Alyssa stared down at the yellowing, leathery paper with a slight frown on her face. The map was… not as useful as she had been hoping. It gave her a vague idea of where some things were. But it lacked so much detail that she felt was necessary to a proper map. She would never be able to actually navigate with it beyond heading in a vague direction.
Not that she would be able to navigate with a proper map. Internet based maps and GPS had clearly spoiled her.
“Here is where we are,” Aziz said, pointing to a little square with a few spires in the middle of a narrow peninsula. Aside from a range of mountains running across where the peninsula met the main land and a small river passing through the mountains down near the spired building and off to the ocean, there wasn’t a single other detail on that section of the map. He ran his finger straight north until he reached a number of buildings all drawn together near the northern coast of the mainland.
Based on the mountains and the river near Teneville, her house was actually a short distance south of Teneville in the complete opposite direction from where he had dragged his finger.
“I come from here. Lyria. Largest city in the land. A beautiful land at that. The buildings reach as tall as the sky and the golden fields of wheat hug the hilltops around the city walls.” He let out a small sigh.
From Lyria, the continent curled back around with a few more buildings and landmarks drawn out. None as large as the city. Except for one mark on the map down at the southern tip—almost directly west of Teneville, with a sea separating the two lands. It was some kind of castle, drawn easily as large as Lyria. Alyssa pointed at it, “What is this?”
“Pandora? You don’t know?”
“I’m not from around these parts,” she said, waving her hand over the whole map. She figured it was a fairly safe bet that there was more to the world than what was drawn. Including Teneville and Lyria, there were only a handful of markers on the map. Unless the world was incredibly tiny. Which, for all she knew, it could be.
“You’re not from the islands over The Great Ocean, are you?” he asked, pointing off the map to the east.
Alyssa just shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure where I’m from in relation to here. I arrived here entirely on accident.”
He eyed Alyssa, staring and searching. But apparently didn’t find what he was looking for. “The Fortress of Pandora,” he started, pointing at the little castle, “occupies the entire stretch of land between The Great Ocean and the Sea of Tenebrael.”
It took Alyssa a great amount of will to keep herself from rolling her eyes. That angel sure had some problems with hubris. A village and a sea named after her? Alyssa couldn’t help but wonder how many other things she would encounter bearing the angel’s name.
“It protects us from… well, it’s just called the Desert now. It used to be a great civilization, one that rivaled the Lands of Lyria. Now? It’s overrun by beasts and monsters. Monsters that would travel north if the fortress were to fall.”
Beasts and monsters. Only a few minutes ago, Lazhar had mentioned harpies. She had assumed him to either be confusing wolves with something else or simply be mistaken. Harpies weren’t real, after all. On Earth. Yet they appeared in myths and stories. So it wouldn’t be surprising if he were mistakenly propagating myths of this world.
But if they had built a whole fortress to defend against a land overrun by monsters, maybe there was some truth to it.
Or it could just be bears. Lots and lots of bears.
“Apparently there are still people living south of the fortress. I don’t know how they manage to survive. Every so often, there is a tale of a human passing through the fortress to live in, explore, or otherwise visit the lands around Lyria.”
“Humans are resilient. We’re smart. We make tools, weapons, and armor to cover up our natural deficiencies. Where there is a will, there is a way.”
“Weapons and armor might be good for fighting other humans. There’s a limit when a monster can claw through iron and shrug off a thousand arrows with only the durability of their hide.”
Alyssa blinked and stared into his brown eyes for a moment, looking for some hint of a joke. She found none. “Surely that’s an exaggeration.”
“I… haven’t actually been to the fortress,” he said, rubbing the back of his short hair. “But the stories!”
“Are not the truth. Stories are always exaggerated to make things more interesting for the listener. Besides, even if what you heard is true, humans will devise some other way of dealing with the beasts. We’re surprisingly good at innovating ways to kill things. I mean,” Alyssa tapped the map, “this fortress hasn’t fallen. They must have a way to defend against attacks. How long has it been standing for?”
“Before I was born. Before my father as well.” His eyes turned distant at the mention of his father. Snapping back to reality, he shook his head. “A long time.”
“See? Someone found a way to kill them. And maybe the people living down there don’t even need to kill them. Perhaps they befriended or tamed the creatures.”
His head snapped towards her, actually stumbling back from where the map was laid out on the room’s bench. “Such a thing would be forbidden! Such jests are in poor taste.”
“I didn’t say that I do it,” she said in a hurry. She didn’t know who had forbidden taming monsters, but she had a decent guess. Being accused of heresy in the middle of a sycophantic town would probably not end well for her. Though if it actually pissed of that angel, maybe she should try.
Thankfully, her protest worked. He visibly calmed down. Though he did not speak.
So Alyssa turned back to the map. There wasn’t much to study, but it was better than absolutely nothing. Actually… Biting her lip, she glanced over at Aziz. He stared off out the open window, eyes not looking at anything in particular. Not that there was much to look at. His room faced the rear of the inn. There were no large groups of celebrating people. Just a windmill sitting out on a hill.
“Do you mind if I take a picture?”
“A picture? Like a portrait?”
“Not exactly,” she said as she pulled out her cell phone. It was a risk, especially with how he had reacted to the possibility of befriending monsters. But they had already established that she was from a far away land. She could just claim that it was a tool of her people. And she wouldn’t even be lying.
It took a moment to start up. She had kept it completely off to preserve the battery life. All the while, Aziz stared at the glossy black screen. When it lit up, he gasped. Rather than back away in fear, he actually leaned forwards. So Alyssa continued as planned. She held it over the map, hit the camera button, and showed him the resulting picture.
“There. Just like that.”
His hand reached out and lightly brushed against the glass, which ended up zooming in on the picture, cutting off half of Lyria in the process. He pulled his hand back with another gasp. “You copied it. So fast!”
“That’s what this does,” she said with a nod. She didn’t bother mentioning calling other people, the internet, or even playing music. The latter two would just waste batteries and she couldn’t demonstrate the former when nobody else had a phone.
“And you can copy anything just as fast?” He leaned around to see the other side. “Where does it put the paper? And the ink?”
Alyssa sighed. She only had a vague idea of how computers worked. Electricity and magnets. Ones and zeroes. Flattened rocks. None of which would be helpful to someone who didn’t even know what electricity was. “Magic?”
“I knew it!” He clasped his hands together, suddenly excited. Which was better than witch accusations. “Your accidentally arriving here was a magical accident.”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“And that thing at your side,” he said, pointing at the holstered pistol. “It’s a magical weapon.”
“Still, I’m in awe,” he said, staring back at the phone. “We never had anything like that back at the academy. It would have been so useful. There are means for copying things, mind you, but not like this and not so fast. And nothing available to the younger acolytes when the masters wished for us to replicate things.”
“Oh yes. My father paid…” his excitement died off in an instant. “I mean Lyria has a most prestigious academy. It’s the only magical academy I’m aware of, but it’s famous all the same. Unfortunately, I am not any good at magic.” Aziz moved over to the bed with all the enthusiasm of a child in a dentist’s office and grabbed a leather bag. One with a shining silver clasp, embedded with another amethyst. From it, he withdrew a deck of cards and scattered them across the bench.
Not quite modern cards and they weren’t playing cards either, but they were stiff and paper-like. High quality paper at that. He had only ten of them and each had the same symbol on the front. A single circle in the center had twelve spokes jutting out from it. Each spoke jagged to the right and then back to the left, continuing on in the same direction it had originally been headed. All of which was contained within a second circle. Above and below the symbol were more of those angelic runes.
Aziz took one of the cards and held it between his forefinger and middle finger with the symbol pointed outward. He took a deep breath and began mumbling under his breath. Nothing Alyssa could make out, even standing next to him. With how much his face had scrunched up in concentration, she didn’t want to interrupt to find out. So she remained silent and watched.
Tossing the card back onto the bench, Aziz let out a sigh and collapsed onto the bench next to the map. “You see? I cannot manage even the simplest of spells. The academy excommunicated me. After finding out, my father disowned me.”
Alyssa blinked, eyes wide and eyebrows high on her forehead. That did explain his presence on this pilgrimage. Lazhar had said that people who traveled to the temple didn’t often have much left. Still, that seemed rough. Though perhaps not as strange as she had initially thought, now that she was considering it. It probably didn’t happen often, but some people on Earth surely had increased tensions with their parents for failing out of colleges. In the past—in Earth’s Middle Ages, it probably had been much more common.
“Sorry,” Aziz said, putting on an obviously forced smile. “I didn’t mean to ruin your day.”
“No, I should apologize. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”
He shook his head. “You didn’t know. Besides, I got to see your fascinating magic, even if understanding it is beyond me. You might not have shown me had you known.” He sat for just a moment before abruptly standing. “I think I’m going to go drink some outside. It should be nearly time to light the bonfire anyway.”
Alyssa, already standing, merely nodded her head. “That sounds good. I’d join you, but I’ve got work to do.” She just about walked out of the room before him, but paused for a moment, glancing down at the cards. “Do you mind if I keep one of these?”
“Keep them all. They’re worthless to me.” Aziz started walking towards the bed rather than the door. “Here,” he said as he picked up the fancy leather bag by the strap. Buckling the silver locket, he tossed it to Alyssa. “There’s ink, papyrus, feathers. Since you obviously weren’t able to supply before your accident, rebuild your stock of spells with that.”
“Don’t say you can’t take them.” He started walking backwards towards the door. Spreading his arms wide, he gave a pitiful chuckle. “I’m never going to use them again. Now, where’s that ale man.”
With that, he left Alyssa standing alone in the room, his cloak over one arm and his bag in the other. Accepting charity never sat well with Alyssa. Working for what she needed was just how her parents had raised her. All so that she wouldn’t be a drain on society. At the same time, she had always been taught to not frivolously waste. Her mother ensured that the dishes she ate from were as clean as they could be after meals, before putting them into the dishwasher.
And if he was being honest in not using the materials, who was she to turn down his gift? Even if magic either didn’t exist or if she couldn’t do it, as she expected to be the case, she could still sell the materials.
Scooping up the cards, Alyssa dropped them into the leather bag. She then carefully folded up the cloak and placed both items into her backpack. It was starting to get a little full, but better than leaving irreplaceable goods lying around her room for anyone to come in and steal.
Slinging it back over her shoulder, she exited the room in a hurry.
Yzhemal was shouting for her to get back to work.