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Tzheitza did not look happy. She didn’t look happy that Alyssa had returned wounded. She didn’t look happy that Fela had returned at all. And she didn’t look happy that Fela had been wounded either. Or rather, she didn’t look happy that she was being asked to treat Fela. The actual wound probably didn’t matter to her all that much.

“How did you miss it? I bet the entire city saw it!” Alyssa winced as Tzheitza dripped some liquid into the hole in her hand. It wasn’t the rejuvenation potion. Apparently, she was running low on it and had no ingredients to make more. She wanted to save what little was left for bigger emergencies. Something that Alyssa really had no room to complain about. Especially because she was expecting Tenebrael to fix her up later. “I hope Irulon claims credit again.”

The biggest problem with that was Retrograde Cognition. Alyssa didn’t know what branch of magic it fell under or what rank it was, but it would give anyone capable of casting it a clear view of what had happened. The Pharaoh could probably cast it, but Alyssa hadn’t really been expecting Irulon and Brakkt to keep it from him. And maybe she should be claiming credit. Being known as a powerful arcanist might not be a terrible thing. At the same time, if anyone decided that she needed to go—the Society of the Burning Shadow, for one, and maybe even the nobles of this city if they felt threatened enough by so many highly ranked arcanists being associated with the Pharaoh—they probably wouldn’t underestimate her.

In this particular incident, however, Alyssa was actually more worried about Kasita and Fela. Retrograde Cognition would surely reveal their presence to the arcanist using the spell. Of course, half the guards in the city probably knew about Kasita because of that other incident. And Fela would soon be at the palace, safe and sound. So maybe it really didn’t matter what went down in the reports.

Fela sat on the other chair in the room. Tzheitza had handed her a rag soaked with something. That was really all the help she got. It was up to Fela to hold the rag up to her wound. Which she was doing a fine job of, though she did keep glancing over to Alyssa every few seconds, only to turn away as soon as Alyssa met her eyes.

It’s that imprinting thing again, isn’t it, Alyssa thought with a sigh. Hopefully that wouldn’t cause a problem with her staying at the palace.

“Are yeh sure yer spell killed Tommik?”

“Well, I didn’t see a body, if that is what you’re asking. He was infected, but I carved a hole in the moon. You can go see it for yourself if you just step outside. If he survived that, I’m calling the biggest bullshit on this entire world…”

“But he was infected. Those things are worse than any monster.” Tzheitza glanced to Fela, looking almost like she might say ‘no offense’ or something similar, but she ended up not saying anything at all.

“Are you sure your anti-plague potion isn’t remotely ready? I was in close proximity to both the Taker and that other infected I mentioned. I’d rather not turn into a demon-zombie-monster-thing if it is all the same to you.” Again, because of Tenebrael, Alyssa wasn’t too worried for herself. But Tenebrael likely wouldn’t lift a finger if Irulon, Brakkt, or even the Pharaoh wound up infected.

Fela could not be infected, apparently. Or, more accurately, Tzheitza had never heard of a monster becoming infected with the plague. Only humans. Which, to Alyssa, just sounded like more of a reason to be friendly with monsters instead of antagonistic. The people containing bedehouses were apparently highly susceptible to becoming infected themselves. Being stationed near one was apparently punishment for fairly egregious acts. Article Fifteen on steroids.

But a bedehouse ran by hellhounds would not only be ironic given their name, but it would probably work extremely well. They wouldn’t run the risk of infection. And if one of the captives grew unruly, they could probably do a whole lot more to contain them than humans. Although Fela had been injured, she had broken the Taker’s neck, even if it hadn’t kept him down in the end. A group of hellhounds working together would probably be all the more efficient.

Unfortunately for possible infections in the royal family, Tzheitza shook her head. “At this point, it’ll likely kill y’all. I’d rather wait until I see signs of the plague before using it on yeh.”

“Probably for the best,” Alyssa said, glancing over to the rows of Tzheitza’s experimental vials. “But shouldn’t we be in quarantine or something?”

“Quarantine?”

“Isolated. Kept separate from the general population until we’re sure that we’re not infectious.”

“Don’t have much like that except the bedehouses. And if yeh ain’t infected before going there, you will be.”

“Probably best to avoid that too, then.”

Maybe she could convince Chris and Jason to open up a proper doctor’s office. It wouldn’t help with the plague, true, but talking about the plague got her thinking about other problems this world had. Chris probably had at least a little medical knowledge from his military training. They both would far outstrip those menders just for virtue of being from a modern civilization. They would know the value of boiling water before use and sterilizing surgical tools. And if Alyssa ran home with Izsha for a time, she could print off medical texts and information until the ink in her printer ran dry.

Which, unfortunately, would probably be all too soon. She might get half a textbook out. Maybe a full one. But she had been inside doctors’ offices before. They had rows and rows of textbooks all lined up on shelves. Of course, she could always loan out her phone. Maybe she could get a bunch of scribes to sit in front of her phone all day and copy down the entirety of every wiki. That would probably only take a few hundred years.

But that was just another thing on her long list of things that she should be doing, but probably would never actually get around to accomplishing. Maybe with the Taker gone and Waters Street mostly completely defunct, she could finally get some time without emergencies popping up every other day.

Despite the damage done to their outpost, the Society of the Burning Shadow was probably still going to be a problem. She knew for a fact that Morgan and Bercilak were still at large. Liadri too, though she had never actually seen that person. But maybe they would wait a good year before trying something again. And maybe, without Adrael guiding them from the shadows, they wouldn’t be able to do anything at all.

It was probably a bit too hopeful to think that, unfortunately.

Still, with this latest excitement out of the way, Alyssa was more than ready to kick back and relax for at least a few weeks. She could deliver potions, maybe learn some potion making, figure out what she could do to help Oxart, visit the Observatorium, check in on the Earthlings, and maybe find some chefs to speak with about pizza production.

Alyssa’s good mood came crashing down as she heard the front door to the potion shop opening. She had barely stood up—wincing at the heavily bruised but ultimately minor injury on her leg—when half the royal family walked into the back room. The Pharaoh stood with his perfect robes. Brakkt had one hand grasped hard onto his arm. Irulon nearly bumped into the door, so focused was she on the staff in her hands. They had a few guards with them too. One, who Alyssa didn’t know, wearing the black and gold armor of the palace guard.

And Decorous. He didn’t wear the proper beige city guard uniform. He was in his red suit with the silver fastenings up the middle. The little half-cape that covered his shoulders was missing. Although the cape was missing, he still looked absolutely impeccable. His eyes stopped on Alyssa for only a second before flying off to Fela.

The Pharaoh stepped in front of him before he could do anything more than widen his eyes. “The monster is here at my request,” he said, voice rumbling so deep that some of the glass around the room actually rattled. “It is to be commended for leading us to two plague infected houses before they could become problems, not attacked. Am I understood?”

“I-I-It’s a hellhound!”

The Pharaoh’s lips quirked into a slim smile. “I am pleased to find those who watch over my city are so observant.”

“It can’t— You can’t— It’s illegal to bring unchained monsters through the wall!”

“Despite what your noble masters might believe, I am the ruler of this city. I know its laws. I made its laws. It is well within my power to proclaim an edict to grant permission for this hellhound to be here. I did it for the draken. I’m doing it again here.” The Pharaoh touched the tip of his beard before thrusting his hand into his robes. Pulling out a single card, he flicked his wrist, sending it spinning across the room toward Alyssa.

Alyssa barely had time to flinch as the spinning card turned into a spinning person. A full sized human hit her in the chest, but it felt like she had been hit by nothing more than a thrown pillow. And she caught that human easily in her arms.

“The mimic can stay as well. Though if I find it on my person again, it will regret existence.”

Kasita, putting one arm around Alyssa’s shoulders while Alyssa held her, pouted. “How did you know?”

Frowning, Alyssa dropped her arms to her sides. Kasita started to fall. A shimmer rippled across her form and she was standing properly, though leaning against Alyssa. She looked at the Pharaoh expectantly, but he didn’t pay her the slightest bit of attention.

Instead, apparently finished with Decorous as well, the Pharaoh turned to Tzheitza. “I apologize for intruding on your workspace once again. We only came to collect the hellhound and Alyssa.”

“Collect?” Alyssa said, unable to help the slight nervous feeling.

Irulon answered instead of the Pharaoh. “Just a quick meeting about what happened. A little debriefing. Nothing to worry about.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Although,” the Pharaoh said, reaching into his the folds of his clothes again. “My son was injured fighting the Taker. We have menders in the palace, but perhaps it is more prudent to have you examine him seeing as you already have all this equipment out.” He pulled out a small pouch. A light toss dropped it right on the table. The draw string had come loose, resulting in dozens of golden bars spilling out. “Your compensation.”

Tzheitza raised an eyebrow as she brushed her fingers over the metal, disturbing a few of the bars. “That’s a hummat more than enough.”

“Consider it payment for keeping that draken outside your shop all day. I can’t imagine you have had many customers today on account of my son’s foolishness.”

Hidden behind his heavy armor, Brakkt didn’t noticeably react. Tzheitza, on the other hand, snorted with a heavy nod of agreement. “Yeh can say that again,” she mumbled. Louder, she said, “Fine. Show me yer wound and I’ll dab a spot of juice on it.”

Brakkt’s servant must have gone back to the palace, because he hadn’t been here when Alyssa had returned. As such, Irulon pulled Brakkt off to the side and started helping him remove the plates of armor over his shoulder just as she had done back after the battle. It was a bit strange to see. Irulon usually had this aloofness about her, like she didn’t actually care about the people she interacted with. It was nice to know that she wasn’t completely heartless, even if she seemed to have a lot of trouble putting down the staff.

While the two of them worked with Tzheitza to figure out exactly what needed to be done for Brakkt’s wound, the Pharaoh stepped around the table to move closer to Fela. She followed him with her head, puffing her tail up slightly as he approached. Breaking eye contact for just a moment, Fela glanced to Alyssa for some reassurance.

Alyssa could only shrug.

“I was going to wait until later,” the Pharaoh said, touching the tip of his pointed beard. “As long as we are waiting for my son, I may as well ask: What do you hope to gain from being in my city?”

“Um…” Again, Fela’s eyes flicked to Alyssa. Finding no help there, she actually looked all the way to Irulon. But Irulon wasn’t obviously paying attention at the moment, so she got nothing. “I don’t know?”

The Pharaoh nodded like he had expected that answer. “And how do you feel about humans? In general.”

“Most leave me alone. And I leave them alone in turn.”

“And the ones that don’t?”

“They’re all dead.”

A note of silence followed her heavy statement. The Pharaoh stared at her for a moment longer before looking back over his shoulder. He and his palace guard locked eyes for a moment before the guard shrugged. The guard hardly seemed bothered about her being in the room, let alone her response.

Decorous, on the other hand, was pressed right up against the wall next to the door. His eyes hadn’t left the hellhound once since they arrived. Although he hadn’t drawn it, his hand was firmly gripped around the hilt of his sword.

It was a bit disappointing, in Alyssa’s opinion. She didn’t like him much, but at least he hadn’t seemed like a nervous wreck any other time she had seen him, even despite a few stressful situations. Maybe he had a bad experience with dogs in the past. Idly, Alyssa wondered just how Oxart would have reacted had she unexpectedly walked into a room with a hellhound.

“How would you like a job?” the Pharaoh said, turning back to Fela.

“A job? What is it?”

Alyssa had to clamp a hand over her mouth to fight off a sudden giggle. The situation was serious, but that phrasing just sparked an almost automatic response in Alyssa. It was probably a bad sign, she had seen some movies far far too much. Worse, her sudden movement had caught attention. The Pharaoh looked to her with an eyebrow raised, but thankfully didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything to Fela either.

The man in the palace guard armor stepped forward. “I am Captain Trik of the Plague Containment Unit. And you are a hellhound with the scent of plague on your nose. We are quite effective at our job, but some outbreaks slip through even our fingers. These cause deaths or… worse. With your help, we could reduce the number of missed incidents. Possibly to zero.”

“In return,” the Pharaoh said, “I can ensure that your stay within the city remains comfortable and that most humans will leave you alone.”

“She won’t be paid?” Alyssa said, calm once again.

“I don’t think…” he trailed off a moment, hesitating, “she would have much use for coin. I doubt many merchants within the city would be willing to deal with her. The palace will provide if she requests food or clothing,” he said, looking back and eying her up. “Or anything else, for that matter. Within reason, of course. We will not be feeding her people.”

Fela narrowed her eyes, shrinking the flames coming from them by an inch. “I don’t eat humans,” she said, tone clearly offended.

“It was an example,” he said dismissively. “The job. How does it sound?”

“Would I be fighting more of those… things?”

“Like the Taker? Doubtful.”

Trik nodded his head. “With you helping us, we will hopefully be taking care of any future incidents long before they get to that point. Even then, I haven’t heard of anything quite so bad as what you faced today,” he said with a nod toward Brakkt.

Alyssa frowned at that, wondering why that might have been. Had no one as skilled as the Taker ever been fully infected before? Or perhaps he had embraced it to a degree that no one else had before. She thought to ask, but from what she gathered from Tzheitza, they really didn’t know all that much about the exact mechanics behind the plague. Tenebrael would probably know more.

While Alyssa furrowed her brow in thought, Fela did the same. The flames cut off completely as she closed her eyes. It took a few moments, but when she opened them again, she looked between the Pharaoh and Trik. “Can I have a few days to think?”

The Pharaoh nodded, holding the tip of his beard as it pointed up and down. “Captain Trik’s team will be busy with the current incident for a few days. Though that presents problems in its own ways.”

“Every time there is an incident like this, there is a sudden spike in plague victims. We try to take care of incidents as quietly as possible, which, unfortunately, did not happen today.”

“Wait,” Alyssa broke in, holding a hand up. “Hold on. I have a question. Well, two, but one isn’t too important right now. Are you saying that knowing about the plague increases the risk of infection?”

“We aren’t sure exactly, but there is a definite correlation between public events such as today’s and finding more incidents of infection than usual.”

“How often do members of your team wind up infected?”

“Since its inception shortly after Owlcroft became a pit ten years ago, only one incident has ever occurred. The previous captain was found in his home with blazing red eyes. Two years ago.”

“So it isn’t knowledge of the plague… It’s what… panic?” That… might make a certain amount of sense. What was it Tenebrael had said? Belief in her was the only thing keeping demons from running rampant around the world? If belief in her helped to stop the plague, trials that shook that belief would exacerbate it. “Are there also frequent incidents of plague on battlefields? Or perhaps after the city was attacked the other week?”

“Not… usually. Battlefields do occasionally wind up with one or more incidents, depending on the size of the armies. But they are taken care of quickly. An army marches together. Outliers are noticed almost immediately. As for the attack, actually no. Things have been normal in recent weeks, barring today. But there are occasionally upticks in plague sightings after heavily… disruptive events. How did you know?”

“A hunch. Another question: The Juno Federation, how much is known about their issues with the plague? Are they overrun with pits to the underworld and demons?”

Trik didn’t answer. He had to look to the Pharaoh.

Who simply stroked the tip of his beard for a few moments. “Why do you ask?”

“Just trying to put the pieces together.” The Juno Federation hated Tenebrael and were trying to erase her name from living memory. Or, at least, the Society of the Burning Shadow was trying to do that. The rest of the theology was presumably following suit. But, for some reason, Alyssa had a feeling that they were not overrun with demons. The real question was why? Was it Adrael’s doing? Belief in Adrael might work like belief in Tenebrael. Or it could have been something she had actually done to interfere with Her. Or possibly it was belief in some other deity that protected them. “You have spies, surely. What do they say?”

“As much as my daughter trusts you, I am not willing to divulge secrets of my rule to just anyone. Especially not in such a public place with monsters around… even if they are friendly at the moment.”

Alyssa pressed her lips together, but nodded. Her mother hadn’t ever been able to tell everything about her job. Operational security was a big deal, even for someone not that high on the overall ladder. This here and now would be like going up to the President of the United States in a Burger King and asking him who all his spies were and what they knew.

Instead of arguing, Alyssa simply changed topics. “Try this. There are priests—or whatever—of Tenebrael in the city, right?” At nods from most everyone in the room, she continued. “Have them wander around in the next few days. Public wanderings. Get them to bless things or preach or… deliver ale or whatever it is priests do. Especially around the two buildings that had the plague.”

“They usually do that without being directed,” Trik said bluntly.

Alyssa’s shoulders slumped. “Oh.” Well there goes my big plan. Sinking into the chair she had been using before the royal family barged in, she sighed. If faltering faith invited plague, inspiring faith in Tenebrael should have counteracted it. But apparently that was already being done without her genius input needed.

Still, she would have to talk to Tenebrael. Maybe the stupid angel would have an idea on how to increase her… presence. She would probably enjoy every minute of it.

“One more question,” Alyssa said. “I had this one before all that other stuff, but I didn’t want to interrupt Fela. The draken tracked Oxart halfway across the desert by scent. Can’t they help locate plague houses?”

Brakkt cleared his throat before anyone else could speak. Irulon was in the process of helping him reattach his shoulder piece. Tzheitza must have finished. “We’ve tried. Something about the plague interferes. Masks the scent.”

“But Fela can smell it?”

Decorous grumbled under his breath, though still loud enough for everyone to hear. “Probably because it is a hellhound. Sire,” he said louder. “I really must protest—”

“You and every other noble in the city, I’m sure.”

“It is my job to ensure that the city remains safe—”

“Then you should be pleased at this opportunity. The plague represents a danger that not even an army of trolls can hope to match. But save your breath. I will be calling the nobles to court soon enough to hear their complaints. I’ll be lucky if they’re finished before the year is out.” Leaving Decorous with a weary stare, the Pharaoh turned to his son. “Are you finished?”

“Nearly.”

“Good. Then let us cease our intrusion and adjourn to the palace. I have several other matters to discuss.” Though he was looking around the room, he ended up on Alyssa.

Somehow, she could tell, he was talking about Annihilator.

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