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Tzheitza seemed to enjoy a good cheeseburger a whole lot more than Irulon. The Princess just didn’t have a palate for anything but the meaty side of things, it seemed. But the food was hardly the topic of conversation.

In the end, Alyssa went with the angel explanation. Powerful imperceivable monsters that no one had ever heard of before was a slight bit more believable than her having occasional casual chats with Tenebrael. And it wasn’t even untrue, either. She might be lying by omission, but not outright lying.

Besides that, if Tenebrael’s feathers worked to stifle a demonic plague, it was highly likely that Iosefael and Adrael’s feathers would also work. And any other angel that appeared as well. So if someone could develop a magical method of seeing angels, they might be able to acquire feathers on their own. It was a long shot, true. For the time being, Alyssa would try to get as many as she could.

Alyssa couldn’t tell how much Tzheitza actually believed. When Oz got back, he could at least back her up a little. He obviously hadn’t seen an angel with his own two eyes, but he could attest to something having attacked him and his friends.

“I’d show you what they look like. I have a… trinket that lets me see the angels. Unfortunately, I’ve let Irulon borrow my phone and I’m not sure that she is done using it.” The Princess was probably asleep assuming Tess had been telling the truth. “Actually…”

Actually, now that she was thinking about it, the phone had probably been buzzing the whole time Irulon had it thanks to Chris. And Alyssa wouldn’t be able to find him until she got the phone back. So, with a shrug of her shoulders, she called the phone back to her hand.

One hundred thirty missed calls.

Alyssa couldn’t help a wince. She really needed to go find that guy. And maybe tell Tenebrael to take away his phone privileges.

The thought that there were two more people who would need refuge in Tenebrael’s world had her shuddering. Maybe, after teaching Chris a little about the world, she could hand them off to him for Nod orientation. Maybe one of them would be a mathematical genius who could solve the magical issue of traversing between Earth and Nod.

For the time being, Alyssa turned her phone to the photo gallery and pulled up the image of Adrael. The wing color was different. It would have to do. Showing her Tenebrael would just ruin all the effort Alyssa had made to avoid that angel’s name.

“Here. This is the one that attacked Oz,” Alyssa said, holding out the phone. “You can think of it like a portable portrait painter,” she added quickly, remembering how tedious it had been to explain the phone’s functions to Oz, Lumen, and Catal.

“A harpy with arms,” Tzheitza said.

“Yep. Basically. Except angels are capable of extremely high level magic. Irulon was theorizing that this spell was Rank Ten,” Alyssa said as she switched to the image of Adrael casting.

She didn’t know what Tzheitza’s magical education included. Given the few spell cards around the potion shop, such as Flame for lighting the fire pit and the various Bunsen burner-type devices, she had some education. But at mentioning Rank Ten, Tzheitza only raised an eyebrow. A stark contrast from Lumen outright calling Irulon insane.

The phone buzzed in her hand. Tzheitza jerked back, hand darting to her chest as if to grab one of her potion orbs, but she wasn’t wearing the bandoleer at the moment.

“Sorry,” Alyssa said, dismissing the incoming call. “It does that when someone is trying to contact me.”

“Message?” Tzheitza said. “How’s it know when sommat Messaging yeh?”

Alyssa shook her head. “It actually uses… electromagnetic waves in the air. A similar trinket will send them out like… uh, ripples in a pond. And my phone detects those ripples… or… something.” She really wasn’t qualified to talk about this kind of stuff. Maybe one of the people she rescued from certain death on Earth would be an electrical engineer who could really kick start an industrial revolution. A magitechnological revolution.

“Anyway, I hate to leave you with what I’m sure are a million questions, but this guy has been trying to contact me non stop for a good three days. I need to find him before he goes completely crazy.”

“Will yeh be back?”

“Yeah. Of course. Before nightfall… if that’s alright with you?”

Tzheitza crossed her arms, nodding. “All yer luggaround is still in yer room.”

“Oh good. Well, I’ll see you later tonight, then.”

“Stay safe, the Waterhole’s been seized, but the gang’s still about.”

Grimacing, Alyssa nodded. She had almost forgotten about them. “What about the gaunt? Has anyone seen that around?” It had been missing on her way out of the city—Irulon and Alyssa had run by specifically to check. The slow speed that it moved at meant that it couldn’t have gone far, but now it had had a good week to run around and do whatever gaunts did when full of people.

“Not a sight of it has reached my ears. Could be that the guards’ve been sneaking it off. Prevents panic.”

“Probably a good idea.” Alyssa certainly hoped that would be the case. The gaunt was creepy. She really didn’t want to meet it again.

Speaking of meetings… “Alright. I’ll be back later tonight.”

With that parting message, she grabbed her pistols, shotgun, and deck of cards. She decided to leave the staff behind. Letting it out of her sight wasn’t necessarily a good idea, but it was large, cumbersome, gaudy, and attracted the eyes of everyone she passed. It hadn’t been that big of a deal on her way to Tzheitza’s shop with the rain keeping people off the street, but now that it had died down a bit, there would be plenty of people eying it, wondering if they could steal it. If Adrael did show up to take it away, she probably wouldn’t hurt Tzheitza over it. She would just pop in, take it, and leave.

It was a risk, but the only other option was carrying it literally everywhere. That just wasn’t feasible. Magic didn’t seem to affect it, meaning she couldn’t use some Physical magic to change some of its properties. Unless she figure out how to summon it like Adrael had done, she would need an easier way of carrying it. Her current plan was to commission some kind of sheath that would keep it attached to her back. Because, while cumbersome, it was valuable to carry around. It blocked magic.

For now, it would stay.

Outside the shop and around the corner, Alyssa waited. It didn’t take much waiting. Five minutes before her phone buzzed once again.

“Hello, Chris, I—”

Alyssa grimaced, pulling the phone away from her ear. He… did not sound too happy at the moment. And that was understating the situation by a lot. She just held the phone at arm’s length, waiting for the blast of sound to die down. It took longer than she expected—her arm was getting tired—but he finally ran out of breath. After waiting an extra second to ensure that she wasn’t going to get an immediate earful, she carefully brought the phone back.

“Are you done?”

Preemptively leaning away from the speaker made her miss whatever he said. He didn’t even shout it. Feeling a little silly, she hurried to listen to what he was saying.

“—the hell is all that? I thought it was a joke! Then he pulls out a knife and tries to stab me! I put him down, but my reflexes aren’t what they used to be.”

“Did you get injured?” Alyssa asked, suddenly feeling guilty for having ignored his calls for several days. She had managed to get through an entire week around people in this world before actually being in personal danger, but she had also been dropped off in the peaceful Teneville. Not even a whole day had passed from the time she got to Lyria to when she wound up needing to defend herself.

She probably should have thought of that before having Tenebrael drop him off here.

“Just a scratch. You should see the other guy.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes. “How long ago was this? Is the wound… alright? Some blades in this world are poisoned.”

“This world?”

“Just tell me if I need to bring medical supplies.” She would rather know whether or not he had been poisoned before getting too far from Tzheitza’s shop. She had her own emergency first aid kit in her satchel, but if he needed an immediate cure-all, Tzheitza would be the only one who could help her.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’ve gotten far worse before. Just tell me what the hell is going on… please.”

“Are you going to listen? Or are you going to insist that this is some government conspiracy?” He hesitated just long enough for Alyssa to wonder if he was still seriously considering the possibility. “Well guess what, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Ask anyone. They’ve never heard of the United States. Or China. Or Russia. Or any other country you might name. The American government doesn’t exist here. As far as they’re concerned back on Earth, you are dead. Not that it matters to you, seeing as you can’t go back. You asked me if you were dead. I should have said yes.”

The silence continued for another few seconds before he finally grumbled out, “This is the worst afterlife I’ve ever heard of.”

“Yeah, well, it isn’t over yet. If you die, a Hot Topic reject of an angel will show up and eat your soul. So you’ve got that to look forward to.”

“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.”

“Me neither,” Alyssa said with a sigh. “What did you end up doing with the guy who attacked you? And why did you get attacked in the first place? Please don’t tell me it was a city guard.”

“Naw, don’t think so. Some ruffian jumped me in an alley. I just knocked him out and left, but not before taking his dagger. Fancied my trash bag, I guess.”

That made a stupid amount of sense. To people who had never seen a trash bag before, it must look like some exotic attire. It was shiny to a slight degree and the wrinkling gave it an interesting pattern. Stupid, yes, but she could see how such a thought came about.

“Look, can you just tell me what I’m supposed to be doing?”

“What you’re supposed to do?” Alyssa hesitated, considering the question. “Whatever you want,” she settled on. “You’ve been granted a new lease on life. Without my intervention, you were undoubtedly going to die on Earth. A real death. This place might be a little different than what you’re used to, but it is much the same as well. Find a job. Find a home. Or don’t. Live on the streets if you want. I imagine that’s both harder and easier than doing so back on Earth. People, you may have noticed, don’t exactly walk around unarmed.”

“Yeah. Everyone has a sword or knife.”

“There are other, more subtle weapons. If you see someone walking around with a book on their hip, avoid them at all costs. Magic is real here. A tome is a sure sign of an arcanist.”

“Magic?” he said with a clear scoff.

“How do you think you got here?”

“Point.”

“If you’d like to meet up, I can go over a few options that I thought might be decent for you. Just a little direction in this strange world. If not… well… please stop calling my phone nonstop. It is highly irritating.”

His chuckle made Alyssa frown, but she didn’t say anything about it. She didn’t know exactly what he had been shouting about, but as long as he was being reasonable now, she didn’t much care. That said, she would need to be on her guard when meeting him. She didn’t think that he would attack her based on their conversation so far, but there was always a possibility. He could easily be absolutely distraught with the situation and might view her as an outlet for his anger.

Was this world making her overly paranoid or had she always been like this.

“Why not? Got nothing else to be doing here.”

It took a few minutes to figure out exactly where he was, which turned out to be down in the southern section of the city that Alyssa had hardly been in save for a pass-through during her initial entrance to the city. Actually setting up a meeting spot wasn’t much easier. He had been in this city for a week and knew practically nothing about it. A week after Alyssa had arrived and she had basically the whole city mapped out. What had he been doing all this time? She wasn’t certain that she wanted to know. No matter what it was, it felt like it would irritate her.

Eventually, she managed to direct him to a little tavern that she had eaten at a few times while delivering potions for Tzheitza. It was a quaint shop. Much cleaner than the inn Cid had led her to on her first night in the city, but not nearly so cozy as Yzhemal’s tavern down in Teneville. Instead of glass jars of light potion, it had candles set on every single table, though they weren’t lit at the moment as more than enough light flooded in through the windows. It was a rarity among established businesses. Most could afford the light potion.

Being late afternoon already, plenty of people were around for a meal. Alyssa had been counting on that. Finding a sparsely populated tavern might seem like it would offer more privacy, but the opposite was true. With many people, it was harder to listen in to one particular conversation. The low rumble of many voices drowned out individuals.

Or at least, that was the theory.

Chris stood out like a sore thumb. Half the tavern was glancing at him, making subtle pointing gestures, and speaking with their fellows. It was his trash bag. He still had it on. Compared to when she had seen him in the alley, it had turned to tattered strands of plastic. Underneath, he had on a clearly worn set of green, brown, and black camouflage. Forest camo. Probably picked up at, or maybe stolen from, a surplus store given its lack of use in the military in the past twenty-odd years.

Trying to keep her expression from showing too much distaste, Alyssa went to the counter and ordered two meat pies and a pair of ales. Meat, grains, onion, and garlic. Not particularly appetizing, but that was Nod food. The pies would be a while, but the ales were ready immediately. She went and took a seat at the table he had chosen and put one of the pints down in front of him. At least he had the good sense to pick one off on the side. If he was going to draw the attention of everyone in the tavern, they might as well keep the majority of the people as far away as possible.

Not that they would really be talking about anything that would damn them if overheard.

“So, Chris, how are you finding the Grand City of Lyria? Everything you hoped for in a new life?”

He didn’t respond save for a scoff, choosing instead to take a small swig of the ale. Although he swallowed it, he did make a face. “How do you drink this stuff?”

“How I drink anything else,” Alyssa said, taking a drink from her own mug. It was actually some of the better ale she had tried in the city. Much better than the swill in Teneville. But really, ale quality was not what she had come to waste her time talking about. “You used to be in the military, correct?”

“You know everything about me?” he said, taking another drink despite his complaints. “I don’t even know your name.”

Alyssa blinked. Had she not introduced herself? Or maybe he hadn’t been paying attention. Either way, there was no harm in introducing herself now. “You can call me Alyssa. As for knowing everything about you, I don’t. I do know you stole vital radio parts to sell on the black market and later deserted. You wound up in prison, got out, and promptly became homeless.”

He narrowed his eyes, fist tightening around the wooden mug. “Like I had much choice. My parents disowned me. No one wants to hire convicted felons.”

“Well, you are in luck. No one here knows what you’ve done. You have no past, but I doubt anyone cares about that. Finding a job should be a simple matter. You’re strong and, I assume, at least somewhat skilled. There are plenty of things to do, from carpentry to monster slaying. Hell, get a desk job. The majority of the population is illiterate so just being able to read and write is a valued skill.”

“Monsters?”

Alyssa raised an eyebrow. “You’ve seen them, haven’t you? Pointed ears. Blue-grey skin? Elves. There are a huge variety of monsters, some more hostile to humans than others.”

He shook his head and drained a good half of his drink at once. “Sure,” he said. “Why not? Monsters.”

The tavern keeper, an older man with a rough mane of hair and the odd name of Gobbtop—the same name as the tavern—brought around the two meat pies. They were called pies, but they looked more like burritos than the circular pies that Alyssa was familiar with. She was a bit surprised with how voraciously Chris dug in. The pies weren’t bad, but they weren’t particularly tasty either.

“What?” he grumbled, mouth full. “The ale might taste like piss, but good food is good food.”

“I guess,” she said. “Anyway, I thought up a few options you might consider in terms of a job. I can give you directions and—”

“What do you get out of all this?”

Alyssa leaned back, considering. “Nothing, I suppose,” she said after a moment. “You are here because I didn’t want to kill you. I’m only here to explain a few things to you because I felt responsible. This world is a far cry from what you’re used to and I figured you could use a little help. If you want to leave, figure things out for yourself…” Alyssa waved a hand to the door. “Otherwise, I’ll let you know about a few job opportunities and tell you what I’ve learned of monsters, magic, local politics, and anything else I can think of.”

“Magic. You mentioned that. It’s… really real, then?”

“Ah! I came prepared for that.” Alyssa opened up her satchel and pulled out two loose Light spell cards. “Take this,” she said, offering one. “Hold it between your fingers and say ‘Light’ while thinking of a little ball of light floating around. Like this: Light.”

As soon as she said the word, the card in her hand disappeared and the orb of light replaced it. She danced it around the table a few times before dismissing it, letting it expire into motes of magic. Several of the nearby patrons fell silent as she cast the spell, making her a little nervous that magic wasn’t allowed in the place, but no one came around to tell her off so she did her best to ignore it.

Instead, she focused on Chris. His eyes had gone wide when she cast the spell. Now, he was still staring at the spot where it had disappeared with a wide open mouth. Had she… looked so dumb when she had first cast Light? Hopefully not, though it didn’t matter. No one had been around in the mountain pass aside from a harpy.

“Well? Go on.”

Chris looked down at his own card. He shook his head twice, scoffing as he did so. Still, he raised the card just as she had. “Light.”

Nothing happened. He tried again. And again. The card remained right between his fingers. He looked at it, frowned, then looked to Alyssa. “Did I do something wrong?”

“Not sure. Did you picture a ball of light?”

“I was thinking about what you did. Easy to imagine when I saw it floating about in front of my face.” Looking down at the card with a scowl, he stared at it like it had personally offended him. “Light.”

Again, nothing.

“Well, you can keep that card and try again whenever you wish. Not everyone can use magic, though I don’t know what the difference is between the people who can and those who cannot.” She had honestly expected him to be able to get it right away, but that was mostly because she had been able to do it on the first try. It wasn’t something she had thought to ask Irulon, but Aziz had killed himself in part because he had been unable to cast magic. “I’ll see if I can’t look up why you cannot use it. In the meantime, would you like to know what I know of monsters? Or shall we end it here?”

“This is… unbelievable. Everything,” he added before Alyssa could ask. “But if I have to live here, I’d be a fool to ignore you.”

“Excellent. Glad I’m not wasting my time.” To get started, Alyssa pulled out her phone and notebook. Hopefully this wouldn’t take long. Looking at how thick the notebook was, she realized that she had gathered quite a bit of information about the place. Either way, she could probably skim over a few things. Her spell repository occupied the largest chunk of the book by far. If he couldn’t cast spells, it might not be too useful except as a reference for what was possible for others to cast.

If she wanted to keep her promise to Tzheitza and get back before nightfall, it would be best to get started immediately.

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