We dashed all the way to the hole in the wall of branches, running right over the rotting log and into the forest. The Farro bird was right behind us, angrily screeching all the while. I dodged a branch and jumped over a root. Noel brushed aside a bush and weaved through a thicket. The bird flew over the forest, ignoring all obstacles and honing in on its prey—us. Luckily, it gave out a frightening screech every time it dove down to try and skewer us with its beak, usually getting stuck in something when it missed.
It didn’t have much trouble getting free. It used its massive talons to grab small trees and uprooted them, and used its sharp, foot-long beak to cut apart any vines or branches. Its feathers were an unassuming beige, but it made up its intimidation with its size and ferocity.
We ran for our lives, jumping and rolling whenever the bird was about to dive at us. I had no idea where we were going, either, so I was really hoping Noel knew how to get back to camp, assuming we survived this damned bird, of course.
A screech came up right behind me. I cursed and jumped behind a thicket of trees. Sounds of snapping wood and falling leaves gave me goosebumps. The Farro bird had stopped right behind the tree where I was hiding. It was thrashing about, probably trying to free itself from something. I stood as still as I could, taking short, quiet breaths. I didn’t dare peek, in case it found me just a few feet from itself.
The thrashing stopped, but there were no flapping wings. My heart stopped. Had it found me? A scream cut through the air.
I grit my teeth and jumped out. The Farro bird was glaring at a small bush, behind which I could see a trembling little elf. The bird’s eyes were narrow and menacing. The elf’s eyes were wide and frightened. I grabbed a rock and pulled my arm back to throw it. Maybe I could distract it long enough to let Noel get away. No, it wouldn’t work, she was on the ground and the monster was right in front of her. A rock wasn’t going to cut it!
I let the rock fall out of my hand and focused on the air instead. The fundamentals of magic as imprinted in my head by the birds were simple: knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge as in an understanding of reality or of an aspect of reality, and wisdom as in the ability to exercise the power that came from that understanding of reality.
For example, if I wanted to do what I was planning to do right now, I had to know what fire was and how I wanted to use that fire. Since the birds had only given us the absolute basics of magic, I had no idea how magic worked or what would happen if I tried to use it, but with the Farro Bird towering over Noel, I didn’t have any time to hesitate.
I knew that fire was a visible phenomenon of a chemical reaction called combustion. For combustion to occur, activation energy must be provided after which a fuel may be oxidized and the chemical reaction can become self sustaining.
First I had to provide the activation energy, so I channeled sunlight. I didn’t have the time to deeply consider solar radiation, which meant I wasn’t able to extract all of its energy, but that was okay, I only needed a little bit.
Second, I needed an oxidant. The oxygen in the air would do, although again, I didn’t have the time to consider the concepts of oxygen or air in too much detail, but that was okay because I didn’t need to.
But the real issue was fuel. All sorts of options came to mind. I could set fire to the trees and shrubs behind Noel, perhaps scaring the Farro bird away. But that might put Noel in harms way. If I tried to set fire to trees further away from Noel, the bird might think it had enough time to grab her and fly away.
Then I thought I could set fire to the air. There were various substances in the air, maybe I could isolate some of them and use them as fuel for combustion? But no, I didn’t have the time to do that properly. What if I messed up and ended up making an explosion or something? Better not risk it.
Bear in mind, my thoughts seem long and drawn out in writing, but in reality I was considering and dismissing options almost instantaneously, as if time itself seemed to slow down somehow. But well, if I couldn’t set the surroundings on fire, why not set fire to the thing I was trying to scare away? I didn’t know what the Farro Bird was made of, but I had a rough idea about the properties of feathers.
I knew feathers could catch fire, since I’d heard a large bird caused a fire in California after hitting some power lines. I also knew, as a useless fact I’d picked up from a friend who loved birds too much, that most feathers were made of keratin proteins, kinda like human hair. Did I understand the science behind it completely? No. But did I need to turn this over-sized chicken into ash? No.
I pointed my finger towards the monster, collected all of the information I needed in my head, imagined the process of combustion occurring on the Farro bird’s feathers, and wished, really really hard, that it would happen.
The monster leaned forward, aiming its beak at Noel, who lay frozen on the ground. If it hadn’t been for an annoying bunch of small trees and bushes, it would have skewered the elf girl already. But now all the cover was gone and the elf was easy pickings. The monster was just about to pierce flesh when its instincts flared up. It flapped one of its wings, once, creating a small burst of wind, but when its wings appeared in front of it, the monster panicked.
Red flames licked at the monster’s skin, having thoroughly consumed many of its feathers. The heat was already prickling its skin, and smoke began to fill the air. Someone might even say the air smelled like barbecued chicken.
The bird flew into the trees, crashing into trunks and branches as it thrashed about. It screamed at an ear-piercing pitch, giving off a sound that could be heard across the forest. The monster flapped its wings as if trying to run away from the flames, but it could not run away since the fire was stuck to its own body! It even tried pecking at the flames, for which the bird-brained monster was rewarded by a face full of fire!
The Farro Bird thrashed on the ground for a little while before it flapped its wings and shot into the air. I ran forward. A small tree had fallen on top of where I’d last seen Noel. I lifted it up, cursing my feeble young elf body, before another pair of hands joined mine from below and we managed to move the tree. Noel was breathing heavily and had many scratches and bruises all over her body. Her hair was a mess and her tunic had seen better days. She’d lost one of her shoes too.
I helped Noel up and we hugged each other. My heart was still racing and my breath uneven. I managed to squeeze out some words, saying we should probably go back to camp before the others got too worried. Noel said she wasn’t looking forward to explaining our injuries. We were going to get a scolding for sure.
“Also,” she said as the Farro Bird’s screams faded into the distance, “you need to tell me how it felt to cast magic!”