There is no one who can see all the way down to the foot of the mountain of Skyland, except for me. No other creature has my sight; none could perch on the highest branch of the tallest tree in Fayvale and see every detail they wished to focus on, far down below in the Red Hills. I, on the other hand, could count all the grains of red sand in the vast desert if wished to.
In fact, I did that once. It was a very dull year, and none of the creatures down there offered much entertainment, so I ignored them. Even the fairies up here in Fayvale did not seem worth my time that year. The fairies – thought so wondrous and precious by all outside of Skyland – became a bore to me centuries ago.
They live merrily and peacefully with their flowers, spreading their magic, creating colour and dreams and miracles in all worlds, and yet to me they may as well be moss growing slowly over old rocks. Eternity has a tendency to turn most beautiful things dull and drab. But that is a burden I had to accept long ago.
There always has to be one of us, and I have not yet felt ready to give myself to the flames and allow another to take my place. It has been tempting through the years, and yet I still remain here on my branch, only occasionally taking flight just to feel the wind stroke across my bright feathers. It makes me feel centuries younger, those playful strands of wind.
And the there is her, of course. My only visitor, the only living thing that is still able to stir up emotion underneath these old, faded feathers. Likely because she is part of the only thing that still makes me feel connected to this tiresome world – the wind.
She is as playful, as free and as unrestricted as the air that carries me when I fly across the world of Hurst. She doesn’t belong up here, of course. Her kind hides safely away in the peaceful territory of Tirithiell, but this one… she has a wildness inside of her that cannot keep her from flying through the wind she is made from.
That is the way of the Aurai. Those breeze nymphs never could stay out of the air for long, even in ancient times when they lived on earth and there were hundreds of them. My lovely, free-spirited friend is the last one of them now. I suppose that is why she visits me so frequently. We are both the last of our kind. We both have so little to cling to. We know what true loneliness feels like.
She visited me that day. In my long memory, too few of them can be considered significant and meaningful, but this one was, and of course she happened to be there beside me, like she knew.
“Still alive, you old crow?” she asked me in the playful tone she always carried with her, as light as her frail body as she flew through the air, at one with the cold breeze.
“There is a fascinating interaction taking place down in Redmerrow,” I replied. “I cannot very well go and die until it is resolved.”
Her childlike laugh at my reply contradicted the volatile scene I was observing far away in the eastern territory of the Red Hills. My friend settled on the thick branch below mine and stared into the distance, seeing nothing but red sand and dots of trees, rocks and moving creatures. She did not see the details as I could, and it irked her not to know.
“What are you spying on today?” she asked; her voice like singing water as it trickled down a brook.
“A brewing fight that will have a very unpleasant end,” I replied solemnly. “A werewolf has been exiled from his flock, and has strayed far from home.”
I had watched his journey all the way from Merrowmeadow. It had been a perilous one, but the lone and weakened wolf had proven to be clever and strong, and made it past all obstacles fate had placed before him. He was a fighter, this wolf.
I feared he would not be as lucky this time, though.
“Who is he facing in this fight you’re watching?” she asked. She had the curiosity of a baby bird, despite her years.
“A red dragon,” I said, and was not surprised to hear the breath catch in her chest. “He is closing in on her cave. She is protecting her eggs and will not show him mercy.”
“The wolf is challenging this dragon?” My friend seemed shocked by the idea, and rightly so. “Doesn’t he know that a red dragon will stop at nothing to defend her territory and her young?”
“I suspect he knows it as well as you and I.”
She looked up at me through the branches, and I knew her expression well enough. The same puzzlement she showed each time I reached a conclusion before her. The small pucker between her eyebrows as she sunk deep in thought, trying to catch up with me as always. She was considered so old by others, but compared to me, she was still a child. Another reason she enjoyed my company, I imagined.
Sadness replaced her confusion soon enough. “You believe the wolf is challenging the dragon in hopes she will beat him.” Life is so precious to nymphs. She was much more horrified by the thought than I was. I had seen this type of pain too frequently, and felt it often enough myself through the years.
How easy wouldn’t it seem, when all appeared hopeless, to walk into the path of something that could remove you from existence in moments? The blame would be theirs, not yours, for tearing you apart and taking your life. At least that was one way to rationalize it.
I suppose I could have intervened. Most creatures would retreat or freeze at the sight of me, rare as I was. One swoop across their would-be battlefield, one look at my fiery red wings, and the dragon would return to her young, and the wolf would continue to wander, perhaps in search of another solution to his loneliness, or perhaps towards a place he could find a new sense of purpose.
I felt the eyes of my friend boring into me, and I knew that was exactly what she wanted me to do. I sensed her wondering why I had not spread my wings already. There was a time when I probably would have done as she expected without hesitation. Was it not the right thing to do?
But now I remained on my branch and watched. A question was repeating itself in my mind, and I could not seem to turn away from it.
There was something about the determination in the eyes of the wolf, in his obvious strength and willpower that had allowed him to travel this far unharmed, and yet he was walking in a straight line toward a certain death.
For the first time in a long time, I felt curiosity, and a strange kind of disappointment.
Would the wolf truly allow the red dragon to take his life as he clearly intended, or would he fight back after all? There was no doubt this wolf was a warrior. Could he truly let himself be bested without putting up a fight?
The creatures were still circling each other on the red sand. Once the fight broke out, would he give in? Or would he fight back as his nature demanded, and see reason and run?
This question kept me still on my perch.
“You won’t save him, will you?” my friend asked, seeing through me as always.
I looked down at the frail-looking nymph; her beauty disguised the power and strength that pulsed beneath her pale skin. She did not look disappointed or surprised at my decision, merely sad, as all of her kind would be at the thought of death.
“I want to witness the wolf save himself,” I confessed. “I want to see if an animal of strength can be so conquered by weakness and despair that he allows himself to be destroyed, or if he can once again will find the power inside of him and overcome whatever shadows drove him here.”
“And if he cannot find the strength to go on? Will you let him die at the mercy of the red dragon?”
“I may be ancient, dear girl, but it is not my duty to decide who lives and who dies. I cannot intervene in every fight in the Red Hills, or I would never have a moment of rest.”
“You’re exhausted of rest,” my friend countered. “How many years have I watched you sitting here, doing nothing but watch and ponder to yourself, and sometimes to me?”
She tilted her head as she looked up at me, and for a moment her age was revealed in the wisdom that glinted in her bright eyes.
“I suspect you’re jealous of the lone wolf, aren’t you old friend?” there was a challenge in her voice, daring me to contradict her. “He still has a choice; he can fight or he can die, he can give up or recapture his strength and will to go on, while you… Your only choice is to perish and give way to knew life, or to remain here and watch for the rest of time, with nothing to fight against. You want that lost wolf to fight back and regain his strength because you cannot.”
I looked down at the girl below me, and she did not cower under my dark gaze, did not flinch or show any sign of fear. She was a brave one, to speak in this way to the oldest creature alive, and one of the most powerful.
Of course, she had nothing to fear from me. Especially since she was right.
The wolf and dragon still circled each other, but it did not take long before the wolf sprang at the dragon, his sharp teeth aimed directly at her long throat.
Red dragons are the strongest creatures of Hurst. Even other dragons fear them. Red dragons are pure instinct, all strength. A green dragon you might be able to reason with it, appeal to its intellect. A blue dragon you could outsmart it if you were lucky and knew what you were doing. But a red dragon… When faced with that fury, there was only one option; run, and hope to find a place to hide until she decided you were no longer worth the trouble.
The wolf was not running. He clung to the scales of her neck with his sharp teeth. Her lethal fire might not reach him there, but he was still fighting a losing battle. I kept staring, transfixed, willing the wolf to let go and run, to save himself. He had shown bravery; the red dragon would admire that. She might not even attempt pursuit out of respect.
“He is not letting go,” I told my friend, and without looking I could sense the tears that fell down her cheek. “He will not give up the fight.”
“Then he will die,” she said, and wept silently for the wolf she had never met.
“He will,” I agreed. There was a stirring in my chest that I had not felt in years. I admired the wolf, choosing to die fighting, a true werewolf to the very end, even after his flock had turned against him.
He was willing to perish to stay true to who he was. If that was not worthy of admiration, then nothing was. The wolf might have given up on life, but he had not given up on himself. Yet his bravery would have been stronger still, if he remained alive and fought to overcome whatever pain there was inside of him.
Jealousy pierced my chest. I, an ancient being, could not even allow myself to burst into flames and fade to ashes to let another generation take over my legacy.
Why was it, I wondered, that I had held on for so long? My young friend was right. I had nothing to fight against. Surely I was not afraid to die. Death would be welcoming after so many years of sitting on a branch and staring at the world. The part of my life where I had been brave, strong and wise, and assisted heroes in their quests was long since past, and there were no duties for me to fill anymore. There were no battles left for me to conquer.
I watched as the dragon’s mighty tail rammed into the wolf and sent him crashing into a faraway rock as though he was nothing but a bothersome flee on her scales. My friend and I stared at the motionless wolf, holding our breath. I saw him stir. It was not much, but he was alive. Would he stand up and go in for a second attack?
If he did, he was truly giving up. He had put up a valiant fight. If he lived through the injuries of his crash and walked away, he would spend the rest of his days as the wolf who faced a red dragon and lived. Or he would die.
I thought about those options for a moment, as the wolf tried to get to his feet. Life or death. For this wolf, there would be a difference between the two.
For an old phoenix, decades past his prime, was there a difference at all anymore?
I looked back down at my friend. She was no longer paying attention to the battle far away. Her glittering eyes were searching mine, as if she already knew.
“You know,” I told her calmly. “I do not think I wish to know how this battle ends.”
She smiled sadly up at me, and reached up a hand to stroke my fiery feathers. “I understand, old friend,” she told me. “You can trust that I will tell the next one your story, and I will make sure to include the ending.”
“Thank you, sweet girl,” I said fondly to the nymph on the branch.
I closed my eyes, and sang loudly as my body went up in flames.