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“G-Gaunt!”

Alyssa spun around. The guard hadn’t been joking. One gaunt was slowly creeping out of the field of corn. Metal clanked behind her as the men started moving. She didn’t know if they were advancing or retreating, but a horse’s whinny and the beating of hooves told her that at least one of the horses had decided that it wanted to be anywhere but here.

But Alyssa paid them no mind. She was staring at the gaunt, watching it. The field of corn it was lethargically moving out of was the same one that she and Tzheitza had just come from. It had been following them. An uncomfortable thought, but she was prepared for this. Raising her hand, she cast Spectral Chains.

The ethereal links of ghostly metal wrapped around the gaunt, hiding most of its skeletal body. It managed one more step before the chains tightened around its legs, sending it toppling to the ground. After a few meager struggles against its bindings, the gaunt fell still. If she hadn’t known that they were invincible murder monsters from the worst nightmares, she might have thought it died.

Only when she was sure that it wasn’t about to jump to its feet did she glance over her shoulder.

Tzheitza had two potions out, one in either hand. A luminescent white orb and one so dark that it almost seemed to suck in light, dimming the area around it even despite Alyssa’s Night Vision spell being active. She held them but wasn’t even in a pose to suggest that she might be considering throwing them. They were both especially notable potions, but Alyssa couldn’t remember having seen them on the bandoleer. Tzheitza did have a small bag with her, so she could have pulled them from there.

As for what they might do, Alyssa couldn’t begin to guess. Irulon had insisted that gaunts were basically immune to magic that directly targeted them. From what Alyssa had seen, potions were just magic in a bottle. But if they affected the area around it, that could work.

Behind Tzheitza, the guards were far less composed. Where there had been a dozen, only four remained. Lanhom was nowhere to be seen. A few of the guards were fleeing up the path toward the city, but Alyssa couldn’t pick Lanhom’s back out from the other knights with their identical armor. None of the horses were around either. The guard whom Lanhom had been talking with was around, currently trying to get to his feet as fast as possible. The way his back had gained a coat of dirt was unfortunately all too familiar for Alyssa. He must have been bucked off the horse.

One of the remaining guards had a spell tome out in one hand and a card in the other. Again, Alyssa had no idea what he was intending to do with the magic, but maybe he had a way of creating a barrier that the gaunt couldn’t cross.

The lead guardsman finally got back to his feet. Between his ashen face and the way he backed up, he had probably been on the verge of running. Looking between Alyssa, the chains connecting her to the gaunt, and the monster put a stop to that. He put a hand to his chest, breathing a few times before throwing his own glance over his shoulder.

“Get those men back here,” he said, barking the order to one of the remaining guards… who needed no second tellings—maybe he was just that diligent, but Alyssa was putting money on wanting an excuse to put distance between himself and the gaunt. The lead guard glowered at him on his way out before turning to the man with the spell tome. “And you, send up a yellow flame. Get them out of the fields at once!”

As the lead guardsman turned back to Alyssa and the gaunt with a scowl plastered on his face, the arcanist flipped through his tome and selected a new card. Just like Lanhom’s firework spell, this one launched a ball of fire up into the sky. When it exploded, it burst into a dazzling golden glitter.

“You two… just… just stay right there.”

Alyssa glanced over to the gaunt. It wasn’t moving in the slightest. “You’re not going to arrest me, are you?” she said, jangling the chains. “I don’t think that I can keep it locked up if my hands are in manacles.”

He ground his teeth together. Limping a few steps forward, and pausing with a flick of his eyes toward the gaunt a few feet behind her, he said, “Captain Decorous has been looking for you.”

“That’s nice. I don’t see why that requires me to be arrested.”

“You’re consorting with monsters!”

“Consorting? I captured it. If that’s illegal, I’ll be happy to let it go.” Giving the chains a lazy tug made the gaunt move again. It couldn’t really move with the chains around it, but it tried.

The effect was enough. The guardsman backed away once again, shooting a nervous glance at Tzheitza. “Don’t do that,” he said eventually. “Don’t do anything. Stay right where you are until we can… do something.” Tilting his head to touch his chin to his shoulder without breaking eye contact with the gaunt, he barked out another order to the arcanist. “Send a Message to Decorous. Inform him of the situation. Get him down here if possible but… be respectful about it.”

“Sure. Sure thing.”

The arcanist backed away, moving a bit aside to get some privacy just as Alyssa had done earlier. As he pulled out a card and started mumbling, a guard emerged from the corn field. He had a sword out and was using the flat of it to knock stalks of corn out of his way, grumbling the entire time under his breath. He marched right up to his commander without even noticing the chained gaunt.

“Are we done here? Muck is leaking into my…”

He finally noticed. Robbed of words, he just stared.

More guards started emerging from the fields. Both the one Alyssa had been inside and the one on the opposite side of the path. Most of them were more attentive than the first one out. Reactions varied, but as more gathered around the commander with their weapons at the ready, those more timid steadied themselves and joined ranks.

Unfortunately, most of them were shooting glares in her direction. Tzheitza’s as well.

“I’m causing trouble for you again,” Alyssa said softly as Tzheitza approached. “Sorry.”

“Don’t mite care. How long can yeh keep it?”

“The chains?” Irulon, or her clones, had asked the same thing. Alyssa didn’t even feel the slightest strain. Not like when she cast Fractal Mirror or other such spells. “Forever, I guess.”

Tzheitza let out an audible sigh, relaxing her tense muscles. She didn’t put away the two potions. They were still just as ready as ever to be tossed at the gaunt. But she did finally break eye contact with it. The first time since it had appeared. She turned to Alyssa with a sliver of a frown on her face. “‘T would be nice not to worry over monsters every time yeh show up. Or gangs. Or armies.”

“I feel the same way. I’ve got enough going on without things like this popping up. Guess it’s good we caught it before it could eat anyone. But…” Alyssa dropped her voice. “Is there a plan for this? Irulon can probably get me out of any jail they throw me into.” Or rather, Tenebrael was going to pop up and pull her out of the whole world in less than a day. Though coming back to Lyria might not be the best option if the guards started a manhunt for her. Not without getting Irulon to smooth things over, if she even could. “But he wanted to arrest you too.” Irulon might help out Tzheitza if Alyssa asked nicely, but she also might not. It was hard to tell with the Princess sometimes.

“I’ve got friends in the guild and guard,” Tzheitza said, shrugging. “And a reputation. Whatever they’re tryin’ to claim I did won’t stick. My work this past week with plague menders almost guarantees that I’ll be released to continue working on it unless they come up with some surprising claims.”

Good to know that having friends in high places didn’t apply only to Alyssa. Some things just don’t change even a world away. Alyssa’s friends, both the mortal and immortal, were just a little higher than most people had access to.

And there I am thinking about Irulon as a tool again, Alyssa thought with a mental wince. Tenebrael, on the other hand, was a tool for all she cared.

Roughly a dozen men had appeared from the corn in the short time Alyssa had been talking with Tzheitza. A few of the men had returned from up the path as well, but not the full numbers. Not yet at least. With nearly twenty people all standing around her, Alyssa would be lying if she said she wasn’t nervous. Tenebrael could get her out of prison with a snap of her fingers. If one of these guards got a little twitchy and rammed a sword through her chest, it would be a different story.

She did take solace in the fact that swords were a whole lot harder to be twitchy with than firearms.

“Better cooperate,” Tzheitza mumbled. “Should’ve just let the guards handle it from the start.”

“Then you wouldn’t have your hellhound eye fire thing. And you saw Fela. She didn’t even act like she thought about attacking you. Considering what she went through at the outpost, that’s saying something. She’s a nice girl.” Alyssa paused before considering the way Fela had disappeared from their little meeting. “I hope she eats the Taker.” And I hope she’s alright after fighting him, she thought, though she didn’t verbalize it. She was already pushing for Tzheitza to be more open with monsters as it was. No need to beat her with a metaphorical hammer.

She did get a low chuckle from Tzheitza, though it died off quickly as the lead guardsman started walking toward them.

“Captain Decorous is heading out on his fastest horse. You are not to leave. We need to…” He put his hand to his forehead before speaking a little quieter. “He said to deal with it. I don’t know what he expects.”

“I can hold it indefinitely. I don’t want to. There are other things I need to be doing. But I’ll keep it until you come up with a plan. As long as you’re not planning to arrest me.”

“That… is up to Decorous. I will let him know that you are being cooperative.”

Alyssa dipped her head in a slight nod. “Appreciated.”

“Here’s yer plan: get a cow or some other luggard, shove it right up against its face, an’ close yer eyes. Then load it up on a wagon and dump it in the Pit.”

The Pit. The hole in the ground straight to Hell. Or the Underworld, if there was a difference between the two. That did seem like a valid place to drop the gaunt. Maybe when it woke from its torpor, it could eat some demons. Still, she glanced at it with a slight frown, wondering just how aware it might be of what was going to happen to it. It definitely didn’t think like a normal creature, not like Tzheitza, Kasita, or Fela. Or even the draken.

Alyssa shook her head, deciding not to think further on the topic. The creature might not be evil in the classical sense, but a rabid dog had to be put down before it became a hazard to people. If it could not be reasoned with, then it had to go.

“That isn’t a bad idea,” the guard said. “Yes. That might work. You there!” he said, pointing toward another of the men. “Run to the Abernathy Livestocks. Get them to hand over some animal and drag it back here.”

“Alive,” Tzheitza said.

“Yes. Alive.”

That made Alyssa wince. Throwing the gaunt into the deepest pit they could find was one thing. Feeding it a poor cow to make it docile… She didn’t care to stick around to watch it happen, but unless someone else could contain the monster, she wouldn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

Glancing back, she scowled. The chains held tight and the gaunt still hadn’t moved. Why did something like it even exist in the first place? She could almost understand most of the rest of the monsters. Maybe it was some perverted type of confirmation bias because of myths and legends on Earth, but a harpy seemed far more natural than this thing.

The men around, trained guards that had probably gone into battle not so long ago against trolls and goblins, were visibly nervous. They had their weapons drawn. Looking to each other had become an almost pathological need. Aside from the leader, who was currently having a rough time tallying up how many of his men were missing, none of them strayed closer than twenty feet. Even Tzheitza stood quite a way further away than Alyssa would have expected. Alyssa caught glimpses of her looking back, but never for long. Only to reassure herself that Alyssa hadn’t been lying about being able to keep it chained up.

Three horses rode down the path from the direction of the city before long. They did not have a cow in tow. Decorous had arrived first. Alyssa actually preferred it this way. It meant that Decorous wouldn’t be able to drag her off to some cell without freeing the gaunt, giving her at least a chance to figure out why he wanted to talk to her.

Like Oxart, Decorous did not wear the heavier armor that most of the city guard wore. His clothing was a red cloth, fastened up the middle with silver links. He wore a little half-cape thing. A black cloth that really only covered his shoulders. It was the same length in the front as the back. He did have a spell tome chained to his hip, hanging next to a thick leather pouch, but it was far thinner than Oxart and Irulon’s. On his opposite side, he had a long sword with a rapier-like blade. To Alyssa, it looked far too fancy to be functional with the gems encrusted into the grip and hand guard, but she did admit that she didn’t have much of an eye for swords.

He didn’t approach right away, though he definitely spent a moment staring between her and Tzheitza. His eyes followed the length of the chains until he reached the gaunt. He didn’t avert his eyes or shift with shaken nerves as the rest of the guards did. All he did was let out a small sigh. Waving a hand to call over the lead guard, he proceeded to spend a few minutes conversing.

Alyssa couldn’t hear a word of it. They were definitely speaking about her. She kept meeting their eyes all through their conversation. It made Alyssa wonder just what kind of eavesdropping magic existed. Wonder all she might, she wouldn’t magically get any right now. Sighing, she just waited until Decorous approached.

Or tried to approach.

His horse, a well groomed white stallion, reared back the second he tried to approach closer than about thirty feet, just about throwing him from the saddle. His eyes went wide, but he managed to avoid crashing to the ground like a few of the other guardsmen had done. Leaning forward, he spoke into its ear while rubbing at its neck. It took another moment or two, but the horse did calm.

It was apparently far better trained than the ones the other guards had been riding.

Rather than try again, he handed the reins off to his second in command and dismounted.

Decorous strode across the path without a hint of concern for his own safety from the gaunt. The two mounted companions he had brought with him did not dismount, but they didn’t approach either. One of them ran off after a quick direction from Decorous. The other started taking over from the previous commander, barking orders around to try to get the men organized properly.

As he passed Tzheitza, Decorous nodded his head. “Interesting to see you out here. I was under the impression that you had taken up seclusion in your laboratory.”

“Gotta collect mats some time. Habering menalicks interrupted as yeh can right see.”

“So I see. So I see. Your name was… Alyssa.” Decorous walked right up to Alyssa, stopping a mere two feet away. “Monster slaver, potion seller—” He paused long enough to glance at Tzheitza. “—medical expert, lumber hauler. Am I missing anything? Saboteur, perhaps?”

“Saboteur?” Alyssa blinked, trying to remember anything she had done in Lyria that might have been considered sabotage. Nothing was coming to mind except maybe dragging a fairy around the city. She had been planning on denying that. Claiming that the fairy had already been in the palace when Oxart wound up captured should work. Anything Oxart said to the contrary could simply be a product of uncertain circumstances that Oxart had misinterpreted. And if Oxart had a problem with her shirking responsibility for that in the name of getting out of jail… well, she would have to remind the captain that it was Alyssa and Irulon who had come to her rescue.

For now, deny, deny, deny. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Did you not just return with Princess Irulon? I read her report of the situation. Destroyed a large group of Society of the Burning Shadow. Worthy of commendation, if Princess Irulon’s story is to be believed. Several scouts have already been dispatched to confirm, but they haven’t quite made it back yet.”

“I haven’t done anything except that,” Alyssa corrected, slightly relieved. “If that’s all—”

“Of course, some less than scrupulous questions have been raised concerning you.”

“Like… what?”

“Oh, certain accusations that you have been trying to usurp the throne.” His tone remained conversational, but the words brought Alyssa up short.

“I… I what?”

“Insinuations have been made,” he said, still speaking casually. “A palace guardsman insisted that the Princess Irulon we all saw was an impostor. He was unable to inform us at the time because he had been placed under a spell, but he was quite adamant after the fact. Then you disappeared with the princess right after in… suspicious circumstances. One city guard, part of the Northgate Guard, was left with instructions from Oxart to apprehend you should something happen to her. Unfortunately, you had left the city before we could investigate further, even claiming that Oxart had been controlled by a fairy to her second in command.”

“That… is absolutely ridiculous.”

“Oh?”

“First of all, if I was trying to usurp the throne, which I most certainly am not, I wouldn’t do it by replacing the seventh person on the totem pole with an impostor. I would set my sights higher than that, on someone more likely to actually become the ruler. Secondly, Irulon is back. Safe and sound. I’m sure a Rank Six arcanist as powerful as the Pharaoh is purported to be would be able to tell the difference between his daughter and a fake. The entire suggestion is completely baseless.”

“I didn’t say I believed it,” Decorous said, covering his mouth as he chuckled. “With Oxart’s fall to disgrace, I don’t know that her words carry much weight anymore. Nor do her orders to her subordinates. And, as you said, the Pharaoh has made no mention of his daughter being anything but his daughter.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together as he mentioned Oxart, but she didn’t say anything. Irulon had said that she would look into that. It might be wise to send her a reminder, given her apparent problems with her father, but it wasn’t something Alyssa could easily change. “So I’m free to go, then?”

“Well…” Decorous, trailed off, looking over her shoulder. “I see you weren’t lying about being able to wrangle a gaunt. I would prefer it if you stayed here for the time being.”

“Yeah. I figured,” she said with a sigh. “But you aren’t going to arrest me immediately after?”

“No, but I do have a few questions to clear up. If you would join me at the Northgate Barracks following this? There are a number of inconsistencies that I would like to straighten out.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“There is nothing to fear. With everyone present as witnesses, I will treat you to a meal and send you on your way immediately after. My honor as a noble from House Yora won’t allow me to go back on such a promise.”

Alyssa scowled, definitely not missing the fact that he had not answered her question. She glanced to Tzheitza only to get an uncertain shrug in return. “How could I refuse after hearing that?” she said with another sigh.

“Excellent,” he said, clapping her on the shoulder before tilting his head in apparent concentration. “Is that a mooing I hear? It shouldn’t be long now.”

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