Even beauty can become tedious after a thousand years. I perch on the tallest branch of the tallest tree in Fayvale, the city resting on the very top of Skyland, and I look out onto the world of Hurst. No one else would be able to sit here and see every detail far below in the Red Hills. Few could even peer through the layer of clouds on a day like this. I, on the other hand, could count all the red grains of sand in the desert if I wished. In fact, I did that once. It was a very dull year, and none of the creatures down there offered much in the way of entertainment.
Today I am not counting grains, but watching a werewolf journeying across the sand while trying to ignore the sounds of fairies in the village, preparing for yet another feast. They do love to celebrate. Every occasion requires a meal and dancing. There was a time when I took part in their revels, but even creatures as full of wonder and joy as the fairies became boring to me years ago. The werewolf seems promising, though.
I am not a particularly optimistic sort of fellow, I will admit. Once upon a time, I took joy in every part of life. I watched the lives lived down in the Red Hills and rejoiced at any opportunity to join them, to assist some poor soul in their quest for greatness or their battle against darkness. I used to marvel at the beauty of everything before me. But eternity has a tendency to turn even the most beautiful things into something dull and drab. That is a burden I accepted long ago.
“You’re looking particularly grumpy today.” The voice of my dearest friend floats by me on the wind until she takes human form, sitting on a branch. She looks up at me with a glint in her eye and a smile that never entirely fades. “Did the fairies try to steal one of your feathers again? I hear the ambrosia has already been flowing for hours.”
“Drunk fairies,” I say with disdain. “As though they are not perfectly chipper and infuriating enough when they are sober.”
“Your own fault for choosing to reside in their domain as their protector,” she points out. She waves her fingers through the air and for a moment the flesh of her fingers fades into a gust of wind before re-materializing. Nymphs can never seem to stop playing with their element long enough to finish a conversation.
“Is there any particular reason why you are here?” I ask with less patience than polite conversation calls for. I have learned patience by now, but with her I know it is not needed. My abrupt nature is part of why she keeps visiting me – and she is the only one who still does, because she finds a freedom in my company that she does not have elsewhere. “I was having a lovely time contemplating how very boring my view has become.”
“Then why are you still here?” She asks, and I know she is not talking about Fayvale.
She has a point. There always has to be one of us in existence, one phoenix in the entire world, and we may choose at any point to catch fire and let new life be born of our ashes. A thousand years and I have not yet allowed another to take my place.
“What would you do with yourself if you could not use these visits as an excuse to get away from court?” I ask. “You might actually be required to work for a living. I am sure your Queen would appreciate that.”
“Hush and don’t change the subject,” she chides me. “I’m serious. Every year you grow more tired of living in this world, and every year you stay. I’m not generally one to encourage my friends to die, but you are miserable here.”
“You are right,” I admit. “And yet this is none of your business.”
That is a lie. A phoenix does not often lie, it is not in our nature, but a thousand years allows for loop holes. It is entirely her business that I am still alive, as it is entirely her fault. Hers and the fairies and the creatures down in the Red Hills who have counted on my help in times of need, on my protection in times of crisis. The temptation to let go of it all has been strong for a long time, but they always stop me. Even now as my friend encourages me to be selfish and allow myself a final rest – as she has time and time before – I can hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes that she does not wish me to leave. They are just words to her. She does not mean them.
“Besides,” I say, because I can see she still plans to argue with me, “there is finally a fascinating interaction taking place down in Redmerrow that I have been waiting for. I cannot very well go and die until it is resolved.”
“Who are you spying on now?” She allows the distraction, as her curiosity is not easily overcome. “What can you see down there?”
“A werewolf is approaching the den of a red dragon,” I tell her. “She is protecting her eggs and it seems he is eager for a fight.”
“He’ll get one and he’ll die!” she exclaims. “Has he gone mad? Challenging a red dragon is lethal enough on its own when it isn’t a mother protecting her young.”
“I believe he knows that as well as you. He has been moving towards her territory with great determination, for several days now. I have been curious about what might happen once he reaches her, and he is getting very close.”
“Aren’t you going to do something?” she asks. “Fly down, distract them! One glimpse of your fiery red feathers soaring through the sky and the dragon will return to her den and the wolf may live another day.”
“It is not my duty to decide who lives and who dies, dear. I might have been known to get involved in the past, but if I intervened in every fight in the Red Hills, I would never have a moment of rest.”
“You’re exhausted of rest,” my friend counters, trying to keep her frustration buried but failing utterly. “How many years have I watched you sitting here, doing little but watch and ponder to yourself, and sometimes to me? You help when needed, though rarely these days, and you protect the fairies from unwelcome intruders and listen to me when I am annoyed at the other nymphs back home. But otherwise, you just sit here and feel the wind in your feathers. Even now you have an excuse to fly off and intervene in this fight, I can see that you aren’t going to. Why?”
“The wolf is confronting the red dragon because he wishes for her to kill him,” I reply. “Several weeks ago I watched his pack murdered, and he the lone survivor. The wolf wants to die, but is unable to do the deed himself. It would be cruel of me to interfere.”
“Oh.” I feel the eyes of my friend bore into me from where she rests on her branch. She is not as old as I, but she is old enough to see through my words. “I see you were not changing the subject after all. You’re jealous of this wolf, aren’t you? That’s why you would rather watch than intervene.”
“I am an ancient and powerful being,” I remind her. “I do not feel something so petty as jealousy.”
“Unicorn crap.” She stands up on her branch, the wind keeping her perfectly balanced as she looks at me head-on. “You’re jealous! This wolf wants to die and he’s making it happen. You want to die and all you can do is sit here and watch! But you don’t need to anger a red dragon to get the peace you desire. All you need to do is will it and your feathers will do the rest.”
“It is not that simple.” I allow my voice to echo through the trees, loud and strong with all my years of life behind it, as I stare into her grey eyes. “The werewolf has lost his pack, he has nothing and no one who depends on him or wishes him to live. When he is dead, no one is losing him. No one is left to grieve him. He does not have to depart this world with the burden of everything he is leaving behind!”
“Is that what has kept you here so long?” She gapes, and I believe it is the first time in our long friendship that I have seen her surprised. “You are here for us? For the ones who don’t want to lose you? Those who would be angry or saddened by your death?”
“Of course that is why I am still here.” No point denying it now. “I do not fear death. It would be welcoming after all this living. The days where I was required to be brave, strong and wise, to assist heroes in their quests and save lives in doing so have long since past. There are no duties left for me to fill, no battles to conquer. That is all for my successor to do now. But the phoenix who will rise from my ashes will not be me. It will be a stranger to the fairies I have protected for so long, a stranger to you, my only true friend.”
“And I would mourn you,” she says, reaching up her hand as if to touch my feathers but even after all this time she is too in awe of them to do so. “You have been my dearest friend for most of my life. I don’t want to lose you. But you can’t just keep living because others want you to. You can’t stay alive purely for the sake of others. It is too much for any of us to ask of you.”
I look away from her, down into the desert where the wolf and the red dragon have now engaged one another. The wolf has sunk his sharp teeth into her neck, clinging to her as she tries to tear him off. Her fire is flying around them, but he is not letting go. If he let go now, the red dragon might let him retreat. He has show courage in their fight, and a red dragon might admire that once he admits defeat. Though he does not seem to want that.
“You have told me for a long time that I should finally allow myself to die,” I tell her. “No one has asked me to stay. Even the fairies realize I am long past my prime. I do not wish to stay alive, and none of my friends would truly begrudge my departure. Yet I am still frightened.”
“Frightened?” my friend asks gently. “In all our years of friendship, you have never used that word with me.”
“In all my years of life, I have never known the feeling. I am not afraid of death, but the only thing I have never done before in my life is turn my back on those who need me, those I care for. I am uneasy, knowing that my final act in this life will be doing exactly that.”
She is silent for a long while before finally speaking. “I understand. And you’re not wrong. All those who have grown to respect and love you will mourn you. That will be true no matter how long you stay with us. But we would forgive you once you were gone. Your memory would become a part of us, a part we would cherish. I know that you will never be truly gone from my life, even when another phoenix takes your place. What I can’t stand is the knowledge that you are only prolonging your suffering because of me.”
In a thousand years, you learn when to be stubborn and when to listen to the words of your friends. I hear her, hear every word and the feeling behind them. She does not want her friend to die, but she is willing to put my desires in front of hers, as I have done for her for many years now. I suppose that is true friendship.
The red dragon has rammed her mighty tail into the wolf and sent him crashing into a rock like he was nothing but some bothersome flee on her scales. He still stirs; he is not gone yet. Will he remain down and accept defeat without getting what he wants, or will he stand up and attack once again, demanding the death he came here in search for? Right now, he could either live or die. The choice was his.
I look at my friend, whose eyes are no longer angry, but merely looking at me with pain and love. I know she sees the same in my eyes.
“You know,” I tell her calmly, “I do not think I wish to know how the wolf’s battle ends. This one story, I would like to remain a mystery.”
She smiles sadly, and this time when she reaches out her hand, she does not pull back. Her fingers, light as air, brush across my feathers like a welcoming breeze. “I will miss you, old friend,” she says fondly. “But I will be alright. You have nothing to feel guilty about, because you will leave me with nothing but fond memories.”
“Thank you.” I bow my head in gratitude. I feel lighter than I have in years, knowing I can finally take what I desire without my loved ones holding it against me. That is all I ever wanted to know. “Perhaps we shall see each other again in another life, my dearest friend.”
I close my eyes and sing as my body bursts into glorious flame.