My hands gripped the ornate wooden box, golden inlay spelling out the name ‘Jaelyn Firebrand’ across the lid. Sneering, I chunked the box across the room. It missed the bird-like being standing next to my window and smashed into the white-washed stone wall beside him, shattering into a thousand pieces.
The Arraco hoped away on his scaly gray legs, the shimmering orange feathers on his head flattening down smooth. The loose fitting, sleeveless silk robes of yellow and blue he wore mimicked his fluid movements.
“GET OUT!” I screamed out the top of my lungs, flicking the scroll also addressed to me at the Arraco’s feet.
From the remains of the box climbed a black and red spotted scoro lizard. Dazed, it flicked its poisoned tipped tail about, stinging the scraps of wood around it. It spun around a few times, bounced off the wall, and then drunkenly made its way under my dresser.
“But-but Phoenix-!” The Arraco stuttered in a high pitched voice, using my epithet. He reached down with a winged arm and snatched up the scroll.
I wouldn’t let him get in another word. With a primal scream, I reached out the nearest weapon, of which many hung or stood around the room. To my joy, my hand closed around the shaft of a spear, from it hanging my colors of red and yellow ribbons. Pointing the tip toward him, I feigned a charge.
Had the Arraco been a human, I think he would have turned a distinctive shade of white right then. Instead, all the feathers on his body went flat and his pupils dilated to the size of pin holes. Talons scraped across the ground as he planted himself in a defensive position. He clutched the scroll between his three-fingered hands as if to use as a weapon.
Instead of skewering him, I continued to yell as I waved the tip of the spear at his face. “The Duke agreed! Assassination attempts only on Luckday!”
The Arraco held up the scroll in front of his face, his eyes closed tight.
I knew the poor Arraco, Erran Ool, and he had come to my window every so often for the last thirty years to attempt to assassinate me on behalf of Duke Renvol Cinderscar of Boulderburn.
“And furthermore-!!” I stopped. The Arraco looked away, his lips pulled back in a grimace and his wings drawn up close to his body.
“It’s Luckday, isn’t it?” My anger vanished in a puff of guilt which clung to the back of my throat.
The Arraco shrugged his green wings and twisted his head to peer at me with one eye. His face looked like a child covered in orange feathers, with large crystal blue eyes and thin lips of black.
“…Mother of a cow!” I scowled and repeated the curse to myself several times to let the universe knew what I thought of it. Preoccupied with my work, I had not noticed the dawn of a new day. Wait? Was it dawn? I glanced out the window to see a yellow sun cresting over the grassy hills, due east, all cheerful and bright. Dawn all right.
Of all the assassination attempts and I had gone and ruined this one. Not that the Duke could kill me, my fate already written in stone. Literal stone, written on a wall in a cave about how I would die;
Upon thrice of three days, of the thrice of three months, the thrice born will be lost, and so will be reborn the Hero, to take the forgotten age in hand and vanquish the Dark.
My time would soon be up. I imprisoned the Dark Lord thirty years ago, the ninth month was a few months away, and I had died twice now. Apparently, killing an actual, in the flames, phoenix let you come back from the dead a few times.
The Duke and I agreed to assassination attempts on Luckday because it was on the opposite side of the week from the third day, Deathday. Besides, it kept up appearances. As far as the three Fates knew, we were mortal enemies. Secretly, I think our relationship stood at the ‘don’t double cross me and I won’t double cross you’ stage.
I didn’t trust either him or his messenger Erran, but at least we had an understanding building between us. An understanding I had just broken.
Erran had taught me to write the Arraco language, making it easier to pass secret messages between the Duke and me.
I took a breath and stilled the emotions swirling inside me.
My manor sat on the very top of a hill, overlooking the modest city of Graymon. I reached out toward the city, but to tap into the protection energy it contained, I had to let go of all of my emotions.
As a sense of calm entered my mind, I directed it toward Erran. A glowing green, transparent bubble appeared in my hand. It floated toward Erran and he reached out toward it. As it settled onto his hand, I pushed the bubble down, so it would wrap around his hand like a piece of ribbon or rope. I let go of the magic and the green energy vanished.
He looked at me and I gave him a sheepish smile, a wave of heat flushing up my neck. Putting a closed fist to my chest, I made a small circle with it and hoped he wouldn’t take my protection magic the wrong way.
The emerald feathers on his chest puffed out and his stance relaxed. Erran gave me a nod of understanding.
Clearing his throat, he stood as tall as he could, but being an Aroo Arraco, he just reached to my navel. Erran’s grip loosed on the scroll and he fiddled with the string wrapped around it. The long primary feathers sticking out from his wrist made the task of sliding the binding off a little difficult for, but it soon came loose and he opened the scroll.
I stood there, awaiting whatever marriage proclamation the Duke had prepared this time, but a rapid pounding at my door and the yelling of a guard interrupted us.
I sighed inside my head, clinching my teeth together to keep it from escaping. Took them long enough to get here. Of course, they couldn’t have waited five more minutes.
Erran’s winged hands fell down by his side and he reentered the fighting stance.
Pounding at the door grew louder as the guards tried to break their way in. I couldn’t let the Erran suffer for me mistaking a Luckday for a Starday. Throwing the spear aside, I rushed over to my desk and grabbed the first piece parchment on top. I shoved my finger into the ink well and scrawled on the paper; FLY
Erran started to speak the word out loud, but slammed his lips shut and jumped backwards toward the window.
I shouted so even the guards outside my door could hear me, “Tell Duke Renvol I saw right through his little trap!” I jabbed a finger onto the paper, the wet ink leaving black marks all over the parchment.
Erran spun around and hopped onto the window ledge. Crouching low, he slipped through the small opening and leapt off the edge. Emerald green wings opened as he glided away toward the horizon.
The lock on the door shattered and three hulking guards pushed their way in. They wore a coat of plates, decorated with my crest of a burning phoenix in red and yellow. Heavy wool cloaks of red sat on their shoulders. Crumpling the paper, I threw it into the fireplace. The edges of it started to smolder as the fire reached for it.
One of the guards ran over to the window and stuck his head out it, looking all about, but Erran had vanished from sight. He pulled the window shut, blocking out the cool draft from outside.
Another guard turned to me. “Lady Firebrand, are you unharmed?” Pretty certain his name was Brem. I could see his gray eyes peeking out from over his visor, but little else. A brimmed helm of iron covered his head and chain coif covered his neck, muffling his voice and making it hard to recognize.
I wanted to say, ‘Of course I am, you dolt!’, but the Fates would have heard that. Instead, in the most charming voice I could manage, I said, “The Duke, sent another assassin. A scoro lizard is under the dresser!” I lifted my hand to my forehead for effect and noticed my ink stained fingertip sticking out. “Oh!” Throwing that hand behind my back, I pointed with the other. “Right there!”
“We’ll take care of it.” Brem tapped the edge of his helm in a small salute.
I watched as two of the guards picked up the dresser and then Brem shoved a sword tip into the scoro lizard as it tried to scuttle away to find another hiding place. It twitched on the end of the blade, black and red spotted legs failing about as it tried to wriggle free. The long tail flicked about, striking the sword, until with a final twitch, the movement stopped.
The other two guards set the dresser down.
Turning to look at me, Brem caught sight of a painting sitting on an easel behind me.
“Oh, is this a new one?” His eyes went wide with delight and he shoved his sword into the hands of one of the other guards. The guard took the weapon, which still had the lizard impaled on it, and held it at arm’s length. Never know when it might decide to pop back to life in one last act of revenge.
Brem pushed past me to reach the painting. He leaned in to study the details of the waterfall dropping off a sheer cliff into a gorge of flowers and delicate trees.
“Yeah,” I droned. I watched the other two guards make their way out of my room, the lizard carried out in front of them.
“Lovely. Perfect.” He cooed the words my painting.
I knew he meant his praise. Had I been twenty years younger, he probably would have fallen in love with me right there, over a painting. I wanted to be disgusted, but all I could feel now was pity. It was not his fault the Fates had made me ‘perfect’.
Brem narrowed his eyes as he studied the details in the painting. “Everything in just the right…Uh.. place?”
He had found the one flaw in it. A deer stood in the painting, but it looked more like a brown blob a child might apply to a picture and then call a deer. Of course, one praised children for animal shaped blobs, not forty-six year old adults. He studied the rest of the painting with a more critical eye, probably looking for other out-of-place blobs.
“I’m not finished,” I lied, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice.
“Ahh, of course. I should like to see it finished. And you know if you should ever need anything…” I bet he thought himself cleaver, leaving his words opens to interpretation. I swear I could hear the corners of his lips turning up from under the helm.
“Out.” I pointed to the doorway, my teeth clinched together.
Brem turned to me, his shoulders slumping and his eyes dropping to the ground.
I pointed to the door again.
Sucking in a deep breath, Brem exited the room and pulled the door closed behind him. It took him some effort, but with a drawn out screech, like a pair of cats on the verge of a fight, he shut it. I could feel my bones shivering as the sound lingered in my ears for some moments.
Alone at last, I rubbed my face and then looked at my fingers. I had smeared the black ink all over myself. I wanted to scream, but that would bring Brem hurrying back to my side.
I turned to the painting and let the rage I had kept pushed down rise to the surface. Reaching out to a forest in the distance, the tops of the tree just visible from my window, I drew upon its destructive energy. The distance made the pull difficult, but I did not need much and I wanted to feel angry right now.
My body warmed as the magic flowed into me, like drinking a bowl of hot soup too fast.
I let the energy go in the direction of the painting. It caught fire with a great ‘Whoosh!’ and consumed the entire thing in a puff of black smoke and red flames.
It helped a little. Like Brem had said, the painting was perfect, other than the deer. If he asked about it, I could just lie and say I didn’t like the deer either and justify my burning it to the ground. Even the Fates would believe that one.
Everything seemed slow as I watched the ashes drift around, before they settled onto the wooden floor. Maybe I had been too hasty to destroy it.
The deer was my favorite part, because it was proof my powers of perfection were starting to fade. Mistakes crept into everything I did now, but no one expect me noticed. It meant my time was coming to an end and I was getting ‘old and slow’.
The truth was the Fates were transferring all of my powers to the next Hero, making them perfect. The world would bend to their will and they could do no wrong.
Making my way over to my wash basin, I stared down at the water. As I cleaned the ink off my olive colored fingers, the water started to change to black. I glanced up to look at the mirror and the ink smeared down one side of my face. I used to consider myself plain, but spending time as the most eligible woman across all of Merye had taught me better.
Have a few loves fawn over everything you thought an imperfections and it will turn anyone cynical. Now everyone in my city of Graymon strived to look like me. If I changed my hair style, so did they. If I wore a new makeup, so did they. If I had a new dress, the seamstress who made it became famous overnight.
At least getting older provided some safety from suitors. My hair turning gray and I starting to show some wrinkles at the sides of my eyes and lips, meant I was no longer the image of perfection. Of course, now people just said I had aged well.
Screw them. I wasn’t that old. They could say that to me when I turned eighty.
My heart quickened as I felt the color drain from my face as I stared into the water basin, water dripping off my nose. I wouldn’t even make it to next year if I didn’t get back to work.
Cleaning off the last of the ink, I dried my face and returned to my desk to look at the papers on it.
One was missing.
A curse almost escaped my lips as I dove for the fireplace and plucked out the burning paper. Throwing it down, I stomped the flames out.
I wondered if the Fates were testing me with all these mistakes, seeing if I would crack under the pressure and admit to everything out loud. Thankfully, they couldn’t read, so I could write my thoughts with impunity.
Peeling the remains of the scroll off the bottom of my leather boots, I unfolded it to try to read it. Not a lot left, but enough for me to figure out what it had said.
Upon the third, the Phoenix will fall, the Hero will rise.
The third shall align and the…
I couldn’t read anything else, but it didn’t matter anyway. I knew what to expect, because it would be like the last twenty-three or whatever times this had happened. The cult of the Dark Lord would rise up and attempt to free him from the prison I had constructed for him. They would need to gather at the appointed time, say some special words written down from some lost age, and sprinkle the Hero’s blood on it. Then, the lock would break and the Dark Lord would rise free.
Of course, he’d be killed not ten minutes later by the Hero and before he had any chance to take over the world. Their leader beaten, his forces would scatter, and the world would be at peace.
At least until the Fates got bored and started the whole cycle over again.
I knew, because I could recall each and every time I was reborn to serve in the exact same role. Sometimes, I died early in the story, as the Mentor who sacrificed themselves so the Hero would be spurred to action. Other times, I’d make it further, joining forces with the Dark Lord, betraying the Hero, and then dying by the Hero’s hand. No matter what the plan, I always died before the Dark Lord did.
This time, my fate was to remain at the Hero’s side right up to the final battle. Then, my powers of the Phoenix would transfer to the Hero. My guess, they’d probably die in the middle of everything, but thanks to my sacrifice, they’d get one more resurrection out of the deal and kill the Dark Lord just in time.
I had thought to make it all the way to the final battle and then not allow the Hero to take the power, but I couldn’t risk it. I doubted I would have a choice about giving up the power when the Hero was destined to steal everything I had.
The reason I remembered my past lives was thanks to a fluke spell when I fought the Dark Lord in my youth. Desperate to make me recall some trivial piece of information required to further the quest in defeating him, one of my friends had cast her memory spell on me a bit too well.
I remembered everything, not just what we needed, but all of the times I had died and lived. I knew the capital T, Truth about the Fates, about the world we lived in.
The Fates weaved a story for their entertainment, repeated across all of time. Like a grand play, they cast me, the Dark Lord, the Hero, and everyone else into the same role in the same story over and over.
I didn’t want to be toy in someone else’s idea of fun. I hated them for it, subjecting us to an eternal conflict we did not choose.
Killing the Fates was my only option if I wanted to die and stay dead.
The fluke of the memory spell gave me the opportunity, but if I died in the next few months, I would lose these memories and stay trapped in the cycle.
I had a plan. Well, the starts of one anyway.
First step; find the Hero before the Dark Lord’s minions did. I knew I would run into whoever it was in time, but I wanted to find them before the minions burned their village, killed their family, and sparked something magical in them. It would slow down the transfer of my powers to the Hero and buy me more time to figure what to do next. If I wanted to stand a chance against the Fates, I had to keep as much as my power as possible.
I dug through my notes again. I had picked out a young woman, Sommer Blaze, as the most probable Hero.
She lived in the town of Oldhallow, her grandmother raising her. I suspected the grandmother studied alchemy, despite it being banned in the kingdom. The mages up in their temple at Silentwater considered it a heresy against the Fates, because it changed someone’s destiny. Mages were born, not made, and alchemy allowed for anyone to cast magic, provided they could get the right ingredients.
Sommer’s parents had died in a freak storm which dragged their fishing boat to the bottom of the sea. A classic from my perspective. The Fates loved a tragic back story of dead parents.
I had also managed to identify the rest of Sommer’s fated-to-be friends, who I named the Loyal Fools Crew.
The first, Russell Goldenhair, apprenticed to a blacksmith from Laketown named Jeinx Fallen. Cousins, I think. Russell seemed the slow, gentle kind, not much of a talker. My guess, his destiny was to become the true love of Sommer, after a rivalry with the second member of the crew, Zach Romero.
Zach took me awhile to find, but he stood out because of his good looks and natural, bard-like charm. I suspected he was a half-elf, probably on his mother’s side. I had not met the elves in this life, but I had in a previous one and Zach shared some of their features. Copper tinted skin, slender ears, and well defined cheek bones.
His best friend, Black Hillwoods, had a tendency for cracking jokes and pulling pranks. Black was the entire reason I had even found the pair in the first place. News of the prank he pulled with a badger and the local preacher had spread far enough to become a folk legend at this point.
At first, I thought Sommer might become the Healer of the group, using her alchemy in unorthodox ways. That was, until I discovered a young, upstart mage studying in Silentwater after she broke into my room. Her name was Irene Wright and she demanded I teach her the ways of true magic.
I turned her down, much to her irritation, but I didn’t care.
Of course, I could recall when my refusal to teach the Healer resulted in my death and forced me to regret not teaching her what she needed to save me.
Even if I agreed to teacher her, it would be twisted back on me. Something evil would corrupt her and she would turn against her friends. She would then kill me with my own training. In the end, her friends would save her and turn her back to the forces of good. Too late for me, though.
That exact one had happened at to me twice.
The choices I made in each life did not matter. I always died and the Hero always won in the end.
I picked up Erran’s scroll from the floor. Opening it, I found a letter written in a flowing script. I read aloud the marriage proclamation as fast as I could, so the Fates could hear it. An old, worn version of the same script he had been using on me since we first meet.
I stopped when I got to the secret part of the message, the part meant to be hidden from the Fates. It was written in the Arraco language and used angled scratches to represent different sounds, rather than individual letters.
Jaelyn, hope the lizard was amusing. Erran will be in Oldtown for several days if you need anything before… you know. Since you asked, the Hero is in Oldhallow, that’s all I know.
-Duke Renvol Cinderscar of Boulderburn
Sommer was the Hero.
I sat down at my desk and started to shuffle through my notes. I needed to come up with an excuse to travel to Oldhallow.
A faint, but rapid knocking sounded on my door.