60 Close Encounter
Zoey couldn't help but raise an eyebrow when she saw the person. It was a woman, and she was tall. She was head and shoulders above Zoey's height and built like the Amazonian legends Zoey remembered from old stories back on Gaia. She was wearing a leather vest that showed off the well-defined muscles on her shoulders and arms and left her stomach bare, revealing her abs. The vest was laced up in the front and showed off the stranger's curves without being too revealing, although Zoey thought that it would not provide much protection.
On her legs, she wore baggy cargo pants tucked into military style boots and supported by a wide belt around her hips. She had caramel colored skin, and her face had sharp features with high cheekbones and a straight, Grecian nose. She had proud and straight eyebrows that enhanced her yellow topaz eyes and her brown hair was pulled back and tied into a long braid down her back, giving her a warrior queen kind of look.
At the moment, she was leaning on a staff with a devil-may-care attitude while she sized up Zoey, much like Zoey was doing to her. Viridi had shown little reaction other than a tilt of her head and flick of her ears, so Zoey was not sure what to make of this woman.
After a moment of tense silence, the stranger lifted her staff and tapped the dead creature behind her, "Hey there, you're not here for my goodies are you? I worked hard for this you know?"
Zoey shook her head wordlessly in answer, then both Viridi and her stiffened in shock as the stranger appeared right in front of her!
"My my, you're a cutie aren't you?" she lifted Zoey's chin with a finger and quirked her eyebrows with a devilish smile.
Her voice had a rich, musical timbre, and Zoey found herself wondering why her mind seemed to focus on that, when this strange person had approached her faster than she could perceive! Before Zoey and Viridi had a chance to unfreeze and react, the woman continued.
"No need to be so stiff hun, if you freeze any more you'll end up an ice cube!" She laughed at her own joke as Zoey unconsciously relaxed, in reaction to her words.
The stranger's eyes brightened as she noticed Zoey's clothing, and she hummed appreciatively as she felt the fabric with her hands. Zoey had no idea how to react to this strange woman. She did not sense any danger or pressure, and Viridi did not feel anything wrong either, but wasn't she being too friendly with a person she literally just met? Zoey was at a loss.
"Did you make these yourself?" The stranger asked as she admired Zoey's clothing.
Zoey nodded slightly in acknowledgement.
The stranger looked at her crookedly, grinned, then glanced at Viridi on her shoulder, "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" She then burst out laughing again at her joke, throwing her head back and filling the clearing with the rich sound. She had an interesting way of laughing, throwing her head back and laughing from her belly, and Zoey found herself almost smiling from the contagious effect it had.
Once she settled down, the stranger spoke again with a smile, "I'm Athena, what's your names?
Zoey could not stay silent when she was so honestly asked, so she pointed to herself and Viridi, "Zoey, Viridi."
Athena's smile grew wider as she clapped Zoey on the shoulder, "Nice to meet ya! Zoey and Viridi huh? You two aren't from around here are you? I'm headed back to a town a few days from here if you'd like to travel together?" As she spoke she sauntered back to the dead creature and with a snap of her fingers collected the body, presumably into a storage ring.
Zoey was still trying to process what had happened in the last minute, so she did not reply immediately. Interaction with others was still a weakness of hers. Nito seemed to be easier as he was quiet and withdrawn like she was most of the time, not to mention not human, and the only other people she had interacted with was a storekeeper in Colten, and those asshole nobles. Athena on the other hand was very much human, and directly confrontational, and not quiet at all. Not that it was a bad thing, Zoey was just not used to it.
As Athena moved back to her, Zoey asked, "What town?"
"Its southwest of here, a little place called Sand Pit. Not too bad of a place so long as you watch your step," Athena replied. "I've been operating out of there the last few months."
After a moment of thought, Zoey agreed to go with Athena to Sand Pit. Mostly because it was the town that Nito had mentioned to her as where she should head after she lost the nobles. Having a guide there would be nice.
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So they set out on their way with Athena acting as leader and Zoey cautiously following with Viridi. When they got to the southwestern crater edge, Athena got a playful, mischievous look on her face. She motioned Zoey over to where she was at the base of the crater wall and spoke quietly, "You wanna see something cool?" She wiggled an eyebrow at Zoey as if she had some secret to share, making it hard for Zoey to keep a straight face, despite her misgivings about the situation.
"Come on, follow me!"
Athena waved excitedly and led her to a concealed cave opening twenty five meters up the crater's side. Zoey carefully followed her in, staying alert to any potential dangers. She only just met this girl, and trust was earned, especially since Zoey was considered valuable goods by practically every magic user on this planet.
But her caution turned out to be baseless for now. After she followed Athena through the cave for quite a while, the passage led them into an underground cave that once again took Zoey's breath away in awe.