The bird tilted as a gust of wind came from the right. Slowly the bright eyes scanned the ground below, searching, always searching. Instinct guided him as it had for nearly a century, pushing him to find the right spot. Every so often, he would stop, searching in a particular area, only to move on again.
On the ground below, people look up to see him flying over. The reactions would vary from village to village, some seeing him as a good omen and calling out to him to bless their home and crops. Others would curse him, rushing to gather weapons and shouting threats to the sky. He never stopped near any of these places; he always flew on.
Night fell quietly as he coasted on the winds. He began to sing softly, letting the notes float over the silent land. The bird's eyes wandered to the trees just below him. The massive trunks were bare from the harsh winter, looking like skeletons in the dark. Some humans seemed to worship the trees, only cutting wood from the newest and smallest trees. To the older ones they left offerings, eaten by opportunistic squirrels and raccoons. As he flew over the forest, many creatures hid in their dens, frightened by him. The bird breathed deeply, pumping his wings faster, gaining speed in the night air. He flew on for hours, as he had for more years then he wanted to remember. The great bird's thoughts wandered again, reaching across the decades, back to a time he did not fly all alone. He closed his eyes, reflecting as he soared on. Soon he would reach the sea and the waters would heal all of his aches.
His reverie was broken by a subtle change in the air around him. The strong smell of salt made him open his eyes. In the growing light, blue green waters spread out below, blinding him with the glitter. He dropped in altitude, skimming the waves with his wingtips. Spiraling up, he shot back high in the air, leveling out high above the ocean again. His eyes raked the waters searching for a quick meal. Below him, dolphins played and danced through the waters, playing tag and trying to keep up with his shadow. He envied them their short simple lives. They lived, playing, growing, mating, and dying. When one of them died, there was a sense of loss, but it did not end life. They moved on, raising young and staying with the pod. Most of all, they were never alone. They never felt the tearing pain of being the last, alone forever. He envied that the most.
A group of islands unfolded, breaking the shimmering waters. He scanned these, looking for a suitable place. Too many of the other places had something wrong with them. Some had humans, others had the wrong terrain, and others still were too small. He needed a land that was just right; an island where he could rest and complete his duty and instinctive obligation.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a mid-sized island. Tilting one wing, he circled back, looping around the island. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides, the island was raised and the walls smoothed by countless waves beating against the stone. Settled in the center was a large field of firegrass, skirted on one side by a cliff and a forest on the other. The land slanted, fading from field to dunes on down to a rocky white beach. On the southern most edge was a plain teeming with life; he could see rabbits and small animals hiding in the tall grasses. The most important thing on the island was near the eastern edge. A large volcano lay dormant, no smoke drifting out of the crater. It seemed perfect, but if he knew anything, nothing is perfect. He winged on past and circled back for another look.
The old man stared outside terrified and awed by what he saw. Looking out his window, he had seen a phoenix! It was circling the island, flying around the volcanoes the most. After nearly seventy years, was it time for him to go? He had been told all his life that he was guided into life by a phoenix and was to be led out again by one. The great bird landed outside his cave, cut into the cliff wall. It turned its head, looking away from the cave. The man stared amazed at his fortune. It had to be over five feet at the shoulder, with a wingspan of over twenty feet. The plumage started out as a deep molten red at the center of its body, bleeding to a gold color at the end of its wings, crest and tail. The talons and beak were the color of liquid gold, gleaming in the bright light. Slowly the majestic creature turned its head, scanning the area around it. An instant before it spotted him, his breath caught. The eyes were the color of the sun, glowing even in the bright day. In them you could see the flames that danced in the soul of every phoenix. He held his breath as the bird's eyes drifted to him. For a moment, he knew what the bird thinking. He saw the pain and anger at having another place ruined. It turned to leave. The old man rushed outside.
Cursing his fate to the ends of the earth, the bird spread his wings, preparing to take off. Humans had this island too. Humans were everywhere; they had taken over all the good lands and seemed to ruin the ones they could not even live on. His search would continue. Just as he started to flap his wings, he heard the old human call out to him. He turned to face him.
"Sir Phoenix." The man stammered. "Are you here to lead me to the afterlife?" At the look from the phoenix, he rushed on. "Because if you're not, I would be honored to have you stay on the island. It is an amazing thing to see a phoenix and I would be honored if you would bless my island by staying here, for at least a while. Please." he bowed to the ground, showing manners the phoenix thought humans had lost generations ago. "Please honor me."
The phoenix seemed to consider the request and then, slowly, nodded once. He turned towards the field and took off to find a good spot for a nest.
The old man looked out his window across the field of firegrass. Near the wood the phoenix was filling a large pit with white sand from the beach. It had spent near a week before digging the hole, scratching out a large shallow depression and pulling up all the grass around. Now it was carrying baskets of sand from the beach below to fill the pit. When it, no he, the man correct himself, had finished scratching out the area, the phoenix had searched for a way to carry the sand. He had come up with a large tough leaf and had dragged four or five small loads before becoming frustrated and searching for something else to carry it. By this time the old man had gone out to catch fish for his dinner and collect some seaweed for his medicines. He just happened to 'accidentally' leave his large fish basket out on the beach. The phoenix had studied it and tipped it onto one side to get the sand in. The work went much quicker after that. After the pit was filled with sand, the phoenix flew off to the base of the volcanoes and brought large stones back, making a ring in the center of the sand pit. The ring was large enough for the bird to lie comfortably. Once again he used the basket, half filling the ring with more white sand. Then the bird pulled grasses, filling and overflowing the nest with the long red firegrass all around. He left many of his shed feathers in the nest, adding some soft seaweed from the beach in as well. The phoenix inspected his work for a few minutes before flying off to the south.
The old man watched the phoenix fly off. He had been brought into this world under a phoenix. His nurse always said he would leave under one as well. He had been born far from this island, far from any sea. In the birthing chambers, his mother had seen a phoenix fly past her window as she gave birth to him. The midwife, a woman with the old blood and the one who became his nurse, made a prediction at his naming ceremony. 'Into this life, fire on wings has brought you, FireWing, and out of it shall you be so guided.' She had said as she set her hand on his head. She also said she wanted to see how one guided by the spirit of fire would grow, so she stayed on as his nurse.
He had grown as all boys do and as most children do, left home. The farming village became too cramped for his mind and ventured out to find his fortune. He went far, journeying as a paid soldier and jack-of-all-trades. His wanderings took him far from the small village in the mountains, leading him to an even smaller seaport hamlet. The only thing the village was known for was its simple, lazy pace of life. To his weary soul, it was a piece of home and heaven. He took up a job there, learning the ways of the sea and sailing as a trade. He met his wife in that place, and had three sons who grew up in the small village. He found the island when fishing one morning. A strong storm had blown him off course and he had stopped on a small rocky beach to weather out the storm. When the storm had drifted off the island, he explored, finding a lush paradise built for a few people.
His wife died ten years ago. His sons stayed in the village, leading separate lives and walking separate paths. He rarely left the island anymore. He grew his own food, raising rabbits and poultry in small hutches out on the plain. Life went as each year before had. He made his own medicine, sewed his own clothes and made his own shoes. It was amazing what you really didn't need when it became too difficult to acquire.
With the corner of his eye, he spotted a shadow sweep over the firegrass. He stopped and set aside the bottle of burn salve he was working on. He watched as the phoenix landed in the nest circle. The bird laid a large bundle on the sands before approaching the cave where the old man lived. It strode up to the grass curtain acting as a door. The man crossed to the door and gestured for the phoenix to enter. All the bird did was look at the doorframe and step back for the man to exit. The old man stepped out, wiping his hands.
"How can I be of assistance, Sir Phoenix?" FireWing asked as he stepped out.
"Yes." The phoenix replied calmly. "Do you know how to tan a hide, human?
The man stared. He had never been told phoenixes could speak. He knew they could understand human speech, but this one had just spoken to him. He stood there, gaping with his mouth open.
"Is there something the matter?" The bird asked, more than a little agitated. Humans could be so dense at times. They all were surprised when a phoenix spoke to them, even if they had seen one before. "If the answer is no, please tell me so I can get on with my business."
"Um, uh, No, no I mean yes. Yes, I know how to tan hides." FireWing sputtered. "What kind of hide is it?"
The phoenix looked at him squarely. "It comes from far to the south. It is called a firebull. It is about so big." He gestured with his wings. "Can you do it?"
"Yes I can. But it will take several days." FireWing answered, listing the tools he would need in his mind.
"Good. What would you like for your payment?" The bird asked, preparing to negotiate some absurd price.
The man paused. He originally planned to do it for no payment, but he thought better of it. He carefully considered what would be worth the work need on the animal skin. Finally he answered. "I request a story, Sir Phoenix. My price is your life's tale. Do you allow?"
The phoenix gave him a long look and nodded solemnly. "Allowed and agreed. You shall come to my nest pit each night until the hide is finished or the tale ends." With that the phoenix turned and left.
The old man went back inside, reaching onto his shelves for jars of ointments and oils for the tanning. He had a lot to prepare for this night.
The sun had set when the phoenix saw the human leaving his stone nest. He was bundled up in several cloaks and carrying packages of many sizes. The phoenix reached over to a discarded pile of firegrass and brushed his wingtips over. It burst into bright flames as the human sat down near. He smiled and muttered some form of gratitude. Without preamble, the phoenix started on his tale:
"I am the last of my kind. We were once a mighty, worshiped species. Then the hunters came, killing all who could not fly fast enough or fly high enough. When I came into existence, all but a small number were gone. My dam used to sing of glorious times to my siblings and myself, telling of times when the flocks would cover the skies. My siblings all died, one way or another. So it came to only three phoenixes left; a female, who was called Sunset Blaze to translate it, another male, and myself. She was the most beautiful creature ever breath. We do not put the same meaning to names as you do; our names describe who we are. I was once called Un'Kion. In your tongue, it means Volcano's soul or God of Volcanoes. The other male, Darkfire, and I were fighting for Sunset.
"As she watched, we fought for hours, days, months even; immortals have little concept of time. We flew over hundreds of miles, through countries rich and poor. We battled over great cities and capitals. We fought over ripe fields and forests, setting them ablaze in our ignorance. We rained fire on villages and cities alike. Where we went, there was sure to be chaos. The battle ended near the base of a living volcano. I was the victor, but in my triumph I was gravely injured. The only thing I could remember at the time was a tale my dam had told me about the primitive magic in volcanoes. The heated earth inside will heal and repair mortal injuries of my kind. I crawled slowly up the volcanoes, bringing myself to the ledge. I remember looking in and dropping. What happens next is what I gathered from stories and whispered tales.
"When I fell into the volcano, it triggered an eruption headed towards the village below. The village was buried under ten feet of ash, lava, and stone. Very few of the people escaped. Sunset scanned the village for me, trying to get me out of there. A hunter saw her and thought she was the one who cause the eruption. He shot her with a lethal arrow, coated in a poison mixed with acidic drakine blood. When I awoke, all I found was a few feathers and the gemstones we phoenixes produce in our stomachs. I took those and flew off to search for her. I did not find out for many, many years later she was truly dead. That was nearly two hundred years ago.
Since then, my life has been dedicated to finding, if only one, my species. I followed every whispered rumor, every loud boast, searching for some sign I was not alone. With most of the leads, it brought me to deserted and ancient nests and hatching grounds. A few though, seemed to be newly deserted. I never did see another of my kind since Sunset Blaze and Darkfire. The last place I resided in for any length of time was a small village, near the center of the continent. The older blood of humans still ran in some of the people there. One woman in particular had very strong Lifesight. The power would allow her to see the future of some person or another and she would make predictions for them. Her power was strongest when she was the very first to touch the infant on their day of birth. So she became a midwife to escort people into the village and into life. I became very good friends with her. One morning someone found my nest site and I had to leave. She was attending a woman that morning, and I chose to fly by the window she usually sat by in the birthing hut. The woman in labor saw me as well and I heard her call out as I flew past. She named her child 'FireWing'." The phoenix stopped short as the old man burst out laughing.
"Pray don't take offense, Sir Phoenix. But I've just found the world's a small place." His laughing slowed to a chuckle. "I'm the child named FireWing. The midwife who birthed me told me tales of great mythical phoenixes and their wisdom. She became my nurse and helped raise me."
"This world is not small. Every living thing in it is tied together in some way." Un'Kion leveled a stern glare at him. "No matter how small or impossible the link may seem, it is still there. Never forget that."
"Of course, Sir Phoenix." He stood and stretched. The tale had lasted many nights and often close to the break of day. "The hide is finally finished." He held up the large pelt. Massive in proportion, it was covered in long, shaggy reddish hair, coarse to the touch. He laid it out so Un'Kion could look at it. "What will it be used for?"
The great bird seemed to age immensely in a few moments. He climbed out of his nest wearily and scraped the grasses out of the way. "Place it fur side up on top of the sands. Then take the pile of clean grasses over there and lay it on top. Yes, that's good. Now please leave me. I wish to sleep now."
FireWing turned to go. He stopped short as the phoenix called to him.
"FireWing. Whatever may happen this night, do not try to stop it. All I ask you to do is tie the ends of this hide up later. Nothing else."
Puzzled by this, the old man walked into his home and settled in to sleep.
The old man was rocked out of bed by a fierce explosion and slap of heat. He rolled out of bed as jars of ointment crashed to the sand floor. The ground was shaking as he stumbled to the door, cutting his feet on the sharp pieces of pottery. He shoved the curtains aside, pulling back as his hand hit the hot stone on the frame. He stared towards the nest. Where the neat stone nest had been was a massive tower of flame, twisting into the night sky. With an oath of surprise he bolted to the edge of the pit.
He rushed forward onto the sand, biting back an oath as he burned his feet on the hot sands. The tower of flame died as he reached the nest, going out with a loud whoosh. He stumbled forward, hitting his knees on the stones. They were glowing from the heat and melted into a solid ring. Lying in the middle of the nest was a pile of red-hot embers. There was no sign of the phoenix. He automatically reached for the edge of the hide, and then stopped as he realized it was still in one piece. He rushed on, tying the edges securely. He turned slowly, shoulders shaking. He walked slowly and heavily back to his home, limping badly on his injured feet. When he entered his home, he cautiously avoided the broken shards and picked up a bundle of bandages. Carefully he bandaged his feet. That was the last thing he remembered.
FireWing didn't know how long he had slept. It had to be more than three days because he was extremely hungry and his cuts were half healed. He stood stiffly, and moaned as he cataloged all of his aches. He winced as his feet touched the soft sand and limped over to his cupboard. He pulled out a pair of heavy moccasins and one of the last jars of salve. Generously smearing it along the inside of the moccasins, he prayed the numbing cream would dull the pain in his feet. He cast about for a makeshift cane and found a long wood staff in the furthest corner. He made his painful way out to the nest.
The sands around the nest had hardened into a thick plate of glass all around the nest. In an even wider ring around the sand pit, grasses had been scorched to the ground and new sprouts were showing between the blackened stalks. His eyes drifted to the nest itself. The stones had cooled and hardened into a single, unbroken loop of rock. Tears crept to the old man's eyes again. Lying in the center of the stone was the large bundle. Still tied firmly, it was all that was left of the most amazing creature he had known. In the short time he had know the bird, he had shared a life, listened to a life story and shared a fate. The phoenix had taken with him all the man's hopes and former dreams and replaced them with a bag of ashes. He limped over to the bag to look closer. Had the phoenix truly come to this island just to die? If that were the case, he could have done so where many people would have seen him, burning the image of phoenixes into the minds of humans. The man stopped in his tracks as a thin cry was heard from the bundle.
He dropped his staff, rushing forward as he had on the night three days before. He tore at the knots, fighting with intricate ones he tied on habit. Finally the knot gave way, spilling ashes everywhere. The man plunged up to his elbows in the ash, digging furiously. The ashes were still very warm from the fire and several times his fingers made contact with a burning stone. His hand brushed something warm and soft and he grasped it carefully. Lifting it free from the hide, he examined his find. In his arms lay a struggling, squawking bundle of dirty feather down. A mix between brown and gray, it was not beautiful to behold in the slightest. The eyes were shut, but the man was sure they would be the color of the rising sun.
The hatchling squirmed, trying to get back to the nest and the man lurched to keep it from falling onto the hard stone and glass around. Carefully he set it back into the ashes and watched as the small creature attacked the red stones buried in the ashes. Its small beak cracked and crushed the hard gems and it swallowed the smallest pieces. After it finished the stones, it started on the hide around it. It voraciously devoured the pelt, fur and all, and when it was finished, it promptly fell asleep. With its cries stopped and the small belly distended from its gorging, it almost appeared to be a normal bird hatchling. The man shook his head in bewilderment as he limped back inside to get a water skin for the new creature.
The small phoenix grew quickly. By one week, he, for it was a male, was stalking mice around the edges of the nest area. All of the stones were consumed and the carefully dried rabbit the man had put away was as well. The ashes left in the nest were pushed out and blown away while FireWing harvested more grasses to line the nest with. By the end of the third week, the hatchling was almost a foot tall and had a two-foot wingspan. His feathers grew in not long after, coming in a murky brown color and lacking the distinct color and markings of his predecessor. The thing he shared with Un'Kion though was a beautiful voice; not long after he emerged, he was singing small songs, making up the notes as he went. FireWing would hear the hatchling start a song and stop what he was doing. He would listen as long as the singing continued.
The hatchling spent a lot of time at the beach. It would play in the surf for hours, catching fish and picking up shells to save. All around its nest lay bits of shiny stones, shells and any bit of glittering flotsam. On rainy nights, FireWing would bring the bird in, keeping it dry from the harsh sea storms. Many times like this, he would catch the hatchling staring out the window at the volcano. With the years, the hatchling gained length, and came up to the man's hip. It soon began to speak, learning language from the man and learned the tongues of the beasts of the forest.
One spring, a fire vent opened in FireWing's garden. Grumbling and cursing the island, he replanted everything on the other side of his home. The hatchling hung around the vent, swaying this way and that as the fire shot up. Suddenly, he shot his beak into the fire, and pulled something out. Struggling in his beak was a small rabbit the color of fire and just as hot. The bird hopped back awkwardly and started to drag his struggling prize across the grass to the sand pit. Halfway through his meal, the hatchling stopped and looked up at volcano. He stared at it for a long time, with his meal seemingly forgotten, until he snapped back to reality and began eating again.
The hatchling stared frozen at the volcano. Ever so often, he could just catch the ancient song the old fire mountain sang, Every time he would stop, trying to remember what the volcano was saying and repeat the song. He could never come even close. The song spoke of ancient peoples and places, where human had never before gone. Where the sea ran with fire and the air burned all impurities away. It sang of that world's destruction and the rise of this water filled world. It was a sad song.
Fifteen years passed swiftly. The phoenix hatchling grew and shed his brown juvenile feathers for his adult plumage. He surpassed his sire in beauty and size, growing to almost a quarter of a wingspan larger. He was now too large to fit into the hut comfortably, so he only entered on special occasions. He took his first flight in the old man's eightieth year, flying around the island while he watched.
FireWing was very old now. He had been almost totally bedridden for a year now, unable to walk far and too weak to stand for any amount of time. He knew he was dying and called the phoenix into his home to speak to him.
"Hello hatchling." He smiled as the full-grown bird entered. "I guess you know what I'm going to say."
"You're dying." The quiet reply came. The phoenix would not meet his eyes. He stared at the old feet, tracing the scars with his eyes and thinking about their origin.
"Yes, I am. You will have to leave the island one of these days." He paused to cough. "Where will you go?"
"You told me my sire searched for others like himself. I'll take up that quest." The phoenix replied. His shoulders sagged. "Why must life end? For you it's too short and mine will be too long. Can there not be a middle ground?"
"My life has been plenty long. I have seen one phoenix die and watched another grow to an adult." FireWing chuckled. "That makes me proud. Your life's just started. There will be death, but always at the right time. Your father taught me that." He lay back on his bed wearily. "I'm tired now. Please let me sleep."
The phoenix turned to go. "I will mourn you for all my life as a father."
He stepped out onto the field of firegrass, fighting the sadness. Slowly he began to sing a requiem for the man, letting the notes be whipped away by the wind. His eyes turned to the volcano. Since he was young, he had felt the call of the volcano. It seemed to promise power; power to the one who would take it. He made up his mind. His journey would start there, where the fires created great lands. He took off, soaring past the window where the old man was watching. For the last time, the man smiled and closed his eyes.
The phoenix flew silently in a circuit around the island, surveying what he had known all his life. He landed on the rim of the volcano, staring at the deep red glow of the molten stone within. The song was clearer than ever now and he added his dirge to it and became part of the song. The magma surged, rushing up and around him. In his mind's eye, he saw the liquid fire rush into the hut, burning all that lay within. It filled the home, making a tomb for the old man and sealing it as well. He turned back to the crater. Distantly the echoes of his song reached his ears, the notes distorted and twisted to sound like a beckoning. The molten earth surged below him as he folded his wings back and fell forward, into the fire and life. Only as the fire surrounded him did he realize there was nothing in the area to echo off of.