This is the final story that I wrote for my short story class a few years ago. I have made some edits since then, and I might have plans for this universe in the future.
Mark of the Phoenix
by Clinton Nix
A globe of light emanated from the lantern Ifanco held as he stepped carefully over the rocks. The cavern was dank and full of bats, but he encountered no hostility during his descent into the dark. For what seemed like days, he had searched blindly through the last known entrance to Great Below, a series of cavernous veins that coursed underneath Benu mountain. They were largely abandoned, but several centuries ago, stories of lost treasure and mysterious creatures captivated the interest of explorers. For some unknown reason, many of the entrances had been sealed off since that time. Ifanco caught wind of the last few that remained, but upon discovery, none of the paths led further than a couple hundred feet, until now.
Ifanco’s heart thumped as each step brought him deeper into the cave. Supplies were low, but he wouldn’t dare turn around. There was no going back, he thought, and he kept pushing onward even as his eyesight blurred, his stomach clenched, and his muscles quivered. Ifanco wore a pendant that bounced against his chest as he walked, and the giant ruby inside glowed ominously, giving light to the surrounding passage.
Ifanco set the lantern down briefly to catch his breath, fondling the pendant nervously while his gaze wandered off into the darkness. His mind drifted and tumbled over the rocks, deep into the wilderness of infinite crevices that surrounded him. Images of golden shining headdresses filled his mind, and the twinkling of curved armlets that cuffed thousands of dancing arms. A sea of faces swarmed around him, laughing and looking, glowing, waiting in need. A vision of a grand hall of windows and banisters, draped with intricately designed tapestries, swirled upon the rocks in the cave, and Ifanco twisted and blinked tightly to banish them from existence. His eyes hollowed out when the images receded into the blackness. His consciousness faded—waiting to be surrendered forever to the blanket of darkness—when his eyes tripped on a sliver of light that glinted between rocks in the distance. With rekindled energy, he grabbed the lantern and stepped toward the light.
He put his eyes up to the crack but it was too small to see through. The light would emanate in tiny bursts, illuminating the tiny brown craters in his eyes, which pulsed and hollowed in the same pattern. He was still, like a statue, gazing at the flickering hue, entranced by its rhythm. A clump of greasy hair fell gently against his face, irritating his gaze and provoking consciousness back into his eyes. His stance broke into a quick jolt as he reached out for his leather bag and pulled out a small pickaxe.
The crags gave way upon impact, but the strenuous effort took a toll on Ifanco’s weakened body. He took long breaths that widened between each swing, until finally, a hole was made just big enough to fit through. The light seemed to disappear, and Ifanco stared into the darkened spot and wondered if he was hallucinating.
He crawled through the hole and stumbled out into another expanse of darkness. He pulled the lantern through the hole and the flickering light cast itself about the room. It only took a moment for Ifanco to realize that he was certainly not in a cave anymore.
He stood upon complexly woven patterns carved into the floor, which had an interlocking series of stones laid down with a precision that would call upon a master of architecture. The finely detailed patterns contained large circles and shapes that looked like teardrops. Ifanco scanned the lantern over the floor and a peculiar image took shape in the light. It was of two birds inside of a giant circle, and they were flying in opposing directions; one bird was moving upward with a sun behind it, and the other facing in reverse, and donning a moon instead. As to the significance, he couldn’t decipher, but the symbol was a sign that he was close.
Finally, I have reached the place that I’ve so desperately been searching for.
It seemed like days had passed as Ifanco sat in the hall with the patterns, pacing erratically and meticulously inspecting every facet of detail. He hadn’t eaten for a great length of time, but hunger was only a trifle to him now. It was impossible to tell time, and it very well could have been a few hours as much as a few days. Time seemed to exist without a shadow or direction in that room; it was a static bubble that could be penetrated but never moved. Ifanco’s only method of time was the hair on his face, which was far past a clean shave and became incredibly dark and curly. He would sit for hours, pondering. During that time, the very reason he was there seemed to slip from his grasp. Everything seemed to disappear in the darkness of that room. It was only when Ifanco stared into a small pool of stagnant water that he finally remembered.
A silhouette appeared behind his reflection; it was a spectral shape with small, grey tentacle-like appendages that waved and morphed around the edges. Ifanco stared deeply, and more details slowly emerged in the shape. The tentacles turned an ashen hue and two blue circles glowed in the center. Figures began to rise in the murky image; the glowing orbs became eyes, and then a nose and lips formed below them, and the tentacles became hair, waving loosely in the wind. A fire raged in Ifanco’s chest when he grasped it: it is Rosa, my dear, lovely Rosa. What has become of you? I can hardly remember your face…
Ifanco’s eyes radiated with a ravenous flame that mimicked the one in his heart, and at that moment a light ignited in the center of the room. Darkness gave way to brilliant light as a glowing orb pulsated with the same rhythm of a heartbeat. The orb expanded and rays of light twisted and reflected off of the walls. A new shape was birthed from the orb, of which protruded a massive appendage from one side that spanned nearly the size of the room. It was a giant wing. Ifanco could not make out much else other than an outline of the illusive shape. His eyes were temporarily blinded by the intense light, and vision did not return until the figure had taken complete form before him.
It was a massive red-and-yellow-feathered bird that burned with an invisible fire. It had no eyes on its head, but a large, hooked beak curved out from its face. Its one wing had large, shiny feathers with yellow tips on the end, and they were much too long for the room and dragged on the dusty floor. The illustrious creature cocked its head and took a gargantuan leap toward a broken column and perched upon it, plumes of dust spilling in its wake.
As the bird’s form seeped into Ifanco’s vision, his questioning mind dissolved into an incredible sense of awe. The magnificent creature stood before him in all of its beauty, yet Ifanco could not help but sense an unfathomable ocean of pain and sorrow: the bird was a heavenly being forever tainted from true perfection by the horrendous jagged stump that remained of the right wing. It would always be marked by that ugly fate, and yet, it shone before him with a glorious radiance. Ifanco could barely come to his senses when the bird began to speak to him.
“Why does one approach this forgotten place?”
The words rang as if in Ifanco’s mind, because the beak did not move. Despite the unbelievable figure before him, Ifanco held himself unflinchingly.
“I came for your power. Legend says you possess the gift of bringing the dead back to life.”
The giant bird flapped its wing with a brutish intensity that crackled the air.
“There exists no desire to share it with another.”
Ifanco took that as a sign to be steadfast, and tightened his mental bow as far back as it could be pulled. He boldly stood up and took one step toward the bird, and the image held in his mind became an immovable stone which he clung to.
“I will do whatever it takes. Please impart your gift to me.”
The bird spread its wing and flapped once more, with a force that would surely break Ifanco’s bones into tiny fragments.
“Perhaps there can be an arrangement. A sacrifice must be made.”
“A sacrifice?” Ifanco’s eyes widened upon hearing that word.
“Your highest held possession. Only when that attainable fruit is lost in time forever, will this gift be imparted to you.”
The words shook Ifanco’s mind into a turbid state. He thought of the many things he once cherished in his life. He thought of the country and the countrymen, of his family, and of Rosa. After a long moment of silence, Ifanco gripped the emblem hanging from his chest and ripped it off. He stepped forward and placed it down on the ground below the column that the bird perched from.
“I offer you Bennupoli—my kingdom— in return for the gift.”
The bird shifted on the column, stretching its clawed feet and then returned to statuesque posture.
“Your offer is accepted.”
The golden bird cocked its head to the side, and stretched out its right foot and dangled it as if he were pointing towards Ifanco.
“Your kingdom will forever slip from your grasp upon return.”
A pang of regret seared inside Ifanco’s skin as he realized what he had just thrown away. The bird raised wing and puffed its golden chest in glorious form.
“Remember this: the giver of fruit shall forever eat it.”
As those words echoed through Ifanco’s mind, the bird draped the sun-tipped feathers around its body and disappeared with a wisp of light, and the room fell to darkness. A thought rippled in Ifanco’s mind that came not from him, but somewhere else: Just raise your right hand and the strength of will shall give life to the lifeless.
Ifanco staggered through the moonlit meadow outside of Bennupoli with a long, narrow bundle hanging over his shoulder. He parted through the knee-high grass and stopped when he reached a large willow tree that draped over a clearing. He kneeled, laying down the bundle with the grace of a mother carrying a newborn. The unwrapped layers revealed a rotted, indiscernible lump of mass, the stench of which caused Ifanco to gag. He gently grabbed two protruding parts that looked like limbs, and crossed them over the center with his dirt-stained hands. He stood back, closed his eyes, and raised his right hand palm outward until it was level with his face.
An emblem flashed on the top of his hand, revealing the black shape of a bird with one wing spread out, and the other missing.
Come back to me…
Ifanco fell into a somber gaze, entranced by the symbol, as he grasped the reality of where he was. His heart ceased to beat, and a thick blackness devoured his eyes. The air had become frozen, the leaves on the willow tree stopped rustling, and the meadow fell into a silent vacuum of emptiness. A faint gurgle echoed in front of him and pierced through the empty air. Ifanco witnessed the extraordinary happening and reveled in the sight of the image that was before him. It was like looking at a dried rose, stiff and poised: an image of beauty, but devoid of the moisture that made it fluid and supple. The disgusting corpse had transformed into the curved, beauteous shape of a human being. The body lied there with grace and elegance, and the arms were crossed over the chest. Rays of light fell upon the face through the leaves of the willow tree, framing the elegant features that carried exact likeness with Rosa’s. The eyes were closed, but the lids were soft and round; the nose was small and pointed, and covered in delicate freckles; strands of black hair coursed along smooth cheekbones. Ifanco engulfed himself in the sight, painting every detail of Rosa’s figure in his mind that was illuminated in the night, but his heart was curiously silent as he stood before the body.
Before Ifanco could approach it, the figure hoisted itself up suddenly, like a lump, and a hideous moan bellowed from inside of it that repulsed his eyes and forced his gaze downward. The beautiful Rosa began to slither and flop, as if it didn’t know how to use its legs, and ambled itself away from Ifanco. His heart ached with a dull pain as he watched the haunting creature snake in the direction of a stray carcass of a crow lying in the grass. The crow’s wings were spread out stiff as she picked it up, and it maintained a rigid, frozen posture of flight, as if it had plummeted from the air inexplicably. Ifanco moved closer to her as she feasted on the feathered body, devouring it with an unquenchable, ravenous passion. He watched as the bird crunched and gurgled in her mouth, and her silver-eyed gaze faded and pulsed, shifting and dissolving into a glowing, pale blue hue. Ifanco stepped closer.
What is this?
The creature flopped over and gurgled as it curiously felt the ground around it.
This isn’t Rosa..!
Ifanco pulled out a knife from the side of his belt, which was resting in a flap around his hip. His eyes flashed with an impassioned craze, and he ran towards the creature holding the knife with a tense grip that would crush boulders. He brought the knife within inches of the creature’s neck when it gurgled sounds that formed a complete word.