Three very annoyed people, and a phoenix that was trying its best to be invisible, arrived at the Harpy island around noon on the appointed day. Which is to say, late. Very late.
The three resident harpies met them. Covered mostly by glossy feathers, one was black, one was white, and one was gray. They were beautiful and terrible at the same time, like giant predatory angels.
Herby leaped from the boat, shook herself and bowed. "I apologize for our tardiness. Nelda's designated representatives are, as you can see, not flighted."
The harpies were tall women with profuse falls of hair that matched their feathers in hue. Their breasts were bare and shortly below them; their forms became that of a giant bird of prey. Held, so they were almost concealed by their enormous wings, they each had strangely diminutive arms and delicate hands.
Herby turned to the satyrs. "Do try to act civilized for the duration of our stay," she said. "This is Lady Dark, Lady Swift, and Lady Storm.
"Let's get one with this," HoneyBeard said. His voice squeaked a little with fear, but no more than would be expected when meeting vulture-cannibal triplets. "Nelda will want to know about this when she gets back. And that could be any time." He left unstated: or none.
Herby nodded. "The human and my brother have traveled to her world. They aim to discover the source of any threat that might come from that quarter. The prophecy had been hitherto unknown to her."
This was the story, and possibly even a truth, that they had settled on during the damp and otherwise hostile journey.
The harpies bowed in unsettling unison. Swift smiled slightly, revealing piranha-like teeth. "The mermaids are waiting, with ill-grace. This way please."
The lapis phoenix scooted to catch up with them. It cocked its head to watch the harpies who had an unexpectedly inelegant and wobbling gait due to their wide bodies and avian legs. The Lapis bobbed its head and then followed after in an exaggerated caricature of the Harpies manner of moving.
"Show some respect," Herby hissed, grabbing for the phoenix's tail but missing as it scampered away.
BugleHead giggled and leaned over to HoneyBeard, "Somehow that dumb bird reminds me of Nelda."
They traveled along a sandy path to a small cove where a beach of rounded gray pebbles led back into the azure waters. A party of six mermaids was waiting in a position that could only be called "beached" — their broad bodies resting half out of the water. Their rounded faces were unmistakably showing signs of impatience and anger.
The mermaids squealed, a shrill sound without words.
Swift raised her small hands, palms outwards. "Gentlepeople, please. We come together for the good of all our nations. Let us avail each other of knowledge, which is the greatest good and may save us all."
The mermaid on the far left was the smallest had faint mottled spots on her hide. "The Nelda insults us by sending these land beasts to parlay," she said in the mermaid's helium voice tones.
Swift smiled benevolently. "Nelda has gone with spirited haste to determine what risk in her realm might be coming to ours. I can only commend that spirit of alacrity on our behalf. Her only direct ally among those who swim or fly has gone with her. But Gryphon, HerbGuild, will stand witness and ensure all is conveyed to the human with sincere rectitude. I am sure no insult is meant by Nelda absence at this parley."
"What does that all mean?" BugleHead whispered.
HoneyBeard replied. "The fish-gals think we are too stupid to tell Nelda what we learn. Bird-gal is saying cat-bird gal will help us with it."
"Oh, that's good." BugleHead sat on small dune where yellow petunia plants dotted the stones. "So, when do we see the prophecy picture?"
The gray harpy stormy spoke in a rough, low voice. "Yes, where is it? That is the purpose of this… gathering." She settled herself on the ground next to BugleHead like an eagle next to a lost goat kid.
"We have made a copy, as pure as we are able," the spotted mermaid had. "You may see it but not keep it."
A seventh mermaid emerged from the water carrying a stone about the size and shape of a large platter. She pushed it to the very edge of the water. Its carved face still just under the surface.
"Will you not bring it closer, sister?" Swift said a voice like polished marble.
The spotted mermaid replied. "If we were sisters what tremendously interesting parents we must have had." She hissed. "I am not fooled. What is on the island is yours; what is in the water is ours. This remains ours. The prophecy was given to us. And the copy stays with us, as the calf with the cow."
"I would not insult a cow by comparison with that mermaid," Stormy muttered.
Herby hung back, well away from all of the mermaids and just behind the harpies.
BugleHead jumped to his hooves and trotted down the beach. He leaned over to peer at the carved stone.
"Brave," Stormy commented.
"Foolish," HoneyBeard replied.
The large gray harpy shrugged. "Same thing. The wise are cautious. But the brave may be needed lest the world burn."
HoneyBeard shuddered. "What does it show?" he called.
"This one's Nelda," BugleHead called, pointing. "This one like an old fat Nelda with little furry ears. Then there's people from all different races fighting. Then there is a thing like an apricot but on fire."
"Which kinds of people?" HoneyBeard called watching the mermaids closely.
"Uh, centaur, gryphon, dragon… manticore, whatever that is. Oh, this one's a satyr."
"Ugh, you'd think our people would have more sense than to fight." HoneyBeard stood up but went no closer.
One of the smaller mermaids squealed at HoneyBeard indignantly, "You hit sister Imerta with a stick."
"Yeah?" HoneyBeard replied. "Then I guess she was the one stealing my idiot. People are always trying to run off with that idiot. I should never have taken responsibility for it."
"The provocation is the question," Storm commented.
"The what?" HoneyBeard turned. Of the three harpies, she seemed the most sensible in that she was aware enough of the gravity and stupidity of the situation to be obviously irritated by it.
"The provocation for the war," Storm said. "All peoples are, if pressed, at least somewhat capable of it. What is generally lacking is that they are willing."
"That makes more sense than I like." HoneyBeard stood, ringed by mermaids and Harpies, both monsters in that they were wont to eat people. His only ally of note a clearly ambivalent gryphon.
The gray harpy looked around, saw a long, bleached driftwood branch. With one delicate hand, she lifted it and offered it to HoneyBeard.
The mermaids were inching gradually closer to BugleHead.
With a sigh and took the branch and went to catch a glimpse of the stone for himself. He only had two idiots left, refusing to count the phoenix—wherever it had gone--and wasn't inclined to lose another one.
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