Prologue: Before the Fire
"You dare threaten me in my own kingdom?" The Sky Phoenix snarled, his cloudy eyes burning with rage. He knew he had made a mistake by agreeing to meet with the Fire Phoenix. The Fire Phoenix merely fluffed her feathers, rising to full height.
Snidely, she scoffed, "A delight, as always. Thank you for having me here, but I must leave as I have... better issues to handle." Her voice dripping with sweet venom she hissed, "As for threats, I would never! You know I never joke. Only promises." She smirked then added an afterthought to emphasize, "fulfilled promises." Arrogantly, the Fire Phoenix began to depart without dismissal. In singular rage and pride, the Sky Phoenix sent a gust of wind, shackling the Fire Phoenix who cocked her head in false surprise and seemed merely amused.
Disgustedly, the Sky Phoenix roared, "I have children in these lands! Do you dare lay one breath on innocents of my kingdom, I shall send the sky griffins after you!" In the echoes of his enragement, he clearly forgot who he was speaking to. In those empty threats, new ones would be fulfilled in its place. His brashness would go unforgotten.
The Fire Phoenix's eyes narrowed slightly. Her dark eyes full of promises she vowed to deliver. Ruefully, she destroyed the wind shackles and flew away. Hate boiling in her heart, she would soon marvel at the destruction of the Sky kingdom. For she would bow to no one no more.
Ten years later, the Fire came. No haven was spared. The Fire Phoenix showed no mercy. No part of the Sky kingdom survived. What was once known is lost.
After the Fire:
Memories. Dreams. Even in my waking consciousness. They are everywhere. They come in flashbacks, in echoes, in lost shards of the child I was once. Once. Once upon a time, once in a lifetime. Never again will I see the place I once called home. My home is gone, burned away by the wrath of the Fire Phoenix, the legends who reign over us mortals. It’s been months since the Fire, but it seems as though it was just the night before when I was awoken by my older sister Cygna urging me to flee. I remember it all so vividly, leaving the only safe haven I had ever known and entering unknown terrain. Deathly fearful, we journeyed to the neutral lands with nothing but each other and the clothes on our back. And yet, we both were children, but we were survivors. Alas, we found shelter in a nameless village forged by travelers. And yet, I can never call this place my home.
I wake to ash in my mouth. Gasping, I attempt to steady my breath. When I finally manage to do so, I get up. These dreams. Swiftly claiming me in my slumber, encasing me in it’s dark cocoon. Each morning I vow not to fall in its clutches, and each night, I fail to do so. Turning slightly, I notice the light seeping from the crevice of the door. Silently, I follow the light, and find Cygna in the kitchen, staring out the window, looking to the North Star, where the remnants of home beckons. Secretly, I know the nightmares haunt her too, more so than myself. So I settle down next to her, content for the stillness, craving her nearness.
Warily, Cygna sighs, “Some days I wake up thinking it’s just another day in the Sky Kingdom, and I need to remind myself those days are lost. I feel as though to blame the Fire Phoenix for the destruction, but all I feel is emptiness, not rage.” Cygna stands up, plastering a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, mainly for my benefit. I have no reply, no answer, no comforting words but the piece of truth I could offer.
“I just want to go home,” I whisper. Vulnerable words, naïve even, but true. Cygna nods, and I know she has the same desire as I. She stretches momentarily, and then grabs her coat and shoes as if she were going outside.
We trek through the forests, hills, under the starry skylights. The path. It is a familiar one, as nothing but muscle memory and the North Star to guide us. The destination draws us closer, and I now understand where Cygna is leading me to. Solemnly, we tread. Each print embossing unclaimed grief upon the ground. We do not speak for our thoughts consume us. I dread to uncover the remains of the Sky Kingdom. It is true I yearn to return home, but a part of me fears I will no longer recognize it.
We stand on a cliff. The edge, the unspoken barrier, the rift between then and now. Daringly, I peek, and I soon turn away. Nothing. I see nothing but rubble, and ash, scorched upon a flat plain. I see nothing of the childhood I built in these lands. I see nothing of the joyous kingdom I call home. Home. A pathetic dream. Lost. Home is gone. I have no home, no haven, no vail to pledge. I am a soldier without anything to fight for. I am lost.
Surprisingly, the dread for disappointment, the sorrow in my heart ceases. Even hope has left me to my own devices. The truth is always the most brutal, the most damaging, the most undeniable. Bluntly, I lie over the edge of the cliff, my legs dangling over it tauntingly, mourning the lost.
"Nothing lasts forever, does it? Not even greatness," I frown darkly. My voice wavers slightly. Cygna stays silent. She continues to stare at the ruins of what was once the Sky Phoenix's Palace. What was once a place of cherished pride, what was once indestructible no more. Crafted precisely by pounds of marble and sapphire weighted on the backs of human labor, only to be destroyed into scattered ashes in the air. A faraway look clouds her eyes, reminiscing the life where days weren't numbered, the life where skies were limitless, the life where we searched for the utopia that was before us all this time. Children, fools, we were when we believed the light was elsewhere as we stood in the center of it. Now, I fear we can never return, for that light has been snuffed out and we are left to forge our own. Cygna turns towards me, her eyes unfocused. She sounds as though she has aged a thousand years when she speaks.
"Some things last. Perhaps not physically, but they do." I furrow my brow as I stare out to the ruins. I see nothing but scorned fragments of lost life. I see nothing but a land overrun by hate and destruction. I see nothing of the past empire I once claimed home. I merely shake my head. Wistfully, Cygna closes her eyes and turns towards the distance. Serene against age, tranquil against the screaming horrors that surround us, she appears as the last ray of hope steadily illuminating back the life drained out.
"Remember the Veritas Harvest Festival?" She inquires simply. I nod. It was that particular harvest where we crafted our first phoenix kite together to fly at the festival. "I can still smell the scent of baked goods, feel the first chill of season, hear the crisp laughter in the air, and see you, gazing at our kite, your eyes luminous in wonder. In that moment, I truly understood why one would dedicate themselves to long hours of crafting in order to just see that one miraculous spark of joy. Terra, the palace may not last, nor the villages, but listen. Just listen. Only the things that matter last. They exist in another form, in another place. Perhaps it exists in another world, perhaps in stories and legends, or perhaps..." Cygna breaks off. She turns toward me and clasps my hand firmly, forcing me to make eye contact with her. I squirm under her assessing gaze. Gently, she murmurs softly, "perhaps it merely exists in our hearts."
I want to shake my head. I want to tell her it's naive. I want to will the world to be as simple as she says. I want to nod. I want to understand. I do none of these.
“Terra, this is our home. One day, eons later, the Sky Phoenix will rise again. Reborn from the ashes, beginning anew. The Sky Kingdom will revive, a new day will come, and when it does, and when that light shines through, it will lead us back home. Home. Here.” Cygna declares, her voice growing stronger. The burning passion she radiates gives no heed to my wary doubts. I am no pessimist, nor an optimist, but I do not dare to let my hopes up. I want to believe her, I truly do. With all my heart, I do. I sigh. Only if I could fool my mind if not my heart. Unconvincingly, I nod.
Eventually, Cygna begins to head down to scavenge the endless pile of what is left from the aftermath. I remain staring. The sun peeks out from the mountains as the crack of dawn opens. The beam of light casts a glow upon the scarred land. For the first time, I am unsure of how to feel. Cygna believes in rebuilding, but how? How can we go back to the way things were before when so much hatred has scorned our land? How can one put their faith in mere stories and wishes? And I then acknowledge I am scared. Terrified of believing only to be let down. But some days, we must seize what is in front of us and not dwell on the past. Carpe diem. Carpe notem. The ache. The ache of my home lies in the past, and I may never call another place the same, never see it rise again, never live in it but in my nightmares. And in some way, that’s okay. As long as I hold it close to me, it does exist. Our legends, our stories, our songs, only kept alive by the voices of hope. My home, the Sky Kingdom, kept alive as a part of me, it is my pride, my past. Eternally residing within me, something the Fire Phoenix cannot conquer.
Rising, I hurry down to help Cygna sort through the ash. Remnants of stories, a bittersweet memory. I look out farther, thinking of the nonexistent meadows Cygna and I used to play in. And I see. Not rubble or ash, but the magnificence of the Sky Kingdom, the way it is in my childhood memories. And I see a child, a young girl playing with her older sister. She does not notice me, nor does her sister. They are too ensnared in the fantasies of a make believe game. I smile. Innocent joy radiates from her, the happiness only a child can create. She has the same coppery hair and dark eyes as me. For she is me. Me, in flashbacks and echoes.
Epilogue: Many Eons Later
When he rose from the ashes after rebirth, all he remembered was the mortal child's words so long ago. The Sky Phoenix knew he had been a fool to play with fire. His people had suffered, and his kingdom was burned to the ground. He knew he could simply abandon his lands, but the mortal child’s hope softened him. He could not. Shedding a single tear for his people, he vowed to rebuild the kingdom. Yet, from the single shed tear, a sprout appeared. A symbol. A sign. Rejuvenation of the once prosperous dreams. And so, the wounds of the scarred land began to mend. Day by day, working miracles against its shadowy past. And when it was whole once more, a light shone, a path, leading the lost children of the Sky Kingdom home.