Vacant Throne



004.005 Leaving Teneville - The Mountain Pass


Never before had Alyssa wished so much for a cup of coffee. Or any caffeinated drink, really. She didn’t usually have coffee in her mornings, but today would have been an exception. As much as she wanted some stimulant, picking up anything local might not go over so well. Even had she been back at the inn, asking Yzhemal for something didn’t sound appealing. The punk rocker girl was still fresh in her mind. Who knew what sort of drugs they had in this time period. Alyssa had no intentions of accidentally addicting herself to something.

Besides that, she needed her money for food.

Still, waking up in a rocky cave with only a thin pad between herself and the hard ground for the second day in a row felt bad. Really bad. And that was after failing to get any sleep the first night. She had gotten so wound up about harpies swooping down on her that she hadn’t been able to sleep. Walking around with her eyes on the skies and half tripping over every pebble had not helped matters.

After two days of walking through the mountain pass, she had yet to see a single harpy. There were birds. She had spotted a raven or two, some hawks, and… other birds; Alyssa wasn’t all that knowledgeable about bird types. No human-sized avians on a crazed mission to murder travelers through the pass. If it weren’t for the fact that she had seen two literal angels, one of whom had explicitly mentioned that this world was in some sort of Age of Legends, Alyssa might have dismissed the brothers’ claims as superstition and myth. Just because she hadn’t seen them didn’t mean that there weren’t any around.

Still, it was hard to remain nervous about something she hadn’t seen. It wasn’t too dissimilar to hearing that there were bears about but deciding to go hiking anyway. Animals generally didn’t bother people so long as people didn’t seek out danger. Above all, Alyssa couldn’t cower forever, either in the caves or in Teneville, she had to keep moving.

Crystal clear water flowed through the river at a sedate yet steady pace. Despite its clarity, Alyssa still boiled it before drinking and washing her face. After a light meal of rock-hard bread courtesy of Yzhemal that required a soak in the water to be edible, she was awake enough to set off for the day. Today should be the last day she had to spend walking through the mountain pass. After that, it would be smooth sailing over open plains to Lyria.

Alyssa could only keep her eyes on the skies and high mountain ridges for so long. The first day, she had been too concerned with the possibility of harpies swooping down on her to really get bored. The second day, she had been too tired to do much other than focus on pressing forward. Today, after having a somewhat decent sleep, she found herself awake but growing bored. The sky was a bright blue with faint wispy clouds in the air. The planet’s rings were still an odd sight. Every time she looked up, seeing them just reinforced the fact that she was a long way from home. All in all, with the mountain and the skies, it was beautiful scenery. She just couldn’t bring herself to enjoy it.

“Ahh, I wish I had music.” Technically, she did. But playing music on her phone would drain the batteries in half a day. Maybe if she had some sort of solar charger, but she didn’t. Saving the batteries for pictures or, if it came down to it, selling the phone as some sort of hyper-magical item would be more important than momentary tunes. Selling it felt like a scam, given that it would be utterly useless after a day or two, but if it came down to her survival, Alyssa was ready to scam just about anyone. Especially because the only people likely to buy it would be those who had an excess of money anyway.

After an hour of walking, an idea popped into Alyssa’s head. She slung off her pack and started digging through until she found what she was looking for. Aziz’s satchel. She hadn’t touched it since he died, but she had brought it along. There had just been so many other things to worry about. Now, walking along with sore feet and mild boredom, it might be just the thing to distract her.

She pulled out one of the cards as she walked. It had a circle with some jagged wheel spokes drawn inside along with some of that angelic text she couldn’t read. The same one that Aziz had pulled out while trying to demonstrate his ability, or lack thereof. He had called it the simplest spell, but hadn’t actually said what it was supposed to do.

Mimicking Aziz’s movements, Alyssa held it between her forefinger and middle finger, pointing the symbol away from her. She took a deep breath and… felt exceedingly silly. Just how was this supposed to work? Was she supposed to think about it? Push something into it? If so, she wasn’t sure she had that something. With a scowl, she opened the satchel again and started going through the contents.

There were many more cards. Most with the same wheel symbol, but some with triangles, or more complex shapes. All of them had some angelic script somewhere on them. There was a small stack of blank cards, along with vials of ink and writing utensils similar to fountain pens. Buried beneath all of that was a small book. Notes. All hand written in proper English. The individual lettering was tidy, but practically every available spot on the pages was covered in words. They weren’t the scrawls of a madman that might be in a bad horror movie. It was more like Aziz had been desperately researching magic, trying to figure out why he couldn’t use it when everyone else could.

Alyssa felt a pang of sympathy. Aziz had died—had killed himself—thinking that she was some magical prodigy thanks to her phone. All of this notebook spoke of a dedicated student. Had he really been suicidal? He had seemed so eager and excited while talking to her. At least, right up until he had tried to demonstrate his abilities.

Shaking her head, Alyssa kept walking. There was no sense thinking about what-ifs. She hadn’t known what the festival had been about. All she could do was keep moving forward. And maybe, if she could, make use of his notebook so that he wouldn’t have put in all that effort for absolutely nothing.

She started flipping pages. An in-depth reading would be nice, but that could come while she wasn’t walking. It was hard enough to both move and read at the same time as it was, trying to mentally organize the wall of text would end up with her tripping and falling into the river. It didn’t take long to find what she needed. The latter half of the book was filled with the same diagrams as were on the cards, and plenty more besides. On one page, there would be the symbol and the angelic text, a perfect replication. On the other side, Aziz had written detailed notes about what each spell was. Notably, there weren’t any translations of the runes to English. That might be because everyone could read it, or it could just be that no one knew anything at all; neither of the brothers had known what the same symbols on the money said.

“Let there be light,” Alyssa read from the page. Of course that would be the simplest and first spell. She hadn’t ever read the bible, but even she recognized that quote. Did they have a bible here? Probably not, given their worship of Tenebrael. As for the spell, there weren’t any actual directions to casting it. She couldn’t imagine someone as dedicated as Aziz skipping over that, so there were probably directions elsewhere in the book. Since every spell was probably cast the same way with the cards being the differences between spells, repeating the explanation for every single spell would have been unnecessary. Unfortunately, there wasn’t exactly a table of contents. Alyssa would have to go digging through the bulk of the text to find directions.

For the moment, she slipped the book back into the satchel and pulled out the card again. It was a light spell, designed to illuminate the local area. Now that she knew what it was, maybe that would be enough to get something to happen.

Still walking forward, Alyssa held the card between her fingers. It was a light spell, so she started out imagining light. A bright sun. No. Maybe something more like a flashlight. Or a flaming torch. Fire was a much more familiar source of light to the local people than a light bulb. Taking a deep breath, Alyssa stopped walking, closed her eyes, and focused. Light. Light. Light.

Alyssa gasped. The card was gone. In its place, a ball of white light balanced on the tips of her upright fingers. It didn’t burn her fingers the way a light bulb might. There was no heat at all coming off it. Just a bright white light flooding over her that she could only tell was there thanks to being in the shadow of the mountains. “Huh,” she said, pulling her hand back.

The ball—roughly the size of a baseball—weighed nothing. It felt like nothing. Her other hand passed right through it as if it weren’t there. Yet she could move it around just by moving her hand. Testing, she tried tossing it up into the air. It left her fingertips and stopped around eye level. It just hung there. Reaching up, she managed to grab it, although she still couldn’t feel it. The light just clung to her fingers. Trying to grab it with her opposite hand worked as well so long as she was actually trying to grab it rather than just poke at it.

Looking around, she couldn’t find the card at all. Not even a trace of it. She hadn’t dropped it. No one had come to pluck it from her fingers. It was just gone. Being familiar with the idea of consumable and limited spells from some of her brother’s games, she didn’t try looking for long. That it had disappeared did explain why there were so many spare cards. Or rather, they weren’t spares at all. They were the spells themselves.

With a shake of her head, Alyssa resumed walking. Somehow, she just couldn’t bring herself to feel all that excited over performing magic. Aziz had effectively killed himself over not being able to work a spell. That wasn’t all there was to it, he had mentioned family problems including being disowned. There had probably been other pressures as well. But she had barely read more than the spell’s effect and had made something happen. Why her? Why should she, someone not even from this world, be capable of succeeding where Aziz, someone who had actually worked and dedicated his life to studying magic, had failed?

Her melancholy didn’t stop Alyssa from flipping through the book and looking over the other spells she had at hand. There were nine more light spells, four for creating burning flames, five that would cool a small area, and three that did the opposite to warm an area without fire or light. Nothing really special, as far as Alyssa could tell. In her backpack, she had things to replace three of the four spells. Her flashlight, a matchbook or lighter, and a few chemical warmers. The only thing she couldn’t do was cool things down. Her supply wouldn’t last forever, but neither would the spell cards.

Of course, spell cards were probably easier to replace than lighter fluid in this world.

Still, nothing that she couldn’t accomplish through entirely mundane technology. Reading further, these were apparently all Rank Zero magic. Magic that could be used by even someone with the tiniest modicum of ability. The book didn’t say how high the ranks went, but there were drawings of a few Rank One and Rank Two spells. Rank One didn’t look too special. Nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with technology, if technology that was a bit more advanced than a matchbook or a flashlight. The most stand-out example was sending a verbal message over a distance. A single, one-way communication. Presumably a second spell could be used to return the message and so on, but it would require a full stack of cards on either end to carry on a conversation. Phones were far superior in that respect.

Rank Two was where things became slightly more esoteric and, therefore, interesting. There were things that could be used for attack and defense, such as an explosive fireball or fire immunity. Alyssa honed in on one spell in particular. A magic simply called Levitate. Apparently it was on the higher end of Rank Two, often considered more of a Rank Three spell, but Alyssa didn’t care about that in the slightest. The spell allowed the arcanist—which she had discovered to be the general term for wizards or magic casters in this world—to effectively fly or lessen the weight of an object of their choice, though she was mostly concerned with the first application. There were apparently more specific spells for weight negation.

Alyssa had half a mind to sit down right where she was and draw out the rather complex diagram onto one of the cards. Flying around appealed to her. A lot. Who hadn’t been a little kid watching super hero shows and dreaming of being able to fly. Not only did it sound fun, but it might drop her two week journey to a few days depending on how fast the spell allowed her to fly. But she managed to restrain herself.

There were two big problems. First, even skimming through the book, she still knew next to nothing about magic. There were too many things that could pop out and surprise her, resulting in injury or even death. Second, she had no idea how much control she would have over it. If she wound up flying off uncontrollably high up, the spell could wear off resulting in her plummeting to messy stop. Even if she had perfect control, the spell failing could still end up with her killing herself on accident.

So she kept trudging on along the riverbank. Maybe when she arrived at the town on the other side of the mountain, she would try while indoors. Even if she couldn’t control it, the roof would keep her from going too high and falling too far.

Alyssa blinked, staring up at the sky. Night fell extremely quick on this world, but it did have a short period of dusk. Right now, that period of dusk was almost over. Between the orb of light that had been going strong since early in the morning and Alyssa having her nose in the book as she walked, she had hardly noticed. It would be fully dark before long.

And she was still in the mountain pass.

Gaping at the magic and read-walking must have slowed her down too much. Scowling, Alyssa started looking along the mountain ridge opposite from the river. It was unfortunate that she hadn’t made decent time, but she wasn’t too worried about finding shelter. The rest area caves were frequent. She had probably passed half a dozen today alone. Food wouldn’t be a concern either. The brothers had ensured that she had a surplus of traveling… bread. It was more like rock than actual food, but soaking it in water at least made it edible.

Come to think of it, she hadn’t eaten all day. Not since she woke up. Perhaps she would try out one of those fire spells to light a campfire instead of her lighter. Just to see if she could.

It only took a few minutes after noticing the diminishing light to find another cave. Cave might imply that they were nothing more than holes in the mountain. That couldn’t be further than the truth. They were well maintained, clean and spacious with a full stock of firewood sitting outside. The two she had used even had doors and stables, though not all of them were quite that fancy. Someone had to go through and stock the firewood and maintain the buildings. Maybe it was just because it was festival season.

Walking up to the cave entrance, Alyssa couldn’t help but frown. The door was wide open. All the others had been closed. Likely to keep anything undesirable, such as harpies, out. But this one hadn’t just been opened. Splinters of wood littered the ground where the latch had broken off. A knot twisted in Alyssa’s stomach as she spotted a red smear along the frame. Stained feathers stuck to the mess.

A harpy? Was the blood from the harpy? From someone trying to hide? Or was the feather from some more mundane bird?

Whatever the case, Alyssa unslung her shotgun and put her finger to the safety, not quite ready to flick it off just yet. Almost of its own volition, the orb of light whisked off into the cavern to provide a decent illumination of the wide area beyond. Alyssa followed after slowly, taking care to check both corners around the door. With nothing around, she creeped forward, further into the cave. She kept as quiet as she could. The light might have given her away, but she didn’t need to shout her position to anyone or wake anyone up.

There! In the back. Just around a natural corner in the cave. Someone was lying on the hard rock floor, wrapped in a feathered cloak.

Or, not someone. Something. The cloak wasn’t a cloak at all. The thing didn’t have arms. It had wings. Huge wings covered in goldenrod feathers. Its legs were scaly, ending with large and sharp talons. Aside from the legs and the arms, it looked human. She had breasts, a smooth stomach—no belly button—and a human-like face with a head of reddish-brown hair. Her hair did have amber feathers interwoven, and her face was filled with sharp features between her eyes, mouth, and chin.

A harpy. A real actual living breathing harpy.

Well, almost living. It was breathing, but its breaths were shallow, hampered by the arrow jutting out of its stomach. The brass armor it wore over its chest and waist left an impractical gap of unprotected skin.

She had brass armor. The feathers and talons, Alyssa had expected. But armor? It fit her as well, which meant that it probably hadn’t been looted from someone else but made for her in particular. How had she put it on? Without hands, it must have been an ordeal. But the armor meant intelligence. More than just mindless birds operating on instinct and hunger.

Looking up from the chainmail skirt, Alyssa felt her breath hitch in her throat. The harpy was awake. Her yellow eyes gleamed as they caught the light from the magic orb. Alyssa just stared for a moment as the harpy stared at her.

A shrill squawk made Alyssa jump back, aiming her shotgun right at the bird. But she didn’t fire. The harpy hadn’t moved other than a small ruffling of its feathers. With the arrow sticking out of her side and the sizable pool of blood leaking from the wound, she might not have the strength to do more. She just stared, letting out a low trill.

Alyssa grit her teeth. What was she supposed to do? Lazhar had said that harpies were vicious monsters that would tear her apart without a shred of remorse. But this… this was just pitiful. An injured harpy, staring at her, almost more resigned than anything else. If harpies really were intelligent, she had to know that she was at Alyssa’s mercy. Even if she didn’t recognize the gun as a gun, she had to recognize it as a weapon and a danger just by how it was aimed at her.

Deciding what to do would have been easier if only she didn’t have a human face. Even then, it shouldn’t be this hard. Alyssa had killed two people. That had been in self defense. Different circumstances. But she should walk away. Just pretend she hadn’t seen anything. But harpies were real. They weren’t some myth or human construction to explain why their livestock went missing. Walking back outside to find another cave with night falling could see her eaten. Especially because any lights she used to see where she was going, magic or otherwise, would be like a beacon calling any hungry birds to a free buffet.

Alyssa slowly lowered her shotgun. She didn’t put it away, just aimed it away from the harpy.

She seemed to understand, tweeting out a short tune as she closed her eyes and rested her head against the rocks. Taking that as a truce, Alyssa let out a slight sigh and sat down a fair distance away. Now what? Could she even sleep like this? The harpy might claw out her throat in the middle of the night. Or the harpy might just die. How much blood had she lost? Was she just lying down for a peaceful death?

Alyssa didn’t want to wake up to find herself dead. Especially not with evil angels on the prowl to eat her… soul? At the same time, she wasn’t sure she wanted to wake up to find herself sharing the cave with a harpy corpse.

Maybe there was a solution to both problems.

“I don’t know if you can understand me, but I’m going to try to fix you up. Let me just get some water boiling. Don’t move, not that you look very mobile at the moment.” The harpy looked up at Alyssa’s voice, but didn’t say anything. Not even her birdlike twittering. She did tense as Alyssa stood, but didn’t—or couldn’t—do anything else. Oh well, leaving the magic light in the cavern, Alyssa took the largest pot she had and headed out to the river.

Hopefully she would be able to convince the harpy that she was trying to help it.


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