyes. “Tenebrael saved me?” she said, barely audible.
“If not for her, well, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything for you. As you said, you had a hole in your chest. I didn’t even have a healing potion.” Alyssa glanced back to where the staff was leaning against the wall near the food supply. “Though I wouldn’t say that we got nothing out of it.”
From the corner of her eyes, Alyssa noticed the princess flinching slightly as she set her eyes on the staff. It was a familiar flinch. One that Alyssa had noticed herself making when swords were swinging. Alyssa carefully pretended that she hadn’t noticed a thing. The princess had already mentioned her pride being injured back when speaking with Oxart. This incident has surely driven a knife into that wound. Gouging it further would just be needlessly cruel.
Irulon moved, sitting upright. “Hand it here, would you?”
“Be careful!” Kasita spoke up from her position with the hellhound, even raising her voice despite having just shushed Alyssa. “There is something off about that thing. It is unnatural and shouldn’t exist.”
“I will take your words under advisement. However, I would still like to examine it.”
Alyssa held up a finger. “If I might make a suggestion first.” When Irulon didn’t protest, Alyssa took a breath and continued. “Let’s go back to Lyria. Right now. You can look at it on the way all you want.”
The princess folded her arms across her chest, glaring.
“We need to warn them that the Society of the Burning Shadow felt bold enough to build an outpost only a few days away,” Alyssa said, hurrying to explain a few reasons she had thought up earlier. “While it has been destroyed—the church toppled when your Fractal Lock wore off and I set fire to some of the buildings on my way out, and there are no people left alive—there could still be other outposts like it. The ride back will give you plenty of time to examine the staff and I can explain exactly what happened while you were out… some of which you might be extremely interested in.”
Having planned this part out, Alyssa stood, walked over to the food, and slid the pizza box out from under everything else without hesitation. She had to slip her flashlight into her pocket, but with the light pointing out, it still lit up the cave well enough even without Kasita making flames in her eyes. “You must be starving too. I don’t know about you, but I can never think properly while hungry. So I’ve got a bit of a surprise and present for you, to distract you from nearly being killed!”
Irulon did not look impressed. Her arms were firmly crossed and showed no sign of uncrossing. Her eyes were hard and angry. She hadn’t smiled. And… once again, Alyssa couldn’t help but feel as if there were something off about the princess. The same sensation occurred back when she had been checking Irulon’s injuries, but she had shrugged it off then, assuming it had been because of how the princess’ face had relaxed while unconscious. But it was happening again.
Shrugging it off—it was probably nothing—Alyssa cracked open the pizza box.
A hot aroma of cheesy pepperoni grease filled the cave instantly. Alyssa’s heart skipped a beat at smelling that for the first time in months. Her mouth immediately started filling with saliva, forcing her to swallow.
Irulon didn’t seem to fall under the same sway, but she did raise an eyebrow. Her glare turned to one of curiosity, followed shortly by her eyes turning black and white. They flicked over everything, from the top of the open pizza box to the savory dish of Italian origin.
“Stop analyzing everything and just enjoy it. You won’t ever get something like this again. Not anytime soon, at least.” With that said, Alyssa plopped the box onto the ground, grabbed a slice by the crust, and pulled. She almost started drooling as she saw the cheesy strands of melted cheese cling to the neighboring slices. The slice was halfway to her face when she noticed a pair of burning eyes peek over the top of the pizza box.
Alyssa rolled her eyes. Not wanting black fur to get all over, Alyssa handed her slice over. She wasted no time in grabbing a second slice and shoving it into her mouth before anything else could interrupt her.
Closing her eyes, she savored every little aspect of it. From the tomato sauce to the perfectly cooked crust. I could die happy right now. Who knew a little pizza could fix all the horrors of the world. Once they got back to Lyria, maybe she would send a message to the Teneville brothers and ask if their tomato plants were working out. If she was still on this stupid world once they had a healthy production going, she vowed to open a pizza parlor. No more adventuring. No more fighting for her life. Just a steady income and good food.
Halfway through her first piece, Alyssa found the hellhound’s paw reaching around the box for another. Alyssa quickly handed her another one before the fur could get everywhere. Then, she pulled out an extra slice and offered it to the princess. “Come on. I’m sure you’ve guessed with your deductions by now. It is indeed food from my world. You don’t want to let the hellhound eat it all, do you?”
The princess shifted her eyes to Alyssa. She didn’t often ask real questions. If she said something with a question mark at the end, it was probably a leading question, not meant for gaining knowledge, but to shift someone else’s viewpoint in an obtuse manner. But right now, Alyssa could see the real question in her eyes before she opened her mouth. “How?”
“Later. Stop ruining everything with too much thinking. This is a break from our trials and tribulations. Just enjoy it. Quick! Before it gets cold.” She practically shoved the extra piece into Irulon’s hands and watched.
The princess sniffed it twice as if she hadn’t been able to smell it from the moment the box opened. After a moment, she gingerly placed it into her mouth, chewed, and frowned. Did she not like it? But, after swallowing, she ate more. So she must like it.
“See? It’s good, isn’t it?”
Alyssa didn’t even wait for the response before finishing off her own piece. The hellhound was looking like she wanted a third piece and even Musca was eying the food. She was pretty sure that she could hear Izsha’s footsteps approaching as well, likely wondering what the smell was about.
She had competition.
Glancing to the bag of food, she wondered if she should grab the soda as well. Hard to have pizza without a good soda to go with it. Irulon wasn’t eating with the same enthusiasm, but she was eating. Exposing her to two of the least healthy foods Earth had to offer in a single sitting might be too much for someone used to a palate of bland food and bland alcohol.
No. Pizza was fine for now. Maybe when they stopped for another rest on the way back to Lyria.
Although she still had a lot of problems on her mind, the hellhound foremost among them, Alyssa could put them aside while she ate. Hopefully the princess would as well.