“Hm,” a voice crooned from behind me. “My guess was right.” I tilted my head.
The archer bird from earlier sat there, tall, with a far more natural smug look across her face. “H-harley, right?”
“Good,” she said, stepping forward. “You remember my name. Sister, did they hurt you?”
“Only my wings and my pride.”
“You need not have mentioned the latter. That’s redundant,” Harley said, lowering her bow. “And this boy?”
“I’m twenty,” I hissed.
“Instrumental. Treat him like an honored guest, or another warrior,” barked Vali.
“A big task from a foreigner,” Harley trailed off. “I was hoping to free someone I knew. No matter. Sisters, we have wounded among us. Help us off of this peak!” Harley slid to the side of the plateau, her bow in her hands, and scanned the path far below.
A few seconds later, the rest of the war party broke through the canopy and descended upon us. They were six strong, and armored, with only the strongest winged birds among their number. Harley pointed at me. “Fly him back with you. Tell Atalanta that I vouch for him, and the harpy he saved vouches for him.”
I jerked my head up.
“I saw what you did, with that flash,” Harley said. Her face was still as flat as ever. “And I won’t lose an asset to petty culture divides. Try not to get on Ata’s bad side.”
“Fly?” I asked.
One of the armored birds slid over, her talons digging into the ground. I swallowed.
“This might be rough,” Harley admitted, casually, and then the other bird seized me with her feet. It was sturdy, and claw tips tug into my skin until she found a proper grip around my sides. Then, with a flick of her wings, and a massive jolt from her long legs, she leapt up into the sky.
I became very still very quickly, and the wind whistled past my ears. Trees became blurs as the great siren held out her wings in a massive glide, occasionally spiralling into a thermal in order to gain additional height. From this high up, I could see the entirety of outpost 5.
It was larger than I’d thought. Even now, some several hundred years in the past, I could see the cove that we’d landed in with Irony in tow, and the vague path down to there, though the buildings were far more intact. More than that, I could see the fire damage that the human soldiers had wreaked in order to clear out room for their encampment.
And I could do the math, easily enough. The humans had six ships stationed at their side of the island, and the sirens had fishing vessels on their side of the island.
The Sirens may have the territory advantage, but the humans had war on their side.
The siren didn’t fail to fly, and kept an unwavering pace until she found a mountain path and spiralled down, her wings catching against a gust of wind, slowing our descent until I was safely on the ground.
Dizzy, but alive. The siren released me from her talons, and I ran my fingers over the nicks and scratches left behind from her massive claws. “Y-you, you do that often?”
She tilted her head and didn’t say a word.
“Right,” I said. The siren froze, looking straight ahead, and slowly tilted her head to the side. She was clearly waiting for something. She frowned, shook her head, and then peered over the ridge. At the base sat a few buildings. No sirens sat among them.
Then I heard running and then-
“ACK! HUMAN!” That high pitch squeal was familiar… then it hit me.
“W-what?!” ! squeaked back. I knew who that was, and the last time she’d been pushed she incinerated an entire room in one go. “No no! This is Charm.”
A pause down the path. “Well… that sounds like Charm.”
“You uh, tried to hit on me after showing me your frozen souls,” I said, just loud enough to be heard.
“Oh,” she said.
I swallowed. Should’ve used a more memorable moment.
“CHARM!” A second later, I was half bowled over by what felt like a cannon ball, but was actually Irony, squeezing me tight enough that my joints popped. I gasped for air, and she released me. She wore a shirt with the emblem of the venturing owl upon it, triangles and moons. “The rest of the scouts left me out here! I was so scared out here alone.”
“Oh, thank the great wyrm that you’re alright!” Irony said. She’d had a change in clothes, some simplistic affair that rested across her scales like a blanket rather than a shirt. “I was so scared that- Well, it doesn’t matter now!” She looked over me, and traced the growing edge of a bruise across my face with her fingers. “And you’re human. When did that happen?”
“When I was born.”
“We’ll get back to that later,” Irony hissed into my ear. “Maybe we should focus on the wonders of the world around us.”
I shrugged helplessly, and winced when her fingers pressed down. I was going to be one giant injury in the morning.
The Commander had beaten the shit out of me, after all.
“Come on,” Irony said, turning, and gesturing at both of us. I looked at the bigger siren, and she nodded once and slipped in beside me. “We should get you both checked over at the clinic.”
“Well,” I said, walking beside her and trying not to wince with every step. The punches and kicks were starting to catch up with me. “Looks like you lucked out.”
“Oh, Charm,” she said, gesturing around her. “It’s like a dream come true. Look at all of this. This is what it all looked like. This is what they all sounded like.”
“How can we understand them?” I asked. “They should be speaking old siren, right?”
“I imagine that the island doesn’t understand languages, but understands conceptual meaning, and since we’re in the island’s memory, we’re being granted the same omnilingual status. That’s just a guess, though,” Irony said. “Oh, what I wouldn’t do to have more time here!”
“If you die,” I said. “You’ll be here for the next loop, and all the others.”
Irony’s bounce dropped out of her step like a rock. “Oh. Right. Of course,” She said, shaking her head. “So I should be taking all the notes I can now. Loop, you say?”
“Lunar cycle,” I gestured, and instantly wished I hadn’t clutching my arm. He hadn’t even struck my arm, but I’d landed on it. Irony darted to my side, cooing at my wounds, and I glared at her.
She winced, and took a step back. “You… you don’t look so good, Charm.”
I hung my head and tried not to look at her. I didn’t want to think about darkness, or the sudden certainty that I was going to die, or those brutal moments where I recognized myself in the Colonel’s tones, and the sudden, undeniable and creeping truth that these were my people.
The world was a bit smaller than I’d thought it’d been. I didn’t like it.
“I’m not-” I shook my head, trying not to tear up. It’d been too long of a day, and I’d seen too much. “I found Thyn.”
Irony stopped dead in her tracks, too fast, and I bumped into her and instead of stumbling, she bumped back.
“Is he…?” she trailed off.
“He’s alive,” I said. “And I think they might have the other students as well. I don’t know how many got in before the last loop.”
Irony’s lips pressed together tight enough to make the slight purple tint to them turn a pasty white. “And if they… were taken first?”
I looked away.
“Ah,” she said, shaking her head. “If only we’d known…”
The Siren behind us raised her eyebrow, and leaned in, curiously silent. I stared at her for a while.
“We’re just trying to find our friends,” I said. She listened in closely. “Some of them were taken by the humans.”
Something in my voice made her stand up straighter, and she kept walking forward, straight towards the administrative complex ahead.
“Should we have said that stuff around her?” Irony hissed.
“I don’t know,” I said, tired. “Stop being suspicious.”
“Suspicious?” Irony grumbled. “You were a human the entire time and didn’t tell me! I have so many questions.”
“You have questions?!” I hissed. “Apparently, a human empire that looks just like me went up and invaded the sirens centuries before I was born, and I didn’t even know any of it existed! I’d say I have questions.”
“Looks like you?” Irony asked.
“Their leader,” I said. “The Colonel. She looks like my mother.”
“Oh,” Irony said. “But she’s not actually-”
“I really doubt my mother is over four hundred years old,” I said. “She’s probably descended from these people.”
“It’s…” Irony trailed off, looking self reflective for a brief moment, which was positively alarming on her face. “Well, it’s fine if your parents don’t turn out to be who you thought they were.”
“You speaking from experience?” I asked.
“Mother wasn’t… well,” Irony shrugged. “Every dragon learns that they were lied to in school, and I learned just about everyone else lied as well.”
‘Oh,” I said. I breathed too quickly, and my ribs ached and my vision swam. Irony propped me up against her scaly shoulder, more than strong enough to support me. The siren guard with us gestured at the path. There were several different walls erected, each one partitioning off part of the mountainside. Doors stood in places where they hadn’t been in the present era, probably covered by rock slides, and torches burned readily, trails of black smoke up into the heavens.
It was a dream come true for an archeologist, but I couldn’t help but notice how few the number of armored sirens were. “Where is everyone?”
Irony shrugged. “They only let us out of our cells a few hours ago. I was supposed to be taken to another camp, but a siren with a massive bow requisitioned my entire party- I guess you had something to do with that?”
“A bit,” I replied. The siren at our side gestured, and the doors in front of us twitched, and then were opened. Hinges squealed with disuse. I frowned. How could they do that if the fortress was still occupied?
“How’re the others doing?” I asked.
“They’re fine,” Irony said. “Probably. The Captain did some quick talking and got us out of our cells pretty quick, so-”
A guard moved in front of the siren at our side. “What is the meaning of this? Why is this human unbound?”
Our siren gestured with her hands a few times, in a steady rhythm I didn’t quite recognize, but the guard in front blinked. “Honored guest? That doesn’t-”
Our siren, perhaps mute, formed her hands into a single symbol, some sort of wiggly H with talons extended, and gestured with it a few times.
“Alright, fine,” the guard said. “If Harley says so.” She turned to look at us and gestured, not rudely, towards the interior. Our guard stepped forward, and Irony swept me up after her. Behind the first gate, a few Sirens slunk around, keeping out of the light. Most wore some form of light armor, though a few were clutching injuries. A few were even smoking, long tendrils of spiced scents whirling up into the sky to be destroyed by the thermal surrounding the island.
Our guard kept moving, and we followed after, ignoring the eyes that started to linger on me. There was anger here, and I couldn’t blame them.
I was the spitting image of the enemy. Not just the enemy, but the Colonel herself.