Vacant Throne

by

TowerCurator

024.008 City Matters - Navigating the Maize

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Fela launched herself into the frosty field before Alyssa could stop her. The Taker wouldn’t have attacked if he hadn’t thought he could have taken on a hellhound. He was probably counting on her being bloodthirsty. Splitting up was an extremely bad idea.

Alyssa scanned the forest of corn, looking for any hint of the Taker or Fela. Fela had charged off toward where Tzheitza had thrown her potion. She wasn’t running away, but running to attack. That might give her a moment to cast a spell or two.

“Projectile Reflection,” Alyssa said aloud, less because she needed to speak to cast spells and more for Tzheitza’s benefit. She hadn’t been completely idle during the few days of downtime. Drawing up a deck of spells hadn’t even taken that long. And Projectile Reflection was one of the spells she had wanted the most.

Let the Taker suck on his own bag of tricks. Alyssa learned from her failures. His spell could be used against his throwing weapons easily enough. This encounter would go far differently from the last. She had both chains and scythes ready and even had another Fractal Mirror. If he managed to kill her despite her preparedness… well, she would definitely ask Tenebrael if she could delay being eaten until she had a chance to torture the guy on his death.

Alyssa knelt to pick up the knife. Fela had dropped it before darting off. But she hesitated. What if it was cursed in some way other than the frosty enchantment on the blade. Fela might have been able to ignore the curse thanks to some inherent magical resistance, but Alyssa wasn’t even wearing the dragon hide armor. She was back in modern clothing.

Realizing that Tzheitza might not recognize the knife, Alyssa said, “It’s the Taker.”

At the same time, Tzheitza spoke with a hiss. “Octavia.”

“What?”

“That knife. That idiot girl was tossing ‘em at me and Oz.”

“When you captured her… Of course Octavia shops at the same blacksmith that the Taker does. That’s identical to the ones the Taker was throwing at me when I fought him.”

“Yer sure?”

Alyssa winced as she felt a memory of the dagger pierce her chest. Long. Black. More like a nail than a proper knife. It was probably designed specifically for throwing. “Yeah. Very sure.”

“Oh Tommik,” Tzheitza said softly. “I hope yer out there.”

“I hope it’s Octavia.” As prepared as she felt, it was almost a relief to think that Octavia might be the one hunting them down instead. She seemed like far less of a threat. Though it wouldn’t do to let her guard down just because of a suspicion. Best to treat it as the Taker until proved otherwise. Or worse, both of them could be out there.

Alyssa snuffed out her light spell, realizing that it was just painting a target on them. In its place, she activated Night Vision. “Can you see in the dark?”

“I got a potion,” Tzheitza said. The potions on the bandoleer were something of an issue. A few of them glowed in the dark. It lit up Tzheitza like a Christmas tree. Or, it did until Tzheitza pulled on the bandoleer. A heavy cloth fell over the potions. They could still be grabbed from the underside and a little light came out from there, but it wasn’t half as bad as before. “Yer monster might be in trouble if it is the Taker.”

“And Octavia will be in trouble if it’s her.”

“Bah. Serves the haberin fool right.”

“I’d rather hand her over to the Pharaoh to deal with. Don’t want to be accused of anything. We should find them regardless.”

“Mhm. Guards’ll have seen the ice globe.”

“All the more reason to find Fela quickly. I have extra Projectile Reflection cards. Do you want one?”

“Nah. Too high rank for me. I’ve got a harden skin potion. Daggers canne hurt me with it.”

“Alright. How do you want to do this?”

“Stick behind me.”

“But I’ve got Projectile Reflection. If he flings any more daggers, better to reflect them completely rather than risk them being sharp enough for harden skin to fail.”

“Projectile Reflection isn’t gonna help against his sword.”

Alyssa flinched again, unconsciously rubbing at her lower stomach. That was a very good point. Did she have a spell that would block swords? Closing her eyes and thinking for a moment, Alyssa came up blank. She had a lot of offensive spells, but Projectile Reflection was the only defensive one she could think of off the top of her head.

Clicking her tongue in annoyance, Alyssa fell in behind Tzheitza as they started moving through the frosted portion of the fields. She didn’t like putting Tzheitza in danger just to be safe herself, but she fully acknowledged Tzheitza’s experience in things like this.

That said, if Alyssa were the Taker in this situation, she would be fleeing back to the city as fast as possible. He had an angry Tzheitza after him, an angry hellhound after him, and an angry Rank Six arcanist after him. Plus the guards that would surely be swarming the area as soon as they noticed that the field had turned into an ice cube when they weren’t looking. Continuing to fight in this situation was just asking to be caught.

Which had Alyssa thinking that Tzheitza was right. This really was Octavia. As Irulon had said, her younger sister was an idiot. Who in their right mind would attack in a situation like this?

Fela had left a trail of destruction in her wake. Following her path was as simple as following the corn stalks that had been broken off. A perfectly clear trail led from the ice explosion toward the city, though not directly. There was a path only three minutes of casual walking from where Alyssa had been standing. This was headed in almost the opposite direction, keeping far from any path that Alyssa knew of.

Silence hung over them, eerie in how odd it would be that Fela or their assailant wasn’t making any noise. However, it didn’t last. Someone shouted. No words were spoken. The shout was just noises. It wasn’t the higher pitched nasal tones of the Taker and it wasn’t a young feminine voice that might belong to Octavia. A guard? So soon? Even the horse riders would have had difficulty arriving so quickly, mostly because the horses probably couldn’t pass through the corn all that easily.

Unless it was a cohort. Cid? Alyssa hoped that she wouldn’t ever meet him again, but if she did… he wouldn’t have a fun time of it.

Whoever it was, Tzheitza shifted directions, leaving the path Fela had made to head directly toward the sound. Alyssa followed close behind, spells at the ready. She wasn’t about to draw her firearms against the Taker. He knew about Projectile Reflection. Octavia would as well, though Alyssa didn’t know if she could cast the spell. Better to be on the safe side and stick with spells.

A… clearing opened up before them? Corn had clearly been planted, but a wide area had been swept away. Far wider than Fela could have managed even had she been running with her arms extended. There was no sign of the hellhound in the clearing. Nor of the Taker or Octavia. One man was curled up on the ground, wearing the armor of the Lyrian city guard. His face was down in the roughage, but he wasn’t dead. Both his hands were over his head in a protective pose.

Alyssa’s first thought was to run forward and check to see if he was alright, but she hesitated. Tzheitza held out a hand, blocking Alyssa’s path anyway. Something was wrong then? A trap?

There wasn’t anything around that Alyssa could see. Having seen Irulon set a trap on the Society of the Burning Shadow’s water rock, not being able to see something wasn’t all that comforting.

“Guardsman,” Tzheitza said without taking a step forward. He ‘eeped’ a little and jerked upright, facing the wrong way. Tzheitza didn’t give him a chance to look around before continuing. “I am a member of the Knights Solaris. State yer status. Are yeh in need of aid?”

“H-Help me.” He stood up and practically sprinted over, all but confirming that there were no traps around him. “I’m Lanhom, a-a noble from House Davenport,” he said as he ran. There clearly weren’t any traps around if he was running like that, though one of the fallen corn stalks tripped him up. He landed on his face just in front of Tzheitza. Undeterred, he looked up. “My serv—fellow guard disappeared when that mon-monster attacked us! I order you to protect me in his place. Take me back to the city!”

“Yeh gotta hummworm in yer grey? Yer a guardsman, yet yeh want me to protect yeh?”

“What? I…” He blinked twice, looking away from Tzheitza to Alyssa. He wasn’t going to find any help from her corner. Maybe it was that she had a mother who had served in the military before going on to be a security guard, but Alyssa had strong feelings about those with law enforcement positions. Using his status as a noble to cower and hide… did not align with her ideals.

Though it was true that her mother had never fought literal monsters. But Fela wasn’t that scary.

“What attacked you?” Alyssa asked instead of saying anything else that was on her mind. She suspected that it was Fela, but if there was another monster running around in the cornfield, best to know what kind of horror movie she was in before it started stalking her.

“Oh it was horrid!” he said, wrapping his arms around himself in a self-hug. Which looked odd on a man wearing bulky armor. “One moment, I was walking alongside Seath. Then… Oh, I almost forgot.”

He reached into the folds of his beige surcoat and pulled out a small notebook. Spell cards. He fumbled through selecting one, held it up to the sky, and practically shouted out. “Flare!”

A bright orange orb of fire launched off toward the clouds. Reaching its peak, it burst apart in a fiery explosion of light and sound. A magical firework, essentially. And probably either a warning or a call for help from the rest of the guards.

Judging by the swear under her breath, Tzheitza was worried about more hostile attention drawn their way.

“What was the monster?” Alyssa asked again. When he just looked at her, she added on, “This is vital information that we need to help keep you alive.”

He shuddered. “Oh, it was horrible.”

“Yes. You said that.” Oxart had said that most of the city guard was made up of nobles. What she hadn’t said was that nobles were literally babies. It was a wonder that the entire city hadn’t fallen to the first attack if this Lanhom was an example of that the guard had to offer.

He wasn’t, of course. Alyssa knew Ipo was far more disciplined than this guy.

“It was huge with midnight black skin.”

“Furry?”

“N-No? Its skin was like leather. It gleamed in the light of our lantern,” he said, glancing down at a little iron and frosted glass lamp that had fallen to the ground. The flame within flickered as he picked it up. “It was on us before I knew what was happening. Didn’t hear a thing.”

“Its skin was shiny and black… and you didn’t hear it coming,” Alyssa said, suddenly feeling a bit nervous. “Did you happen to see its face?”

He shook his head back and forth in a negative.

“Right. I wish Kasita were here. Let’s keep an eye out for gaunts.”

“Gaunts?” “Gaunts?”

Both Tzheitza and Lanhom spoke at once, the former in a concerned but curious tone while the latter in a high pitched panic.

“A gaunt injured Irulon the night the palace was attacked. It later… assisted me in routing the Society of the Burning Shadow from the Waterhole.”

“That was you!” Lanhom blurted out. “You’re… Captain Decorous has been wanting to uh… speak to you. We’re supposed to alert him if we find you.”

“Well isn’t that just great.” The man who had locked up Oxart upon her return wanted to meet with her. Sounded like something to avoid if at all possible. Luckily, this guy seemed like a self-centered fool. Hopefully he wouldn’t remember Tzheitza’s name. They could just slip away and Alyssa could start avoiding the city guard for the rest of her life. “Regardless, his description sounded like a gaunt and, as far as I know, the city guard haven’t found the one I encountered. Though I thought they were supposed to go dormant for a decade after eating and it definitely ate that night.”

“If that’s true, we need to get out,” Tzheitza said, speaking perfectly clearly. “Guild standard procedure when dealing with gaunts is to lead them away from population centers and find them a cow to eat, or something similar. Fighting one isn’t done. Encountering one in a cornfield is a death wish.”

Ignoring the few whimpers from Lanhom, Alyssa nodded. “That’s why I wish Kasita were here. But I can contain it as long as I see it before it grabs one of us.” A small part of her wondered if the Spectral Axe spell could scythe out its soul. Irulon’s clones surely would have thought of that when they had discussed options for dealing with the gaunt, so most people couldn’t do it. Alyssa wasn’t most people, however.

Still, she ensured that Spectral Chains were at the forefront of her deck of cards. It was a tried and true spell. No need to take risks.

Though if there was really a gaunt out in the field, had it wandered out on its own? Was the Taker or Octavia trying to weaponize it as the Society of the Burning Shadow had done? It couldn’t be coincidence that it was out here at the same time as someone had thrown a dagger at her.

“C’mon,” Tzheitza said. “Stick close, guardsman. I’ll not wait up for yeh.”

Whereas before Tzheitza moved through the path with slow caution, she now charged forward just barely under a run. That didn’t stop her cautious glancing about. If anything, she was even more alert of her surroundings than before. Alyssa couldn’t blame her. The gaunt didn’t make a sound. If it destroyed crops, they might be able to hear it when the stalks broke, but it could just as easily pass through them the same way that Alyssa and Tzheitza were now.

And they did pass through the cornfield. The corn wasn’t as densely planted as she had seen in modern corn mazes, letting them walk mostly unhindered as they left the path of toppled plants.

Alyssa wasn’t slacking off either. Constant vigilance? That was the phrase. Tzheitza spent most of her time looking forward and to their immediate sides, so Alyssa took over the backward glances. Gaunts were slow moving, so they probably didn’t have to worry about being chased, but no sense ignoring a whole avenue of attack. Lanhom followed just behind her, half crouched over as if to make himself look smaller. He looked everywhere around him, even up above despite the forest of corn not really extending much higher than their heads.

“Something is there,” Alyssa hissed, spotting stalks of corn moving unnaturally. It definitely wasn’t just wind. Even with night vision, she couldn’t actually see what might have caused the twitching stalks. Her fingers rubbed over her deck of cards. She wanted to just toss out a Spectral Chains, but without being able to see anything, it would probably just wrap around some corn.

Tzheitza didn’t share in her hesitation. She grabbed one of the potions from her covered bandoleer and chucked it between the stalks. A golden liquid splashed out, right where Alyssa had seen movement. Most of it stayed a bright golden color. All the plants were doused as was the ground. But a few spots on the ground darkened to a deep red.

It took her a moment to realize that they were footprints. Elongated footprints. Definitely not human unless the potion turned red in a wider area than normal feet.

“We were being watched?” Alyssa said as she realized just how the footsteps aligned. They came in from somewhere off to the right, stopped at a point ten feet away, and vanished back in roughly the same direction they had come. “The gaunt? Or something else.”

“It moved quick for a gaunt.”

“Fela?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care. It’s gone, keep moving.”

Tzheitza allowed for no argument as she started walking again. She did change her angle, moving their group away from where the footprints had been heading. If Alyssa’s sense of direction hadn’t gone all screwy—being able to see the palace and city towers helped—they were now headed toward a path that cut through the fields. It took a few minutes that felt like forever, but the edge of the field finally came into view.

Being able to see further than a few feet away was a blessing. Now she could actually see a gaunt coming.

And she could see the guards. Four were on horseback. Another six were hovering about the edges of the field. The closest horse rider took notice almost immediately and, with a nudge of the reins, started trotting over.

Lanhom managed to get a quiet word in before the horse rider got too close. “Just stay calm, I’ll handle this.” As he spoke, he moved to the head of the group, standing straight rather than half hunched over. “Sir!” he said with an arm over his chest in a salute. “I rescued these civilians from an unknown monster, but Seath went missin—”

You rescued us?” Alyssa could hardly believe how quickly he had turned from a sniveling coward into, on first glance, a gallant knight. If she was a bystander and only just glanced over, she might have even believed him. His words carried a confidence and calm that she would never have expected from the man who had been in the maize.

He clicked his tongue in annoyance and opened his mouth, but Tzheitza spoke first.

“Quit yer haberin bickerin. Cap’n, yeh—”

“Not a captain, citizen, just a guardsman.” He spoke with a tinge of annoyance in his voice. As if he were annoyed that he had to admit that he wasn’t highly ranked. At the same time, he carried a tone of derision when he referred to Tzheitza as a citizen like he was looking down at her. Which he was, literally, because of his high horse. “I am Guardsman O—”

“Don’t mite care. Yeh need to pull yer guards out of the field hastylike. There is a mitehan of a gaunt out there.”

“Gaunt?” he repeated, narrowing his eyes as he looked from Tzheitza to Alyssa and finally to Lanhom. “What did you see?” he asked, addressing the latter.

“I… uh… didn’t right see, sir,” he said, rubbing the back of his helmet. “It moved so fast, you see?”

“Fast, huh?” he said, looking back to Tzheitza, not bothering to hide his suspicion.

The woman clenched her fists, clearly irritated. Alyssa couldn’t disagree. Lanhom had probably not seen anything at all. She was tempted to say as such, to reveal just how large a coward he had been, but it would be her and Tzheitza’s word against his. With the way he had looked to Lanhom for confirmation, he probably wasn’t inclined to believe the worst of his subordinate. And if Lanhom really was some noble, he probably had friends in high places. Places where this guardsman wanted to go.

“Yeh can argue later. There’s more than just the possibility of a gaunt out there. An assassin with Waters Street might be targeting us. Mayhaps the Taker himself. And…” She trailed off, glancing to Alyssa for just a moment. “A hellhound.”

Alyssa winced at that little betrayal. But she could understand the reasons for it. Fela very easily could be a danger to the guards walking around inside the fields. She had proved that at the Society outpost. In light of the gaunt, it would be best to warn her via a Message as soon as possible that she needed to flee. The guards would be combing the fields after this.

“A hellhound?” the horseback guardsman practically shouted, clearly not believing Tzheitza. “In Lyria? Madness. One would never dare come this far north. The Fortress of Pandora would have sent warning that one slipped by. And the only gaunt that has been in the city was safely escorted to an isolated mountain far south. Whatever rumors you may have heard to the contrary are only that. Rumors.”

“Escorted?” That was the first Alyssa had heard of that. She had asked Brakkt and he had said that the gaunt went missing. He would know more than a random guardsman, wouldn’t he?

“Uh, sir?” Lanhom said, stepping closer to the horse and its rider. With a gesture from his hand, he had the guardsman leaning over in the perfect spot to whisper quietly.

Letting them have their moment, Alyssa walked a few steps away, pulling out a Message card as she moved. “Message. Fela,” she spoke as quietly as she could. “The guards are going to be looking for you in the fields. You need to get out as soon as possible. Good luck! I’m sorry I can’t do more—”

“Guards! Take these two into custody!”

Alyssa whipped back around to find several of the guards now advancing toward her and Tzheitza. None of them made it very far before they all stopped as one. One of them raised an arm, pointed, and shouted.

“G-Gaunt!”

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