Cupping the sleepy, dazed Auri in my hand, I moved her right next to the fire.
I was going to take this slowly. Carefully.
If I was right - if Auri was a phoenix - my biggest concern was that the fire wasn’t big or hot enough. A simple wood fire, in a campsite out of the walls felt wrong. It lacked pomp. It lacked ceremony.
For a phoenix, she should be given a grand entrance to the town, a full triumph thrown for her. Put her on the highest altar in the biggest temple, then use divine flames to ignite her or something.
Well, I had to work with what I had.
The flames crackled around my hand, my healing restoring me faster than blisters and burns could manifest. Nothing was quite happening yet.
I needed to be able to pull her out in an instant if things went poorly, or if she showed signs of distress.
Except, not much was happening. The flames were just licking at her wingtip.
But… they weren’t catching on fire either. Not in the way dry feathers should be. And Auri wasn’t showing signs of distress.
So… maybe this was the right thing to do?
I moved Auri to the heart of the fire, opening my hand to better let the flames wash over her.
“Elaine, are you su-”
“Quiet.” I ordered Wolfy. I needed to focus.
The tips of Auri’s wings flickered, and caught. With a stiff breeze at all of our backs, the little bird’s body seemed to suck in and “inhale” the entire fireplace, all of the flames vanishing into her body.
“What the -” Wolfy swore.
I looked at Auri, still lying limply on my hand. Unmoving.
Deep within her sooty, ashen coat, I could see little embers. Tiny sparks, like a fire long burned out.
“More wood. More fire. Hurry!” I barked at Wolfy.
“This is the craziest shit.” He muttered as he sprang into action.
Good old Rangers. Throw weird stuff at us, and we’re still capable of acting.
Wolfy quickly built a second fire, Moonmoon helping by dragging sticks over. He was slowed down by needing the start from scratch, our old fire not having any burning embers to kickstart a second fire.
Puzzled, I felt the firepit.
Even the ashes were cold.
I looked down at Auri, thoughts racing.
On one hand, it seemed like she needed a lot of fire.
On the other, she seemed to be on the brink of death.
Speed or size.
Speed or size.
“Wolfy! After this fire, grab a few sticks, and start a bonfire. Large as you can manage.”
“Yes Ma’am!” He yelled back, carefully feeding his small fire, working it larger.
Black Moon started to kick smaller sticks and twigs into a pile - the bonfire’s start.
Before long, Wolfy had gotten a roaring fire going, and was busy building up the bonfire to epic proportions.
I didn’t hesitate this time. I thrust Auri into the heart of the fire. My breath caught as nothing happened.
Was I too late? Too slow? Did I screw something up? Did-
As panic was starting to set in, the flames wrapped around Auri, her tiny body absorbing them.
Almost immediately her wings caught on fire, but she wasn’t moving. The rest of her was still predominantly dull and grey, although there were more sparks and embers “deep” inside of her.
“bbrrpt.” A weak noise came from Auri, and my heart leapt into my throat.
It was working! She was doing better!
Wolfly was building up the bonfire, and I refrained from pacing. Refrained from yelling at him to hurry up - he was going as fast as he could.
I did help with some careful applications of Radiance, heating up wood, and starting small fires that grew quickly in the dry environment.
I practically stood in the fire, my healing fixing me up as quickly as I burned. I ignored the sparks that showered me, and the embers that landed on me.
Finally, I judged the fire to be large enough. I tossed Auri into the heart of the flames, believing from what I’d seen that it was the right thing to do.
The inferno raged around her for a moment, before condensing down into her tiny body.
My stomach clenched in fear as she went up like a candle, her entire body engulfed in flames.
Then the flames changed. From the bright yellow with occasional flickering orange of the campfire, the fire wrapped around Auri turned into a dozen different colors. The top of her wings turned white, followed by a blue layer, then a green layer, then finally, her ‘feathers’ morphed into a brilliant, glorious golden yellow.
Igniting her. lighting her primordial fire.
Auri woke up, and exploded up and out of the flames with a shriek of pure joy, a jubilant cry that pierced through us all.
“BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRPTTTTT!” She triumphantly exclaimed, and she was flying.
Three weeks old and already in the air. She’d been looking hummingbird-like before, but the flames had completed her transformation and look, her wings rapidly buzzing back and forth, embers and sparks getting thrown off with every movement.
She was fire incarnate, her entire body alight.
No - she was fire and flames, a blazing beacon.
Her beak was a soft yellow, the flames impossibly solid, while the bulk of her body was coated in a ruby-red blaze. Her belly was the exception, glowing a vivid green. Her tail was a whole multitude, a luminous spectrum, defying the natural order of things as the flames started off red, then turned orange, then white, then blue at the end.
“Gods.” Wolfy whispered, Moonmoon on either side of him, looking at Auri with interest, and more than a bit of fear.
“Is that Auri?”
“Yes.” I whispered back, holding out a tentative hand towards her.
My heart was racing. I’d looked after Auri. I’d hatched her, fed her, and protected her. I’d almost screwed it up, but here she was, looking better than ever.
I didn’t think she needed me anymore.
Would she choose to stick around? Would the legendary phoenix deign to stay with a little human, in the heart of the dead zone?
Or would she fly away? Would she leave me without even a feather to remember her by?
“Brrrpt!” Auri zipped past my outstretched hand, right to my shoulder. She landed on it, perfect, like it was designed for her.
She was hot. She burned my shoulder.
I didn’t care in the slightest.
“Brrrpt! Brrrpt! Brrrrrrrrrrpt!” She nuzzled my ear and cheek from her perch, letting me know how happy she was to be there.
My heart swelled three sizes that moment, which would normally be a medical emergency.
“Love you too, you little troublemaker.”
The last part came out as I noticed my tunic was catching fire, and the distinct, noxious odor of burning hair was filling the air again. Wolfy was continuing to eye me, and coughed nervously.
“Sentinel. You’re on fire.”
“Yeah, I’m trying to figure out what to do about it.” I calmly replied. “Tunic’s probably a bust already, annnnnnnnnnd I don’t see my hair making it all that long.”
“Brrrrpt?” Auri sounded a little concerned, a little sad.
“Shh, no, it’s ok. You couldn’t help it.” I stroked her head gently, her body strangely solid in spite of the flames.
She still felt like feathers.
“No no, I like it! I’ve destroyed my own hair a bunch!” I tried to reassure the poor bird.
She was just a baby. Incredibly, ridiculously intelligent for a bird, apparently empathetic as hell, but still a baby. She could tell that I didn’t like my tunic and hair burning, but had no idea of the scale of the issue. She couldn’t tell if to her it was like being fed flour, a relatively minor annoyance, or like running out of mango juice, the Worst Thing Ever?
She didn’t exactly have a lot of life experience to understand the scale of, well, life.
I shucked off the burning tunic and tossed it to Wolfy, who stomped out the flames. The material was reusable, and there was little sense in letting it all burn.
“Brrpt!” Auri scolded Wolfy for his actions. Clearly, fire was sacred, and shouldn’t be extinguished.
“Now listen here you little troublemaker.” I put on my best ‘mom voice.’ “Some people don’t like their stuff burning.”
“Yes, really. Some people have nice things that they’d rather keep as they are.”
“No, burning them doesn’t improve them.”
I wasn’t sure how I was understanding Auri - maybe I was making it all up? - but I felt like we were clicking. On the same wavelength.
It was good. It gave me a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling that had nothing to do with my crown of fire.
I wanted nice hair.
I gave up entirely on that dream for the foreseeable future. Auri would just burn it, and I wasn’t going to start yelling at her for wanting to cuddle with me. Not now, not when our relationship was so new and fresh.
I didn’t see a good way to put the fire out at this point, not without dunking my hair in water or something similar that could dislodge or harm Auri.
I knew nothing. I didn’t know if water was bad for her, I didn’t know if extinguishing the flames would kill her, heck, I didn’t even know if phoenixes died and were reborn, or if death was final.
… If they died and were reborn, White Dove//Black Crow was going to be so mad.
I shook my head and focused, back on the here and now.
“Wolfy, can you get my Mistweave outfit from that bag? And a jar of mango juice?”
Wolfy, bless him, jumped right into action. I reminded myself that he was a full Ranger, having passed through the same training that I had, and not only that, but he’d done a round and a half, and managed to keep himself and Moonmoon alive.
I brought the jar of mango juice up, intended to make a little funnel like before. Auri had other ideas. With a high-pitch flurry of wings, that sounded like a crackling fire, she launched herself from my shoulder, and hovered in front of the pot, greedily sucking down the ambrosia.
She drank far more than I’d believe possible - like, half her body by volume, was she burning it all up or something - then stopped. Still hovering, she nuzzled at the jar, “pushing” it towards me with her feeble strength and tiny mass.
“For me?” I asked.
“Brrrrpt!” Auri agreed.
Watching her, I carefully brought the jar of mango juice up to my lips, and took a big, obvious sip.
“Can I know what’s going on now?” Wolfy asked.
Auri zipped back to my shoulder, and nuzzled against my cheek. I gently nuzzled her back.
“Well, I figured out what Auri was, and what she was missing.”
“No. Really?” Wolfy’s sarcasm was thick enough to spread on toast. Even Moonmoon looked unimpressed with him.
“I mean, what more do you want?”
“To know what she is, for starters. Then how you knew about her, and what she needed. Anything you can give me, really.”
Although I had said it earlier. Guess he hasn’t heard me properly.
“She’s a phoenix. A creature made of fire, powerful, and supposedly unkillable.”
Wolfy looked between me and Auri. He sighed.
“Anyone else, I’d laugh, tell them the joke was funny, but no, really, what is she. You? Her?”
He shook his head.
“Damn. That is going to give me a crazy class at 256 that I’ll have to pass on. Never thought I’d see a phoenix. It’s like a story.”
He shook his fist at the sky.
I snorted at his antics.
“Still… a phoenix. And I touched one. Wow.” Wolfy was looking a little nervous at Auri. I gave him a grin, letting him know everything was fine.
“I gotta admit, seeing you as Sentinel feels a bit weird or unfair at times.”
I nodded, not knowing where he was going with this.
“Like, we were in the same class together and everything. Then I see you standing there, on fire, and just not caring and it not affecting you at all, and I’m reminded why.”
Oh right. Yeah.
I was still somewhat on fire.
I shrugged, my hair still billowing smoke.
“Meh. This is nothing. Getting decapitated? That was a mess!”
“You WHAT!?” Wolfy shouted.
I just gave him a manic grin.