Once again, Alyssa awoke feeling like she hadn’t slept for more than an hour. For some reason, she had a feeling that doing so would become a trend in this world. It wasn’t for fear that a harpy would sneak into her cave and murder her in her sleep this time. No need to sneak in when there was already a harpy sitting in the back of the cave. After removing the arrow, she had set to cleaning the harpy’s wound. Luckily, it came out clean and without damaging anything else. Using a scrap of a blanket she had received from Lazhar, she had wrapped her waist.
Surprisingly enough, the harpy had been fairly mellow once Alyssa had started cleaning the wound. That didn’t stop her from keeping as far from the sharp talons as possible while working. All-in-all, it effectively confirmed the notion that the harpies were intelligent. Even a wild bird would have panicked, failing to recognize a person trying to help it.
The truce, helped by Alyssa’s nursing or not, seemed to have succeeded. She woke up with her throat intact. No heart clawed out either. Alyssa was fully intact and her gear hadn’t been touched either.
Though looking around, she couldn’t spot the harpy anywhere. She had been there when Alyssa fell asleep the night before, but had apparently left since then. The cave was empty save for herself. Even the little magic light was gone. It must have disappeared when she had fallen asleep. That meant that it had lasted a good eighteen hours. Now the question was whether it had disappeared because Alyssa had fallen asleep or because it had run out of whatever powered it.
Waking up to find the harpy gone was something of a relief. Frankly, Alyssa wasn’t all that confident in her medical skills. All she really knew was basic first aid. Surgery to repair whatever damage the arrow had caused was well beyond her. Especially when applied to a monster. Hopefully she had fixed the harpy up enough for her to get back to her people and hopefully they would be able to take it from there. Since the harpy was gone, Alyssa could move on without the slightest guilt on her conscience.
Using some water from the night before—Alyssa had been careful to keep any blood far away from her drinking water and eating utensils—she soaked some of her traveling bread and had a little breakfast. A tasteless, bland, and somewhat disgusting breakfast, but it was food that would keep her walking. If Lyria didn’t have any decent food, she might have to investigate some culinary techniques that she could apply in a medieval world. Running a cafe that actually had edible food would probably make her extraordinarily rich.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t leave straight away. Most of her water bottles were empty. Needing to get and boil some more water, Alyssa started out getting some firewood ready. Each of the rest caves had designated campfire areas with a little smoke flume that led back outside. The night before, she had been too concerned about the harpy to mess around with magic. Now though, she was curious.
The flame spell cards had a different pattern on them. Instead of something similar to a wheel, they were circles with four equilateral triangles inside. One corner of each triangle touched the circle, one corner touched the triangle to the side, and one corner touched the opposite triangle, forming an oblong diamond in the center. Again, there were runes all along the whole thing that Alyssa couldn’t make heads or tails of. With a small amount of water nearby and anything flammable on the opposite side of the cave, she held out the card. This time, she kept her eyes open.
As soon as she thought about a burning flame, the design on the card pulsed a deep violet. The whole piece of paper vanished with a thin puff of smoke. In its place, a thin flame danced just above her fingertips. Like a lighter flame. Or perhaps more like a candle. Tiny. Not the ball of fire she had imagined. Unlike the ball of light, this was actually hot. The candle was high enough above her fingertips and small enough that she wasn’t being burned, but it was somewhat uncomfortable. Carefully, so as to not extinguish it with a sudden movement, Alyssa lowered the flame to the kindling she had prepared. It caught and soon enough, she had a fire going. With a flick of her wrist the way she would put out a match, the flame at the tips of her fingers vanished into nothingness.
A small part of Alyssa felt that she should be more awed by the fact that she had just created flame from essentially her own thoughts, but it wasn’t easy considering a bit of flash paper could have done the same thing without much trouble. Maybe once she actually started flying, if she could manage that. Once certain that the fire wasn’t about to go out, Alyssa grabbed her pot and headed out of the cave.
The sky was a fair bit cloudy today. Not fully overcast, but not the crystal blue it had been for most of her stay in this world. Hopefully it wouldn’t rain. She had brought an umbrella, but an umbrella wouldn’t keep the ground from turning to a muddy slough.
Alyssa was just about to head down to the river when she noticed something. A dark movement against the clouds. A bird? No. It was too large and was getting larger. She felt a jolt in her stomach as she recognized those amber wings. It was the harpy.
In a full dive.
Stepping back, Alyssa just about slammed the cavern door shut. Only realizing that the harpy wasn’t aiming toward her stayed her hand. Instead, she watched as the harpy folded its wings straight back behind it, turning into a person-sized missile. It struck the river water in a dive that would put the best Olympians to shame. Alyssa just stood, blinking in shock. Suicide? Was she drowning? Could birds even swim? Ducks and things sat on water. But underwater? Was applying bird logic to a living creature even a good idea?
The water welled into a massive hill of unbroken water before Alyssa could do anything. The bulge broke into an upheaval of water like a geyser. Even as far back as she was, some of it sprayed on her in a fine mist. The harpy didn’t fly out of the column of water, she just floated on the water, lying on her back. A few powerful strokes of her wings brought her back to the river’s shore. She was a bit clumsy actually getting out of the water, but once she did, all it took was a quick shake to fling off the water and a few flaps of her wings to get herself airborne again. This time, she didn’t fly up high enough to mistake her for a bird. She just lazily drifted over to the cave entrance.
Alyssa put her hand on her pistol, but didn’t draw it from the holster. The harpy wasn’t diving toward her on an attack run. She was just casually lofting in the wind while chirping out a musical tune. At least until she spotted Alyssa standing just outside. While the harpy didn’t dive, she did move with a bit more haste, angling her wings to cut through the air rather than glide along.
She flew down until she was hovering right in front of Alyssa. Each flap of her wings sent gusts of wind swirling around the area, kicking up dirt and dust enough that Alyssa had to squint. It only stilled when her sharp talons dug into the mountain rocks. Though she kept one foot up in the air. Blinking away the dust in her eyes, Alyssa quickly found out why.
The harpy tossed two fish on the ground between them, trilling in a joyful tone. She nudged one a little closer to Alyssa.
“Oh. Uh… For me?” She had gone fishing before with her brother and her father, but she had never actually prepared a fish for consumption. Having watched her father, she knew the theory. A slice from the mouth to the tail, scrape out all the guts, cook and eat what was left. She might be able to try it. If she lived in this world long enough, she might have to try it. But here and now? Actually, a nice salmon sounded nice. It would be a bit of real food instead of the rock bread she had been eating.
The harpy flopped over on the ground, sitting down right in front of the cave. She grabbed one of the fish with her feet and, in a fairly impressive display of dexterity, brought it up to her mouth and chomped down on it. Though it looked humanlike, her mouth really wasn’t anything similar now that she was actually watching the harpy eat. It was stiff, opening on a hinge without the lips moving. She didn’t so much bite into the fish as she tore strips of flesh away and swallowed them whole. No chewing. Just bite, rip, tear, toss piece in the air, catch and swallow.
Watching her eat was actually enough that Alyssa was starting to lose her appetite for fish. Perhaps it was for the best. She didn’t recognize the type of fish—not that she was an expert in such matters. It was olive-green on the top half while silvery white on the bottom and big enough that she would have to use two hands to carry it around. Probably heavy as well. Even if the harpy meant well, some fish were not really fit for humans. Wasn’t mercury poisoning a valid concern in fish? She might have needed to do some research on fish before leaving.
But too late now. She wasn’t going to go back every time she found something she didn’t know. There would be locals she could question later on the subject.
“Well, thanks. But I just ate.” Hopefully the harpy wouldn’t be offended. Alyssa stepped around the fish, earning an incredibly human tilt of the harpy’s head. “How is your wound?” she said, patting at her stomach. The harpy’s bandages were still there, but far looser and barely hanging on. The wound had closed overnight, even without stitches or staples, but it was still a large blotch of purple on her stomach. “Should you really be flying about? You can’t be healed yet.”
The harpy just trilled in return. Alyssa had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but if she was feeling better, who was she to complain about the bird flying about.
Shaking her head, she continued with her quest for a pot of river water. It wasn’t much of a quest. Just a quick jaunt to the river, dip the pot in, and carry it back while trying to spill as little as possible. She walked past the still eating harpy and set the pot on her collapsible stand above the flames. It would take a few minutes to bring it to boil and then she was planning on leaving it boiling for a good ten to fifteen minutes, just to make sure anything bacterial or parasitic was dead. Then it needed to cool before she could pour it into her water bottles. She didn’t have much in the way of a physical filter, but drinking a little dirt probably wouldn’t hurt anything.
Which reminded her, she was glad her tetanus shots were up to date. But they were only supposed to last for about ten years before needing a booster. Could magic cure diseases and plagues? Could it cause diseases and plagues? Alyssa shuddered just thinking about it. There were a lot of modern conveniences that Alyssa thought she could get by without. She didn’t have any real friends, just a few acquaintances left over from high school or from work. No need for phones. Cars would be nice, but she liked exercising too. But modern medical technology?
Her musings were interrupted by a shrill shriek from outside the cave. It did not sound like the happy harpy noises she had heard so far.
Grabbing her shotgun from her pack, Alyssa practically sprinted to the cave exit. She didn’t leave, but paused at the open door and leaned out just enough to see.
The harpy was gone. She had left behind the fish carcasses, one partially eaten and the other untouched. But she could hear voices. Human voices speaking English. At least, it sounded like English. She couldn’t quite make the words out. There were definitely words though.
Alyssa waited by the door, keeping out of sight. So far, everyone she had met had been relatively pleasant. Everyone she had met had been celebrating a festival too, so she wasn’t sure that they were a good metric for the rest of the world. It hadn’t been so long ago when two people had broken into her home, at least one of which had been trying to kill her. Here, out in the wild all alone, she didn’t even have the possibility of police coming to help her.
There. Two people walked side-by-side up the small path from the riverside. They wore leather clothes, though not in the same sense that Alyssa was used to. Rather than look like they were headed to a biker’s bar, they looked like Robin Hood with their little tunic things and knee-high boots. Both had bows slung over their shoulders and swords drawn.
“No. You missed. Otherwise it would be lying here screeching.”
“If you would have used the poisoned arrows last night, this wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Wasn’t right expecting a monster while hunting for food. Especially not in the forest. I’m surprised it came so far from the mountain.”
“It’s a scout. Looking for food. People. Trouble. Maybe it is just mad that people have been trespassing lately. Damn festival. If it gets away, we can expect several cows going missing in the next few days. At best.”
They were humans. Hunters of the harpy, if she was hearing them right. Now what should she do? They would probably enter the cave if only to inspect the area. At the moment, they were going over the remains of the fish. Should she greet them? Try not to surprise them? Both had bows, but their swords were out at the moment. So long as she kept her distance… well, the old adage of bringing a knife to a gun fight applied to her at the moment.
But would they be upset with her if they found out she had helped the harpy? By the sound of it, yes. Quite upset. Then there was how Aziz had reacted when she mentioned being less than hostile to monsters. Best to claim that she had been besieged by the harpy. She felt a bit bad, throwing the harpy under the bus like that right after she had tried to share her food, but the harpy wasn’t here now. Two potentially angry hunters were.
Taking a deep breath, Alyssa stepped around the doorway and into the open. “Hello,” she said, feeling lame. She should have said something more profound. Or more aggressive? She didn’t want to get taken advantage of because of her naivety of the world. Something more than a simple greeting. Too late now.
Both men turned away from the fish, tensing for a moment until they saw her. They didn’t put away their swords, but they did lower their guard. Which all but confirmed that they had no idea what a shotgun was, given that Alyssa still had it firmly in her grip. They stared as if expecting her to turn into some monstrosity. When she didn’t after a few seconds, they finally dropped their arms completely to their sides.
“Don’t scare me like that,” the one in the front said with a sigh. He looked slightly more like Robin Hood than the other, who might have been more of the Little John of the pair. Larger and more gruff. Less well-kempt hair.
“Sorry. Was a bit nervous at finding a few strangers out here.”
“You seen a harpy around?” Little John asked, waving his sword toward the fish. “Big, yellowy-red one?”
“It isn’t in here, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Of course not, it flew—” He waved his hand off toward the river before shaking his head. “Never you mind. What are you here for?”
“Just a traveler to Lyria. I thought I would make it to the town beyond the mountains by night, but apparently my pacing was off. Had to take shelter here or risk harpies.”
Robin Hood nodded as if all that made sense, but Little John crossed his arms with a scowl. He pointed his sword right at Alyssa, prompting her to tense with her shotgun. “The latch is broke. There’s feathers everywhere. What was it doing out here feeding?”
Alyssa pressed her lips together. Right. She had expected something like this. With a casual shrug of her shoulders, she said, “Magic. I warded it off. Guess it decided to camp out for me. I would have handled it if it became necessary.”
The two glanced at each other. “Magic?” Robin Hood said. The other just scoffed before glancing back to Alyssa.
“You expect us to believe that?”
Alyssa blinked. What had she done wrong? What about this situation made magic unbelievable? Magic definitely existed in this world and it could make someone fly. Couldn’t it lock a door? Scare away a monster? Or was it something else? Surely they believed in magic itself. Yzhemal had implied that he couldn’t even light a fire without magic. If these guys could and that technology hadn’t spread from one side of the mountains to the other, this world was in some serious trouble. She didn’t expect internet levels of information sharing, but a three day’s walk to tell people about one of the most important things in human history would be absurd in the extreme.
“What are you going to do? Light a candle at it?”
“Some monsters are afraid of fire. Not harpies. Especially not an arcanist’s tiny flame.”
“What you believe is none of my concern,” Alyssa said. “Facts are facts regardless of your belief.” That seemed decent enough excuse. Did they think that arcanists could only light small fires? According to the book, they were capable of much more than that. Being peasants who lived in what was probably a tiny village, perhaps they had never seen an arcanist do anything more.
“Leave her to her delusions,” Robin Hood said with a small shake of his head. “We need to find that bird.”
“It’ll be long gone by now.”
“Maybe. But that doesn’t mean we can give up. Not yet. It was hanging around here for a reason. Perhaps it will come back.” He looked back to Alyssa and offered a small smile. “Our village is an hour’s walk from here, just at the edge of the mountain. I recommend leaving quickly before the bird comes back.”
“Thank you, I’ll take that under consideration.”
With a nod of his head, Robin Hood put his hand on Little John’s shoulder and started leading him away. “Take care,” he said over his shoulder before whispering something to his companion.
The larger of the two looked back. Instead of his pursed lips and furrowed brows, he just looked sad. With a little shake of his head, he allowed himself to be led off.
Alyssa had no idea what to make of them. She might have made some sort of mistake in her mentioning magic. If she saw them again, perhaps she would ask if her theory was right or not. Until then, avoiding the topic of magic might be for the best. At least until she learned more. For now, though, the water should be done boiling. Following their advice and getting to the next town wasn’t a bad suggestion. Getting there early would be for the best. She needed more supplies and a little time to read through Aziz’s notebook.
With one last look at the sky, she turned back inside to put the water in her bottles and to pack the few things she had out. There was no sign of the harpy. Hopefully, it would stay that way. While she appreciated the gesture of the fish, she didn’t need a monster following her around like a lost puppy. Not while the humans hated them so much.