The Shadow Creature’s Mark; A Tale of Pride

The Shadow Creature’s Mark; A Tale of Pride

Here’s another character that I haven’t written about on the blog before, but one I’d love to start using again. It’s also the next installment in my second round of the Seven Deadly Sins series – Pride.
. . .

Trails of sparks shot from the firebird’s tail as she glided through the air, a figure of unnatural grace and beauty. Though she could not see them, she imagined every creature in the forest turning their head up to the sky to behold her spectacular flight. Her species were rare and there were those who considered their mere passage through a location to be a blessing of the highest order.

Wheeling lazily, she swooped to land on a high branch of an ancient tree. The artificial fire which surrounded her faded as she came to rest, but her feathers gleamed even in the shade. Reds, oranges and yellows danced together, her markings making her appear aflame even at rest. Her long tail feathers hung below the branch, swaying slightly with the breeze. Perhaps she would rest awhile before she continued; she was in no hurry to reach her destination, and it would me more difficult to sleep in wingless territory.

The firebird rustled her feathers, sliding her beak through the mass, making certain each one was clean, oiled and in its proper place. Then she settled her head against her back, lifted one leg and allowed her eyes to drift closed. They were still open a crack when she caught sight of movement, a shadow creeping on the edge of her vision.

Instantly alert, the firebird kept her head low, peering at her surroundings through her bright feathers. What she initially took to be a mouse or squirrel venturing dangerously close turned out to be a creature of darkness, jagged at its edges, its skin so black it seemed to absorb all light which touched it, even her own.

Recognizing a creature of terrible, ugly power, the firebird squawked and shot into the air, flapping her wings hard to gain momentum. But the creature was already on her tail, razor teeth closing on one of the long stems, snapping it in two.

With a cry of outrage and dismay, the firebird tumbled. Her wings brushed a nearby branch and, for a moment, she could do nothing but fall. Through an act of sheer iron will, she snapped her wings open, adjusted the rest of her tail feathers to compensate for the damage and pulled herself into a controlled dive.

She rocketed out from beneath the ancient tree’s branches, sparks flying in her wake. She stayed low, weaving between tree trunks, avoiding the ensnaring tendrils of hanging vines, occasionally risking a glance over her shoulder.

Her quick recovery had shaken the monster from her tail, but her maneuvers weren’t quick enough to lose it. Perhaps it knew the territory; it could have been tracking her for some time, waiting for her to stop for a rest. Creatures of darkness enjoyed devouring creatures of light; she would be an extra tasty morsel for the shadow thing, a thought that made her shudder.

The firebird angled upward, spiraling through the tree branches, risking another collision in hopes of losing the creature in the mass of leaves forming the forest canopy. But as soon as she dove, it snapped at her heels; somehow it had gained on her. If she didn’t think of something quickly, those teeth would soon close about her neck and there would be no escape from the rending, tearing and snapping that would follow.

Something moved on the ground. For one terrifying moment, the firebird was sure it was another of the shadow creatures, twice the size, ready to lift its arms and catch her between them. But as she zoomed past, the haze of panic cleared from her vision. The second figure was not a shadow creature at all, though its body was marred by the same dark markings most of them bore. It was a wingless, face and arms stained black, some of the markings giving off an eerie purple or green light as it steadied the object in its hands.

A bow. So the creature wasn’t just any wingless – it was a hunter.

Panic made the firebird’s heart pound heavy in its chest, threatening to overwhelm her vision with dark spots. The hunter shifted, tracking her position as she wheeled, darting between tree trunks. It was practically marked as the shadow beast’s kin, so the hunter’s arrow must be meant for her.

She heard the twang and felt the vibration as the arrow cut through the air. She banked upward, but for all her speed and grace, she could not outrun the hunter’s shot. She winced, bracing for the impact, hoping hers would be a swift and somewhat dignified end.

She heard the arrow hit its mark, but felt nothing. Her wingbeats slowed. Perhaps she had gone numb from the impact. Was the arrow coated in poison?

She glanced down; she was still rising, but the writhing darkness which followed hissed and spit with outraged agony as it fell. Blinking, gasping, unable to believe her good fortune, the firebird bled her speed, landed on a nearby tree branch and folded her aching wings.

Long minutes passed while she gasped for breath, trying not to relive the frightful flight through the trees. Her doom had been mere inches from her when the hunter’s arrow flew. Had it missed? No; she had seen the look in the wingless’s eyes when she darted past. Hunters like him did not miss.

It felt like days later when she managed to spread her wings again, though precious few minutes had actually passed. The hunter still stood at the base of the tree, examining his kill. Cautiously, the firebird lifted off of her branch, assuming a lower perch so that she could examine the scene more closely. Three times she risked moving lower, until she perched just above the hunter’s bald head. From here she could see clearly the dark ichor that served as the shadow creature’s blood. It no longer moved, its darkness now as flat and harmless as the shadows of the shaking leaves.

The hunter glanced up. Startled, the firebird spread her wings, ready to dart into the forest, but the hunter did not raise his bow. His eyes were storm-grey and hard as rocks. But when they fell on her, they softened enough that she hesitated, wings still spread. The hunter took a cautious step back and she folded her wings, refusing to break eye contact.

The firebird had not survived this long without a healthy dose of caution. Every instinct in her tiny body screamed that she must leave with all speed and never look back. Hunters were clever. They knew a lot of tricks. While she watched his bow, he might easily draw a knife from his belt and end her that way. But he had killed the shadow thing and, as she watched, he turned and began to gather kindling, perhaps intending to burn its body.

A curious act indeed, for hunters usually made trophies of their kills.

She waited, watching silently as the hunter built his tiny pyre. Only when he bent to light it did she move, fluttering to the ground at his side. She puffed out her chest and, with one mighty exhalation, set the sticks ablaze.

The hunter paused, firestarter still poised between his fingers, to gaze down at her. Again she met his gaze, and there was much less fear in her flaming features this time.

“Who are you?” she demanded, her voice that of a young woman.

The hunter blinked and she enjoyed his surprise. “Are you certain this is wise, little bird? How do you know I will not resume my hunt as soon as the carcass is disposed of?”

If he were going to kill her, she was reasonably certain he would have done so by now. “You bear its markings,” she said instead, defiant, insistent. “But you killed it.”

The hunter’s smile was thin and sad. He returned the firestarter to the pouch at his hip and settled a little ways away from the flames. The firebird hopped after him; the stench of the burning creature’s body was unpleasant and any distance from it welcome.

“I am bound by my duty to kill creatures such as these, little bird. Had you been between my arrow and my prey, you might not have lived to speak of it.”

Normally, the firebird would have viewed this as bravado, but she had no doubt the hunter’s dispassionate words were accurate. And even so, she lingered.

“Regardless, you saved my life. I owe you a debt.”

The hunter chuckled, but it was a humorless sound. “You owe me nothing. And even if you did, what could you possibly offer me?”

Again, the firebird puffed out her chest, this time in indignation at being so dismissed. “I have many treasures to offer. But greatest of all is my song.” She did not wait for him to reply; she opened her beak and began to sing, the melodic chords of her voice rising and falling as if she were an entire chorus all her own. The sound echoed through the forest, a sense of peace and tranquility following it. There were creatures who lived a thousand years and never heard the trill of a firebird.

The hunter crossed his arms in front of his chest, bowed his head and listened. But when the music faded away, he seemed unmoved. He might have been a statue carved from marble. Silence rang loud in the firebird’s ears where she expected praise to sound and she puffed out her cheeks this time, ready to unleash a tirade if he did not respond.

At length, he chuckled and shook his bald head. “You have done me a kindness, little bird, but I’m afraid I cannot appreciate your song, no matter how I might wish.”

The firebird flexed her talons, carving three little trails into the dirt beneath her. This simply would not do. It was hard to believe any creature could be so unimpressed with her, but if she could not leave a lasting impression on the hunter, she could not consider her debt repaid.

“I do not like games such as this,” she hissed. She could claw out one of his eyes before he could bring one of his weapons to bear, but she could hardly justify attacking her savior.

“It is not a game, little bird. I see your beauty, and hear it, but it doesn’t touch me.” He unfolded his arms, allowing her to note again the strange, dark markings that splashed his pale skin. “I don’t suppose you are secretly a powerful mage, capable of removing curses?”

Powerful mage, she might just be. But firebirds were better at laying curses than removing them. She shook her head rapidly back and forth.

The hunter sighed. “A pity.”

“But I have some magic,” she insisted. Spreading her wings, she took to a higher branch, perching at his eye level. “There must be something else you wish, aside from the breaking of your curse?”

The hunter made a soft sound, considering his answer. “Sleep,” he said at last, sounding far more worn than he had a few moments before. “I have not been able to sleep since I inherited my duty. If you could grant me a few hours rest, I would be grateful.”

The firebird preened. “I know a song that should do the trick.” Again, without waiting for a response, she launched into song. Once more the music swept over the forest. Other birdsong faded. Even the chirp of insects died away as all who heard the firebird’s song gave in to slumber.

But even after several minutes, the hunter’s eyes remained open, a sad smile perched on his lips.

Infuriated, the firebird repeated her song, louder than before, and with far more flourish. She felt the magic flowing; how did the hunter resist?

Finally, she was forced to abandon her music. She fluttered her wings and lifted her tail, feathers ruffled with her agitation. “How is this possible?” she demanded, her tone unabashedly accusing.

Again, the hunter chuckled, a strikingly humorless sound. “I told you; I have not been able to sleep since I inherited my duty to slay the darkness. But I appreciate your attempts, little bird. You can consider your debt repaid.”

But she could not. Her music had no affect on the hunter. It could not be so! She must find a way to impress him or the debt would haunt her forever.

“There must be a song,” she declared primly, folding her wings and lowering her tail. She lifted her chin regally. “I will travel with you until I find it, hunter. Then you shall be properly repaid.”

“Are you certain that is wise, little bird? I doubt that you and I are after the same things, even if we travel in the same direction.”

“It matters not,” she insisted. “The debt must be paid.” Her pride would not allow it to be otherwise.

The hunter sighed and settled back against the trunk of an aged tree. He lifted his head, his eyes seeking the sky through the canopy while he considered this turn of events. At length, he shrugged. “If it pleases you, little bi-“

“That is not my name,” she huffed, once again puffing her chest.

“I see,” the hunter replied, bushy eyebrows rising skyward. “And what is your name?”

“You wingless call me Faia.” Again she lifted her chin, bearing the pretty name with pride.

“Very well, Faia,” the hunter said. “Follow me if it pleases you, but I hope you will not come to regret the decision.”

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