“Fela!” Alyssa called as she trudged through the tall maize in one of the unharvested portions of the northern fields. Her voice was loud and quiet at the same time. A whispered shout. Or a shouted whisper? Hellhounds probably had good hearing. They were exactly the kind of creatures that Little Red Riding Hood might point at and say, ‘My, what big ears you have.’ Even if the ears were just for show and hellhounds were deaf, Alyssa didn’t want to shout any louder.
There were patrols out on the edges of the fields. Horseback riders outfitted with either lanterns or Light spells. She hadn’t noticed them on the way in the other day, but the city guard was clearly serious about their increased security. Drawing them closer would complicate things if Fela did show up.
The gate guards hadn’t made any trouble. Alyssa hadn’t recognized any of the ones stationed there tonight. If they had recognized her, they hadn’t said a thing.
They had, however, recognized Tzheitza. She made up an excuse about why they were leaving so late. Gathering potion ingredients and teaching her apprentice what to look for. Tzheitza was well known to the city guard and well respected. They hadn’t even questioned her beyond that.
Of course, they had said that they would need to inspect their belongings when returning to the city. Not even Tzheitza’s reputation could protect her from that. And Tzheitza didn’t have draken that could just jump over the guards. It was probably for the best that Alyssa had decided to travel light. All she had on her was the hamburger, her weapons, and a mostly empty satchel.
Speaking of the hamburger, Alyssa cracked open the cardboard container. Whatever stasis spell kept the hamburger fresh broke, filling the air with the delicious scent of incredibly unhealthy food. Alyssa’s mouth watered despite having just eaten before leaving. Ignoring her stomach, she started waving her spread deck of cards over the top of the burger, using them like a makeshift fan.
“Here Fela, come on girl!”
All the while, she tried to avoid looking at Tzheitza. Not only did she feel a bit embarrassed and a bit silly about calling for the hellhound like she was an actual dog, but Tzheitza… did not look happy.
The potioneer hadn’t said much since leaving, but she had maintained an abject look of utter disapproval. Her mouth was set in a thin line and her brow hadn’t unfurrowed since leaving the city. Her eyes flicked about the fields, searching for danger. With her hand tight around one of the orbs on her bandoleer—a blue freezing potion—Alyssa had no doubt that she would be ready for a hellhound to pop out of the shadows and attack her. In fact, even if Fela didn’t attack, the hound might still get a potion to the face.
Now that the hamburger container was open, it probably wouldn’t be long. The smell just needed a chance to percolate.
“Thank you for agreeing to this, by the way,” Alyssa said, using a much more natural tone of voice. The guards were plenty far away. “I know you don’t like monsters much.”
Tzheitza grunted in response. “Where is yer mimic anyhow? I can’t imagine yeh finally got rid of it.”
“Oh, she is at the palace with Irulon.” Alyssa had received a Message from her just the morning before. Kasita originally wanted to spy on the meeting between Irulon and her father. Apparently, the Pharaoh wasn’t too pleased with his eldest daughter at the moment. Mostly because of Kasita and the stunt she had pulled in front of the entirety of the city and palace guards.
Brakkt had calmed down the guard who had wound up in a Loophole, but not before he had managed to tell everyone and their dog that the princess wasn’t the princess. Now, nobles were slinging accusations of all sorts of things. The most ridiculous of which seemed to be the suggestion that Irulon had never existed and had always been a monstrous infiltrator. One person even put out the theory that all the royal family members were monsters.
It sounded rough for Irulon. That said, they really hadn’t had that much of a choice. Irulon’s clones had even given Kasita instructions on how to speak to the guards, so she had clearly agreed with the choice. But that didn’t stop all the trouble.
With all that going on, Alyssa had to wonder whether Irulon was managing to help out Oxart. Alyssa would need to look into it herself before long. Maybe after sending a message to Irulon to check. But that probably wouldn’t be until after her trip to Earth. Kasita had mentioned in her Message wanting to be there for that, so she might be slipping out of the palace at this very moment. Hopefully she would be careful. Alyssa wouldn’t normally worry about the mimic, but with the city guard on high alert, the palace guard would probably be the same. And they probably had at least a few people looking out for mimics after Kasita had disguised herself as the Princess.
A rustling in the maize made Alyssa tense up. The hand not holding the hamburger went straight for her pistol. She held no doubts that Fela wouldn’t attack her, but Fela might not be the only thing drawn close by the smell of modern food. To her side, Tzheitza tugged the icy potion from her bandoleer, having much the same thoughts. Or maybe she didn’t care if it was Fela or not.
The rustling happened again. This time, Alyssa saw it. Two bright orange flames shining in the darkness. “Fela?” Alyssa whispered. That had to be her. If it was some other hellhound, she hoped they liked burgers more than people.
She took a single step closer. The heavy weight of Tzheitza’s hand on her shoulder kept her from moving forward any more.
“It’s fine,” Alyssa said, shrugging the hand off and holstering her pistol at the same time. If this wasn’t her hellhound and she wound up dead… well, she would probably feel awfully foolish in the pit of Tenebrael’s stomach. “Fela? Is that you? You remember hamburgers, right? I brought you one so that we could talk for a bit. Do you mind coming out? My friend won’t hurt you.” Hopefully.
The rustling got closer as did those fiery lights.
A stalk of corn toppled to the side as a hellhound stepped forward, poking its mane-draped head out of the shadows and into the small area lit by Alyssa’s Light spell. She had her eyes narrowed at Tzheitza, but it was a strain, Alyssa could tell. Her gaze kept drifting over to Alyssa’s outstretched hand. She kept licking her lips. Every few seconds, she would sniff at the air.
Unable to take it anymore, she practically pounced on Alyssa’s hand. The hamburger vanished in a blur of fur. Fela disappeared as well. Alyssa could hear her nearby, chomping down on the burger.
“We should go,” Tzheitza said, voice terse. Her knuckles were white as they gripped her potion orb. Hopefully the glass could stand up to the pressure. “Yer lucky to keep yer arm.”
“It’s fine. She didn’t even scratch me.” Alyssa waved her hand in front of Tzheitza. “Not even a tiny mark. But Fela!” Alyssa turned to where she thought she heard the noises coming from. There was a faint light in the darkness that might have been from Fela’s eyes, though her back was turned. Or it might have just been Alyssa’s imagination. “Come back. I just want to talk. Tzheitza isn’t going to hurt you. In fact, she’s going to put her potion right back on her bandoleer,” she said with a pointed look at the older woman.
Tzheitza grumbled something unintelligible under her breath. Or maybe she was just growling louder than the actual monster. Either way, it took an extra glare to get her to lower the potion. Frankly, Alyssa was surprised that she hadn’t tossed it the moment Fela leaped at the hamburger. It had happened quickly, true, but she had reacted to other things quickly. When they had been captured on the Brechen Overlook, she had been the first one up and at them when Kasita freed them. Of course, they had been captured in the first place, but that had been an ambush.
Ah well. Alyssa should just count herself and Fela lucky that neither of them wound up an ice cube.
However, even with the potion lowered, it still wasn’t away.
Alyssa probably wasn’t going to get anything better.
“You have lots of scary friends.”
Turning back to the forest of maize, Alyssa spotted the two red lights just barely beyond the radius of her spell’s light. “Oh?” The draken and Irulon were pretty scary. Tzheitza was muscular and armed with all sorts of esoteric potions, but Alyssa would definitely say that she was the least scary of the bunch. Then again, she hadn’t ever seen Tzheitza go all out. And, thinking about it for longer than a second, that potion she had used to melt the troll was horrifying.
But Fela didn’t know about all that.
“She smells like danger. Like she might explode if I got close.”
Alyssa threw a quick look to Tzheitza, wondering how literal Fela was being. Tzheitza didn’t strike her as the type to explode in anger in a situation like this. She might toss her potions if she felt threatened, but wouldn’t shout. Which probably meant that those potions could explode. Maybe if exposed to the hellhound’s flaming eyes.
A light breeze picked up, lasting only a second or two. That was enough to tug on Alyssa’s hair, pulling it out of place. A quick hand over her head had it back into position, but she couldn’t help but frown. It had been a long while since she had been able to do any trimming. Alyssa didn’t mind long hair, but it needed to be styled away from her face. It was starting to get unkempt, even being a bit much for a ponytail, though she wore it loose at the moment.
Fela didn’t seem to care much that her own hair got pulled around by the sudden breeze. Probably because it hadn’t been anywhere near tidy before. With only the dim light from her spell, Alyssa couldn’t see perfectly, but Fela’s mane of hair sure fit the description. Instead of trying to fix it, Fela narrowed her eyes, dimming the flames ever so slightly as she looked around, sniffing at the air a few times.
“Why don’t you stay there then. We can talk like this.” With barely a thought, the light moved around to get closer to Fela. The hellhound shirked away, raising her furry arm to block out the light, but she didn’t flee. “What are you doing here, Fela? You know that the humans won’t like it if they find you.”
“Nowhere else to go. I thought I’d try to find you, but those humans keep patrolling the wall. One almost caught me today.”
“Yeah, I… heard.” Alyssa sighed. Having nowhere to go had been her reason for seeking out Alyssa’s pack back at the outpost. Of course nothing had changed since then, but Alyssa had expected her to run off to find someplace that wasn’t infested with people who hated her. “They’re harvesting these crops, Fela. That means that your hiding spot isn’t going to be around for much longer. You’ll be caught if you stay here.”
The pointed ears poking off the top of her head drooped, flattening down against her head.
“Sorry.” Alyssa didn’t know what else to say. It wasn’t like they could sneak her into the city. Even if they could, she would have to be confined to a back room without windows or risk being spotted by passersby. That wouldn’t be a fun time for a hellhound.
Even the draken, who seemed to be accepted by the royal family at least, didn’t seem to get out of their stables all that often. They, arguably, needed exercise and a field to run about in far more than a hellhound. Alyssa still wanted to speak with Brakkt about that, and she probably should have when she first got back. Now she didn’t know when she would next see him. Especially if the Pharaoh had grounded Irulon, as hilarious a thought as that might be.
Maybe Irulon would take the hellhound in. Her clones had wanted to domesticate a gaunt. Surely a hellhound was a better companion. Not only was Fela fluffy and not nightmare inducing, but she could actually understand and respond to words. And Fela wouldn’t fall dormant for a decade between feedings.
Alyssa jumped, not having expected Tzheitza to speak at all. She glanced back, slightly worried about the why.
“Yeh didn’t kill the man who found yeh earlier. Why?”
Fela let out a low, guttural growl. “I’m not stupid.”
“Didn’t say yeh were. Just asked a question is all.”
“Then you must be stupid. If I had killed him, he’d go missing. Humans look for missing humans. They’d find him… and me.”
“But yeh scratched him. Yer wound leaves burns on the skin.”
“An accident.” Fela grabbed her busy tail, hugging it tightly to her chest. “He startled me. I fled. My tail swiped him.”
“Your tail?” Alyssa said, blinking. “How did you scrape him with your tail?”
“My fur is like little bits of metal.”
“I’ve touched your tail. It’s soft and fluffy.” A bit smelly, but she wasn’t about to say that to her face. A good bath would do Fela well. Tenebrael’s feathers would make the best bed and pillow of all time, but hellhound fur was a close second. She broke eye contact, looking around and sniffing the air.
An action that Tzheitza ignored. “Nah. The hound is right,” she said. “When the hound feels threatened, the hair stiffens. It is an extremely valuable reagent. Rare too.”
Alyssa raised an eyebrow for two reasons. First, the thought that Fela might puff up like a cat made her smile a little. Although a cat didn’t turn into a pin cushion when scared. But the second part of what Tzheitza said made her brow furrow. “Did you come out here to see if you could get some potion materials?”
“The thought crossed my mind.”
“You’re not hurting her.” Turning to Fela, Alyssa repeated herself. “She’s not hurting you.”
“Don’t need to hurt it. I’ve a decent store of hellhound fur and blood, but bottled flames are hard to come by. Can’t be harvested from dead monsters.”
The fur was expected. Most of the monster-sourced reagents and catalysts in Tzheitza’s store rooms were parts of monsters. Eyes of a gazer. Fangs of a basilisk. Feathers of a harpy. Scales of an apophis. Tongue of a jabberwock. So fur of a hellhound didn’t stand out. Neither did blood, really. But… “How do you bottle flames?”
“With a flask,” Tzheitza said, producing an empty one from a bag she had slung over her shoulder. “Would it… Would yeh mind holding this up to yer eye?” Even though she still had the frost bomb in one hand, she stepped forward, holding out the empty bottle.
Fela shirked backward, moving the same number of steps away.
“You know,” Alyssa said as she took the flask from Tzheitza, “I bet a lot of your extremely rare ingredients wouldn’t be quite so rare if humans and monsters got along a little better. Wouldn’t it be nice to go get a clipping of bunyip hair with a simple question instead of sending people to fight one to the death?” As she spoke, she slowly approached Fela, pleased to see that the hellhound didn’t run away from her.
“We do what we need. Not all of us live in yer fantasy delusions.”
“Fela? Could you hold this up to your eye?” Alyssa said, holding out the bottle. The hellhound accepted it with her large paws, looking down at it for a few moments before doing as requested. Orange flames licked the bottom of the upturned glass. They didn’t dissipate or diminish as would be expected of fire without a fuel source, but they… grew. The flask filled up completely until, left with nowhere to go, the fire spread out around Fela’s hands.
Tzheitza passed a thin glass stopper to Alyssa, who promptly handed it to Fela. There was a bit of fumbling—Fela’s large paws were clearly not designed to accomplish precise tasks, but she eventually got it in place. Only then did she finally turn the flask right-side up. The flames stayed inside, swirling around with a tranquil fury.
“Can’t you do something?” Alyssa said as she handed the bottled flames back to Tzheitza. The glass was surprisingly cool to the touch. Either it was enchanted, insulated, or hellhound eye flame just wasn’t all that hot. “Like, get a permit for keeping Fela around? Say that her presence means easy access to rare ingredients.”
“I’m not ingredients,” Fela said with a huff.
“No, but you could trade some fur for a roof over your head. You wouldn’t have to sleep in the fields. Maybe get some food too.”
“Don’t fill its head with bad ideas. I’m thankful for the flame, but it’s gotta get away afore someone spots it if it doesn’t want to wake up with its head on a pike.”
Fela wrinkled her nose, sniffing twice at the air. “Something smells,” she said, not disguising her disgust.
Alyssa didn’t smell anything, but she glanced back to Tzheitza, just to make sure that the resident potion master hadn’t uncorked anything foul. But Tzheitza wasn’t even paying much attention. Her eyes were on the flask of flames. She swirled it about like she was trying to aerate a fine wine. The glass stopper was still firmly in place, so the smell wasn’t coming from there. Unless the flames started smelling different after being separated from Fela, they probably didn’t smell like much of anything regardless.
Before she realized what was going on, Alyssa found herself wrapped up in Fela’s muscular arms. She didn’t remain embraced for long. Alyssa sailed through the air a short distance. The thick stalks of corn caught her, breaking her fall to the ground.
Glass cracked. A cold rushed over Alyssa, turning her breath to mist and forming frost on the leaves of the maize.
It took a moment to orient herself. Her orb of light was still up in the air, providing enough illumination to see by. The light was even brighter now, reflected off the ice. Where there once had been a forest of corn stalks, winter had fallen. The stalks had been flattened against the ground by the force of the frosty explosion.
The explosion hadn’t been anywhere near Alyssa or Fela. Tzheitza had tossed it off behind where Alyssa had stood. Fela was glaring in the same direction, sniffing at the air.
Alyssa’s eyes roved to Fela’s paw. She held a knife. A smooth black blade designed to be a throwing dagger.
With a sick feeling welling in her stomach, Alyssa unslung the shotgun from her shoulder as she got back to her feet.
She had seen that dagger before. Several times. It had even pierced her chest in an alternate reality.
The Taker was nearby.