Raea sighed, causing Cleo to sit up and blink. The group had been traveling for a week in the storage chest with Raea still incapacitated. Sally and Cleo were responsible for taking care of her needs while she was disabled. Raea had refused Palan’s assistance and startled Sally with her vehemence. Cleo plodded over to Raea and asked, “What’s wrong?” Sally raised her head from underneath her wing. “Do you need to use the toilet again?”
“No,” Raea said. “It’s not that.”
“No,” Raea said again. “I just never thought I’d be spending my sixteenth birthday in the middle of nowhere while disabled and transported like cargo.”
“What’s a birthday?” Palan and Sally asked. They exchanged glances. Sally flinched.
“It’s the day you’re born,” Cleo said. “Duh.”
“She was born sixteen times?” Sally asked and tilted her head.
“Of course,” Cleo said and nodded. “I think.” She turned towards Raea. “Right?”
“No!” Raea said. “It’s the yearly anniversary of the day I was born.” She glanced at Palan and Cleo. “Don’t you two know your ages? Shouldn’t you have some concept of birthdays?”
Cleo scratched her head. “All lizardmen turn one year older during the start of spring at our festival,” she said. “We don’t have any special days. What about you?” She turned towards Palan.
“We count the number of times one sun disappears behind the other and divide that by two,” Palan said. “Age is largely unimportant.”
Raea’s gaze landed on Sally.
“I don’t know how old I am,” the harpy said. “I’ve lived underground all my life.”
“Then maybe it’s a cultural thing,” Raea said and sighed. “I just assumed all of you knew your birthdays.”
Cleo frowned and her tail swished. “Well,” she said, “why are birthdays important? Are you feeling sad that you aren’t having one?”
“I’m just a little disappointed,” Raea said and smiled wryly at Cleo. “It’s nothing serious. Sixteenth birthdays just represent becoming an adult in angel culture.”
“Oh,” Cleo said and nodded. “So it’s like your final shed. Without the shedding. Or laying your first egg. You know, without the egg.”
“Or like getting your first real feathers?” Sally asked.
“Performing your first sacrifice,” Palan said and nodded. The three turned to look at him. “What?”
“S-sacrifice?” Sally asked and stepped behind Cleo.
Palan nodded. “You find a demon who is also looking for a sacrifice, then you fight to the death. The winner drinks the loser’s blood,” he said. “You guys don’t do that?”
“Barbarian,” Cleo said.
“N-no,” Sally said and shook her head.
“And you’re telling the truth,” Raea said. “How does that even make sense? Shouldn’t demons cooperate to survive? Isn’t the environment harsh enough already?”
“Cooperate to fight over resources fit for one person?” Palan asked and raised his eyebrow. “Let’s say there’s one lizard and you have a starving sister to feed. Someone else is hunting the lizard. What do you do?”
“Work with them and steal their stuff when they’re not looking,” Cleo said.
“Find a different lizard,” Sally said.
“Work together and ask for a share,” Raea said.
“No. You wait for them to finish hunting the lizard, then you kill them and have both of them for dinner,” Palan said. He spat a tooth onto the ground.
“Have you … done that before?” Sally asked, her eyes wide.
“It’s the easiest way to hunt,” Palan said. “I’ve done it hundreds of times.”
Cleo frowned when Sally gulped. “You’re going to corrupt her,” Cleo said and protectively put her arms around Sally. “What if she ends up as bloodthirsty as you?”
“That’s better than being a coward,” Palan said and stared at Sally. “There’s so much fear coming off of her; it’s disgusting. It would’ve been better for her to have died in my tail. How can you live a life if you’re afraid of your own shadow?”
“Palan!” Raea said and gasped. Sally’s eyes glistened as she pursed her lips. She hung her head and stared at her feet.
Cleo sighed and pat Sally’s back. “He meant everything he said,” Cleo said, “but you have to remember that he’s living in a completely different world than us. It’s perfectly okay to run behind his back and make him fight for you. I do it all the time.”
A tear rolled down Sally’s cheek. “But you’re not scared of him,” she said and covered her head with her wings while crouching. “He terrifies me. Every time I see him, I want to run away.”
“Oh,” Cleo said and furrowed her brow. “You know … I used to be very afraid of water. Like, I couldn’t approach the river and my mother had to bring me water. That was before she died. Anyways, my dad got tired of that one day because I kept waking them up at night. So he cured my fear of water. I’m going to use his method to cure you of your fear of Palan.”
“You can do that?” Sally asked, pulling her wing back to reveal half her face.
“Of course,” Cleo said and nodded while positioning herself behind Sally. “You see, my father cured my fear of water by throwing me into the river. That’s also how I learned to swim.” Sally stiffened when she realized where this was going. She screeched and flapped her wings when Cleo pushed her towards Palan. Cleo struggled to keep Sally from flying out of her grasp. “Danger Noodle! Wrap yourself around Sally and don’t let go. But don’t eat her.”
Palan stared blankly as his tail rushed forward and wrapped itself around the struggling harpy. His brow furrowed as he stared at the face of his tail. “Did you just…?”
Danger Noodle’s tongue flickered. Palan frowned. “Are you serious? My tail can think for itself? I thought I was moving you on instinct.”
Danger Noodle’s head bobbed up and down, completely ignoring the sobbing harpy in its grasp. Palan sat down and scratched his head. “Interesting. Alright, I can work with this.” Danger Noodle brought Sally closer to Palan until she was face to face with him. Her eyes were shut and her lips were pursed. Small whimpers escaped from her body.
“Are you sure that’s going to work?” Raea asked Cleo. “Won’t she end up hating you?”
“Well,” Cleo said and shrugged. “We’ll keep her there until it does work. And she won’t hate me. I’m cute and cuddly. Everyone loves me. Oh, and I’ll go tell Elrith about your birthday thing. Maybe he’ll know what to do.”
“Don’t,” Raea said. “I don’t want to bother him. You know he transports the whole army every night, right? He has to rest during the day.”
“What about Owen?” Cleo asked and tilted her head. “And Blossom. And Carmella and … her follower.”
“Yeah,” Cleo said. “That guy. I’ll go find them.” She turned towards Sally, but decided not to say anything, and scrambled up the ladder to leave the storage chest.