Watch Me Burn – Chapter One

One –

Fate finds us all

So, I’ve decided to start right at the very beginning. If you have a problem with that… well too bad. It was the second last week of spring, I remember that quite vividly. It sounds really cheesy, I know, but that’s the way it happened. The wind was blowing lightly through the trees and the light was coming in dappled greens through the leaves. It was quite a warm day and my shirt was sticking to me. My pocket torch hung from a lanyard around my neck right beside my whistle. A bag was slung across my back containing what was left of my lunch and two bottles of water. On a strap around my wrist was a camera, my hat was pulled low and my sleeves were rolled up as I crouched in the long grass between two trees. It wasn’t a very good spot to be Phantom watching, but it was good for hiding.

In a clearing just in front of me a herd of ashooves grazed, one stallion watched with wary eyes the goings on around him. This was a dangerous spot for the horses, so close to the edge of the forest they were at risk from humans and in such a clear area it would be easy pickings for a firesong that happened to fly overhead. The male flicked his tail and lowered his head to eat, his eyes though, still wandered. A mare moved briefly and I caught a glimpse of a pair of foals concealed in the centre of the herd. My camera snapped up, almost automatically, and I clicked quickly hoping the small sound wouldn’t alert the ashooves to my presence. Altering the angle slightly, I got a good shot of the large stallion as he lifted his head.

Then they bolted.

There was no warning; one minute they were calmly munching on grass, the next the air was full of thundering hoof-beats. Their tails trailed out behind them, slipping over trees and ferns, nothing catching alight because they didn’t see the senseless need in burning their food. That was always something that amazed me about species in the fire class, if they don’t want something to burn as a result of it coming into contact with their open flames, it won’t. The herd was gone in bare moments, dust and trampled grass that was already beginning to unbend was all that remained.

I straightened slowly, brushing the dew from one knee and scratching a bite on the other. It was only once I was fully upright that I saw the stonehorn. Pawing at the ground, it’s eyes glowing fiercely, it stood on the other side of the clearing, glaring at me. A low snuffling noise from behind me made me spin in fear (I’m not embarrassed to say that right then, I was pretty much terrified – the majority of killings in the Valley weren’t from predators, but from agitated stonehorns or a rollerock, who usually won’t need an excuse to charge you). Anyway, behind me was another stonehorn. It was about this point that I realised they were having a male dominance contest. Dawning on me pretty much right after that was the knowledge that early spring equals mating season for most species, but not for stonehorn, oh no, their mating season is in late spring due to the long pregnancy of the females.

A noise from one of the stonehorns preceded the rumbling as it began it’s charge. The rumbling increased in both speed and volume as the other stonehorn joined in and they both moved faster. I chanced one last glance over my shoulder before picking up my camera and diving to one side and clicking as fast as I could. I hit the ground on one shoulder and rolled, landing on my knees, still mashing the button on my camera. As it happened, the very last photo I took was a great shot of the two creatures colliding, very good photography on my part, thank you.

At any rate, shaking, shivering and shocked to my core, I staggered away from the site. Behind me the stonehorns continued to batter each other and they would do so until one or the other got sick of it and left. The one remaining would be proclaimed the victor. Well, maybe not proclaimed, but something similar. I clutched my camera close to my chest and rolled my shoulder. I think I must have jarred it when I landed on it. My arm was certainly numb enough.

Above me, a roar rent the air. I crouched instinctively and ducked off the path. To my left, the forest extended further in where some of the more vicious and reclusive Phantoms lived. To my right the forest thinned out until it became vast fields of tall wavy grass and in front of me the valley walls reared up. The ground sloped down a little as it got closer to the mountains (which grew from the valley floor in a sheer cliff that was impossible to climb, I’d tried) and the further into the dense trees you went, the colder and darker it got. At some point that is indefinite, unmarked on maps and seemingly not there for any reason, a clearing splits the otherwise impassive and stubborn trees. It’s a rather large clearing and I’d only been in there once before. The sheer awe-inspiring, slightly mystical magic of the place numbs the mind and boggles pretty much everything else. The place seems sacred, it’s like you’re standing on hallowed ground and no matter how hard you try, you can’t speak above a whisper. Like a church, but… more. I don’t know how else to describe it. In that dark, silent clearing, everything is different, better than anywhere else on earth. Which is a coincidence really considering what the Phantoms of the valley use it for.

In the middle of the clearing – and I mean the middle, not slightly to one side or a little bit off-centre, smack-bang in the middle of that clearing – is a tree. I know you’re thinking something along the lines of, ‘yup, who would ever have thought that a tree of all things would be found in a forest’ but there’s something about this tree that echoes the… otherness of the rest of the clearing, magnifies it. It’s as though, without the tree, the clearing would be just like any other and the trees wouldn’t see fit to keep a boundary that’s a perfect circle. Yes, the trees around the edge are in a perfect circle, I measured. Anyway, this tree is huge, and I mean huge it towers up so high you can’t see the branches at the top and the trunk is large enough that five or maybe six platesnakes could wrap their bodies about it and not get all the way around. The trunk, though, has a hole in it. A really big hole, one that you could build a house in and still have room to spare. Probably you could fit a whole pod of greywhales in that hole. In the clearing it’s cold, like you have to wear a jumper and long pants or you pretty much can’t stand it. If the hole in the trunk of this tree had its own atmosphere, it would be snowing in there every day of the year. Not just snowing, frozen, all year round, it’s that cold.

Which brings me to the irony of mystic otherness of the tree. I live just outside of theSingingValley(named for the calls the native firesongs make) and the firesongs that live there (and the ashooves too, I think, actually most of the Phantoms probably use it) use this clearing as a place to dispose of unwanted members of their community. The clearing is uninhabited and the forest around it for about a kilometre each way isn’t either so there is nothing to disturb the Phantoms that are sent there to die.

As I was crouching in the shrub I heard a muffled thud and I turned toward it. Through the thick trees I could just barely make out the light of something or someone as they moved. I thought it might be my dad (now that I look back on that though, I don’t know what he’d be doing in there, it was more likely to be a poacher) so I went towards it. I tried to keep the light in my view at all times but something told me not to call out to whoever it was. Instead I followed and the longer I followed, the deeper we went, the darker and colder it got and I realised we were heading for the Tree of Exile (which is what my family called it even though that isn’t the best way to describe it). I pulled the collar of my shirt up and rubbed my arms. Outside of this place it was a warm, sticky day, in here winter had come early.

I paused as my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I sought out the flicker I’d seen earlier. I think I probably passed over it the first time, but as my eyes roved back in front of the tree I saw it. Walking slowly, and from her posture, slightly resignedly, towards the hollow in the tree was a firesong. Her tail was held low and she looked like someone who’d just been dealt the cruellest hand by fate that anyone had ever lived. She was clutching something to her chest with one hand, ambling along slowly on the other three and her face showed mixed emotions; horror, anger, shock, disappointment, disbelief, sorrow and resignation were just a few that I could name, at the time I wasn’t so good at reading the faces of firesongs. The object she was holding seemed to be a point of confusion to her. As she put one foot in front of the other, slowly moving towards the tree, she looked down at the object a few times. Her face showing either disgust or love. When I was seeing this it made no sense, it did later. She was torn between love for something she shouldn’t want and the disgust at knowing it was hers. Anyway, she strode hesitantly into the tree and came out not a moment later. At the entrance to the hollow she paused, I was standing rather brazenly, and stupidly, in the middle of empty space between the well behaved trees and the hollow. She looked at me with such a helpless expression that seemed to say, ‘go in there, take it, help it, don’t let its fate be decided by those who don’t understand.’ It was as though she was pleading with me, imploring me not to leave the clearing without whatever it was she had left in the tree. A tear leaked out of one of her eyes and her bottom lip quivered as she held back the sobs that were obviously desperately trying to get out. Her tail trembled slightly and she bounded out of the clearing. It occurred to me as I watched her flee that she had been very young, she had probably only just reached maturity so she wasn’t very old and that stunned me. For a moment I was frozen to the spot and then I remembered the look on her face and I bolted into the tree, forgetting the cold of the grove.

Inside was, if possible, even colder and darker than outside. I would swear that the temperature in there was below zero but I won’t. I fumbled for the torch hanging from my lanyard and pressed the button with clumsy fingers, thick with cold. When I finally managed to turn the light on I scanned the darkness with shaking hands, the torchlight constantly wavering. At first I didn’t see anything, nor did I see it the second time. As I was scanning the third; and what I told myself would be the last, time I saw it. A rather large blip at the back of the hollow that was darker than the rest of the hollow and cast a shadow against the far wall. It was black with blue and grey flecks marring its surface. It was large, larger than what I would have thought and perfectly smooth. As I approached it I recognised the patterns on it from my dad’s text books but the colouring was all wrong. I ran a hand along its surface, marvelling at it, knowing that I would probably never see another one of these for the rest of my life. I also realised that it was already cooling to the touch, my hand felt unnaturally hot when compared to its relative cool. Knowing that to leave it there would be to sentence it to death; I picked it up and, still in awe of what I held, carefully tucked it into my bag.

That was it pretty much. That single selfless act was to determine the rest of my life. Not in a bad way, I might add, but what might have been went out the window that day in the cold grove. I don’t really recall how I got home, but I know I would have staggered still shocked out of the forest and across the paddock. I remember seeing Auth (mum’s sunstreamer) in one of the trees and thinking that I should be more careful. If Auth saw me coming back out of the forest he would tell mum and that wouldn’t end well. I slunk around the side fence and through the gate into the cindersheep paddock. I knew that approaching from that side was less likely to raise suspicions. Quickly, I ducked behind the shearing shed as Auth dashed through the opposite fence heading towards the back paddock away from the house. That’s right, Kiff (dad’s swiftblade) was out cutting grass that day, I was just in time to exploit that.

Silently, I darted across the last of the open space, hiding behind the pair of massive water tanks when I thought Auth was coming back, both times I was wrong, but better safe than sorry. Finally, I made it to the back door, knowing it would be safer to go in that way than the front because mum would be in the sitting room at this time of day, I slunk inside, making sure the door didn’t bang behind me.

I slipped through the laundry and then the kitchen and dining room, when I reached the living room I paused. This was the dangerous bit; the living room was connected by an open archway to the sitting room which was more like a closed in patio. If I crouched and used my hands I could sneak through using the lounge chairs as cover. But if I did that, I risked the bag slipping over my shoulder and banging on the floorboards which would alert mum to my presence. I decided to compensate, slipping the cords of the satchel tighter and swinging it around to the wrong side of my body, I crouched right down, then I used my left hand to balance the bag and my right to balance me. Slowly but surely, I made my way through the living room. As I approached the hallway, a loud bang sounded outside.

Mum was instantly on her feet and peering out through the curtains straining to see what was going on. Taking full advantage of the fact that she was now facing away from me, I darted a little less cautiously the rest of the way and quickly down the hall to my room. The hall was wide and led to four bedrooms, the bathroom and toilet as well as a little used greenroom. That last was made entirely out of glass except for the wall and double partition that connected it to the rest of the house. There was also a partition running around the sides of the room, but it didn’t do a great deal. A small window in the roof could be opened to allow for more fresh air to get into the greenroom and there was another small doorway on the side of the room closest to the house that led into a small alleyway between the laundry and the greenroom, giving direct access to outside. I decided that this would be the perfect spot to hide my treasure. I was the only one who used the greenroom after all.

I carefully opened the notoriously creaky door, the faint pain in my shoulder forgotten now that excited anticipation had kicked in. Once inside, I made my way around the partition and dumped my bag, carefully, in one corner. Then I manoeuvred the mostly dead plants and faded translucent partitions about the room so that one part of the greenroom was concealed from every point of view. I put my bag in there and then hurried out through the small alley door. I knew I had to be quick for this next bit, I would have to time my trips and dashes perfectly.

I was standing on the northern side of the house; the cindersheep paddock was directly in front of me over a small brick and wire fence. Beyond that was an unused boundary paddock, stretching from the northernmost edge of the cindersheep paddock to the forest further on and out to both the east and west for a good kilometre. It was left empty as a buffer between us and the wild Phantoms around these parts. Mostly it was well kept, but sometimes (like early summer) things just pile up and the grass grows there at an exponential rate and once every two or three months Kiff goes out there and cuts the ridiculously tall grass for us. Generally, Auth or dad will tie the grass into large bundles that are then dried out and used as feed for the cindersheep and the shinecows. Those bundles are stored in a shed that stands on the very edge of the abandoned paddock to the east right by the driveway, in perfect view of my mother in the sitting room.

If I was going to get some bundles from that shed I would need to make sure mum wasn’t watching and Kiff was far enough away not to be bothered by me. Most of the time, Kiff would let me do what I wanted, when I wanted, but if he saw me pilfering supplies from the shed he would dob me in, which is exactly what I didn’t want. If I had people asking why I was stealing bales, they would find out about the object I stole from the tree and then I would cop it for being in the forest alone. I’d probably end up grounded until I was thirty-six.

So, taking a deep breath, I scurried along the little alley and peered anxiously around the corner. I didn’t have to get many, just one or two bundles should suffice, the problem was getting them back to the greenroom without getting caught. Still on the edge of the alley, I planned my route and watched for Kiff.

From here I could go back to the water tanks, then, if I was quick enough, I could get to the trough and the feed stands. They were planted right in the middle of the paddock so that the cindersheep could get at them from every side, and as a bonus, they were under a roof of sorts. Then from there I might just be able to make the run to the fence where a tractor stood unmoving from where dad had left it last. After that I would have to jump the fence and make a break across a dangerously large open patch to the next set of tanks. There I could stop for a bit, a broken trough and a pair of long dilapidated lounge chairs were resting in the dust after that, then another tractor, a pair of stunted trees, one last dash and I’m in the shed. There was a pair of filing cabinets if my mind serves me well, in the shed that I could use as cover if Auth or Kiff came into the shed.

Another deep breath and I broke. Water tanks, pause, breath, run. In a crouch I darted through the field, a few of the cindersheep looked at me strangely as though to ask what I thought I was doing running through their eating area. I didn’t even pause when I reached the edge of the roof, I just ran at the tractor.

And I barely made it. I dove across the dirt, grazing a knee and banging my elbow in the process. Auth dashed across the field, barely a metre in front of my now dirty face, pressed hard into the dirt beneath the tractor. His furry gold brown tail bobbled along as he ran towards the house. I let out a sigh and regretted it the moment after as a cloud of dust puffed up into my face making me cough and then I cracked my head against the bottom of the tractor.

Grumbling and slightly shaken by my close encounter, I leapt the fence and ran head down through the open stretch where I collapsed to the ground, letting my head fall back against the tank as I caught my breath. I really hadn’t put much thought into this. It was hard enough getting there safely on my own, how on earth was I planning to do it with a bale of grass on my back?

Once my breathing had returned to normal, I darted to the broken trough and the lounges where I again had to eat dust as Auth slipped past me, a tiny trail of dirt lifting behind him. Then I ran to the tractor, and then to the trees where I stopped. I could always go back, I didn’t even know if my plan would work. But then, I’d come all this way, it would be a shame to take nothing back. Closing my eyes, I took several deep breaths to still my racing heart, and then I broke cover and dove into the shed, jarring the same shoulder as before as I rolled between the two filing cabinets. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light, then I made out the bales piled up along the side almost blocking out the light coming in through the window.

Carefully, I peered out behind the cabinet to see where Kiff was. He was still a long way off, little more than a green blip and still cutting grass. Auth darted across the lawn again and I judged this to be the best time to move.

I snatched a bale by the string around its middle and hoisted it onto my back. With one last sigh and momentary hesitation, I ran back to the trees. I made it safely, then back to the tractor where I only just made it down in time as Auth came back, moving ever faster. It surprised me just how quickly those little legs could carry him. I wasn’t sure what he was doing going back and forth between Kiff and the house like that, but I didn’t want to stick around to find out.

Once he was past, I grabbed the bale again and darted to the lounges, then to the tanks. This next bit was really scary, and difficult. I had to cross a large amount of empty space to a fence, get the bale over the fence (and the bale wasn’t by any means light) into a paddock full of creatures that would eat it if given the chance. So I then had to make my way through their territory without them eating too much, meaning it had to stay as far off the ground as possible.

Taking three deep breaths to calm myself, I ran. I don’t think I saw anything in that headlong dash for safety. As I approached the fence I angled my jump, then changed tack. A large flattish rock was protruding from the ground near the fence and I estimated that if I hit it in just the right spot and jumped at just the right time, I could be over the fence and safely behind the tractor without breaking stride.

I was wrong. I tore the leg of my jeans off, dropped the bale by the front wheel of the tractor where everyone could see it and ripped open my leg from knee to ankle. Needless to say, I’m an idiot. So, now tired, hot, anxious, biting a scream lumping in my throat and swooning from the blood flowing in raging red streams to water the dust, I still had to get across the cindersheep field and to the greenroom, where hopefully I could bandage myself up before attempting the second run.

My head spun and my leg protested with every jarring step as I jogged, now markedly less carefully, across the paddock. When I got to the tanks, bone-weary, I just wanted to collapse and it took me a moment to remember why I was doing this. A surge of determination hit me at just the right time and I made it to the greenroom just as Auth came sprinting back to the house.

I hauled the grass inside, breaking the string as I carted it across the room. Using leaves and other miscellaneous debris in the room, I made a sort of stand in behind the partition. Then I piled the grass up on top of that and I drew out the dark object, nestling it in nice and tight amongst the grass. It looked like a woven wicker basket.

Limping and in pain, I pulled a spare shirt from my bag and tied it as tight as I could across as much of the angry and slightly inflamed wound as I could. Then I felt stupidity kick in as I prepared to do it all again.

This time it was slowly, what with having a mind-numbing pain sear up my leg with every step I took. But I made it, with minimal dirt eating as Auth raced past I might add. I braced myself against the wall between the cabinets as I waited for enough strength to return to allow me to get the bale back across the field. It was then that I realised I hadn’t checked on Kiff’s progress. I peered cautiously through the gap to see where he was and was shocked to find he was at the door to the shed.

I huddled closer to the wall and pulled both protesting legs as tightly to the rest of my body as I could. Keeping my head down, I tried not to move while still keeping an eye on Kiff as he dumped the bale. When he turned around to leave, I could have sworn his little black and gold insect-like eyes looked straight at me, but he made no indication that he had seen me as he left. So either he thought I was playing some stupid game with my little brother, I was randomly cowering in a dark corner for funsies or he actually hadn’t seen me. Which now I think about it, shouldn’t really surprise me; his eyesight wasn’t at all good anymore.

When he was gone, I grabbed a bale, hoisted it to my back and fled as fast as my aching leg would allow. Now fear and excitement were mixing together and adrenaline was pounding through my veins making the trip slightly easier. But not by much. I still had to hit the deck a few times because of Auth which only aggravated my leg; I would have to clean it thoroughly when I got back to make sure it wouldn’t get infected. But I made it, dusty, limping and in an almost intolerable amount of pain, I reached the greenroom. Sweat was running from my face, leaving streaks in the dirt there and my shirt which had been sticky before was now absolutely saturated.

I broke the string on the second bundle and piled the grass on top of the black and grey object. My weary body shrieked at me to let it rest, but I couldn’t allow that. No, there were still things for me to go through before I could rest.

Starting with cleaning up my leg. I stumbled rather inelegantly into the bathroom where I proceeded to rinse the wound out with water. Dirt, sweat and blood had all mixed together leaving a rather unattractive mush beneath the shirt. The blood had started to clot and as such the shirt was drying, hardening and painful to pull off. I bit back a scream as; sitting on the edge of the bathtub I watched my leg start bleeding enough to fill the tub. I rubbed some disinfectant on the wound and pulled a reel of healing tape out of the first aid kit. Tears were streaming down my face and a whimper escaped me no matter how hard I tried to hold it back. I had a really good look at the gash when I judged it to be mostly clean.

The flesh around it had been peeled right back and I swear parts had been totally ripped off. At one point, just before it reached my ankle, although it wasn’t really all that deep, just massively long and red. Angry red lines traced patterns that ran away from the gash and blood was still seeping from it in places. By this time I was seeing spots and I hastily placed some absorbent padding on my leg and strapped it down with most of the tape on the roll. I stuck the tape down on the edge with some waterproof sticky cloth so that it wouldn’t peel off later. Little bits of white fluff stuck out on each end where the padding was squeezed tight by the tape. I put my foot flat on the ground and applied weight to my leg to see how it was. It wobbled dangerously and I almost fell flat on my face. Hopping a little across the hall into my parents’ room, I found my dad’s old crutches leaning against the wall behind the door. These were the ones the hospital had given him when he broke his leg. He had never returned them; I figured I might as well use one.

Then I hobbled back into the bathroom to begin cleaning up. I chucked all the tissues and my now ruined shirt into the bin, packed up the first aid kit and then ran the water from the tap in the bath. Looking at the huge red stain that trickled slowly towards the plug I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t be able to remove it.

It was just as I turned the tap on to run out the blood that mum walked in.

“Kirin, have you seen —,” she stood frozen and wide-eyed in the doorway like a petalbearer in headlights as she stared at the blood in the bathtub. “Gosh,” was all she found to say. I thought that if she was a cartoon character, her eyes would have been rolling around on the floor and her lower jaw would have been trailing down there with them. “Whatever did you do?” Then she looked me up and down, noting with obvious horror the extensive strapping I’d done to my leg.

“Well,” I began tentatively trying to come up with a good enough story on the spot. “You see…” And then it hit me. “I was in one of the side paddocks, the one with the shed in it; I was going to fix that fence post that’s been broken for so long that no one ever got around to seeing to. I figured I’d be alright, Kiff is in that paddock and Auth has been running back and forth to the house all afternoon, I didn’t think…” I trailed off for good effect. “A stonehorn somehow got into the paddock, I mean we don’t take very good care of the outer boundaries; it might have found a hole. It being mating season and all… well I guess it thought I’d be a good target. It charged, I ran. I know they tell you not to do that, but I didn’t really like the alternative. As I was almost to the fence to the cindersheep paddock I realised that I wouldn’t have time to open the gate like a civilised person. I saw a handy looking rock, so I jumped on that and tried to get over the fence… It didn’t work so well.” I pulled what I thought was a good face to emphasise my point. The thing with this story is, there doesn’t really need to be a hole in the outer fence, stonehorns are good like that, and if she finds the spot I mean, she’ll find a pool of blood and the leg of my jeans. Very convincing, glad I thought of it.

My mum’s face was white. Not a pastel cream colour, not a light shade of pink, not bone, not ivory, not even beige: white. It was shocking; I’ve never seen her look so terrified. She sat down heavily on the end of the bath where I’d been sitting not a moment earlier.

“I told him,” she muttered. Then she looked up quickly. “Have you seen Jeremy?” she asked her hand at her throat.

“He was in his room, playing with his toys,” I said quickly, hoping that would get the hopeless expression off her face. By toys I meant books.

She seemed to deflate a little when I said that. “Thank goodness,” she breathed.

Now, my mum’s a tough cookie, so there must have actually been a break in the fence that a stonehorn could have gotten through, otherwise she would have sat me down and picked out all the holes in my story. As it is, she felt really bad because I’d tried to do something helpful without being asked and my leg had been torn up as a result. Rather happily, I found myself being banned from chores and other tedious housework jobs. I was being cooked my favourite meal for dinner (‘Just this once!’), and I was confined to the house for the next week. Best of all, the TV remote was mine. Oh happy days!

My dad was impressed, he even found the pliers and a tool kit strewn across the field and before you ask, I actually have no idea how they got there, I didn’t do it. Anyway, that was all the proof they needed to confirm that my story was true. Well, that and the puddle of blood staining the ground and the leg of my jeans hanging tattered and torn looking decidedly forlorn from the wiring of the fence. Mum was all concerned and accommodating and dad was puffed up from having taught me that no matter what the teachers tell you, if a Phantom charges you, run. I’d also told them that I’d been caught without my flute. I didn’t think I’d need it, but I got cautioned by dad to always have it with me from that time on, ‘You never know when it’ll come in handy.’

Oh, right, my flute. Well when my dad was younger his dad taught him how to play a special kind of flute. That was how he got Kiff, it calms a Phantom, not put them to sleep, and it warms them towards you. When I turned eight he gave me one and taught me how to play. Normally it’s used by farmers to calm angry stock, wild Phantoms don’t pay it much heed. Sometimes I play just because it sounds nice.

My parents are good people, if a little overprotective at times. When I turned eighteen, I found out they already had my Phantom license and were waiting for me to tell them what I wanted to do. When I told them I didn’t have a clue but that working on the farm for a while might do me some good, they were stunned. I’d kept my license, but I didn’t have any Phantoms, I didn’t want any of the ones they’d suggested and I didn’t want to have to look after a Phantom I didn’t want. We’d both suffer for it, I knew. So I waited and looking back now, I’m glad I did.

I’m going to glance over the next few weeks. Not a lot happened really; I read pretty much every book in my dad’s library and watched every movie we had (which wasn’t many) and reruns of my favourite TV shows. Every day while reading, I’d sit in the greenroom to keep an eye on the grass pile. Nothing happened at all. In one of my dad’s books though, I found a picture that looked a lot like the object I’d found only with different colours. It gave me an incubation period of three weeks which I thought was ridiculously fast, but I figured it would probably be pretty accurate. I decided to give it until the end of the month and if nothing had happened by then, I’d give up. I know that sounds unfair, but I didn’t want to be looking after something that would never come to fruition.

In the end, I needn’t have worried.

After three weeks and two days, just after lunch, while I was sitting in the greenroom reading a novel for the third time, my leg stretched out in front of me, something finally happened. At first I thought I was delusional, a small noise like a cheep from a newborn bird came from the grass. I was a little worried that a flitterwing might be stuck in there, but I decided I was just hallucinating and went back to my book.

Five minutes later, just as the book was getting good, the sound came again. Louder and more insistent this time. I marked the place in my book and stood, this was getting ridiculous, but I went over to the grass. Another cheep came about a minute after the second one, then a sound like someone clacking their nail against something plastic. Or like a bird trying to get out of an egg. After a few moments all noise ceased. Then it started up again. It went on like this for about ten minutes, then fifteen. After about twenty minutes, I finally pulled the grass away from the object and placed my hand against its surface. It was bloody hot and moving besides. While my hand was still against its side the object rocked violently and my hand on it was the only thing keeping it in the grass. Another violent spasm rocked it hard and a crack appeared. I was mildly disappointed that the flawless surface was now marred by a dark crack, but that feeling soon vanished.

Within moments the entire surface was a spider-web of interlacing lines, only a few larger sections weren’t marked. Then, with furious intensity that marked the moment my life changed course dramatically, the moment my future was laid out in front of me with perfect certainty, even though I didn’t know it at the time, the egg shattered. Shell fragments whirled across the room, embedding themselves into the partition and hitting the glass walls with tiny cracks that sounded like mini fireworks.

Sitting a little unstably on top of the grass pile was a small dark grey creature that stared up at me with monstrously big blue eyes like I was a deity. That small grey creature was my future, my fate and my life. He was mostly black with dark grey and deep brown dappled patches. A pair of short, round, ridged horns protruded from the back of his head. Between those horns a crest of stiff feathers grew, at the moment, like the horns, they were short and rounded, but as he got older they would lengthen. The crest of feathers turned to fluff about half-way down his neck that then draped like a horses mane over his little shoulders. Once past his shoulder blades, the fur stiffened up again to become another crest of feathers that trailed out about half-way down his tail. A puff of fur covered his chest and small tufts decorated his elbows and ankles as well. A fan of feathers tipped his tail. His small wings were feathered like a bird’s and at this age he would not be able to use them to fly. In the same way, he would not breathe fire or be able to atomise yet either, he would need to be a few months old before he was capable of that. Dark orange-brown patterns ringed his eyes and a few spots ran along his snout. The brown feathers on his wings ran off his shoulders and the colour continued across his chest forming a ‘V’ shape where both sides met before running under his belly. At the end of his ribcage the pattern fanned out. Some of it went on along his underside before tapering out at around the same place as his feathers stopped. A small teardrop shape was placed just after the end of the stripe like an afterthought, or a drip of paint. The brown pattern fanned out at his ribcage into curving stripes that wrapped up around his torso. Each side had three of these lines. His forearm was also patterned from the elbow to the second set of knuckles. A crescent moon shape and a short line decorated his thigh; his knee, calf and bottom of his foot were also patterned. Now, as a chick, he was covered with a downy fur, as he grew he would lose that though and the scales (in most places) would show through. At the moment, his shoulders reached my knee, maybe a little higher, but as an adult, his stocky little flightless body would become a massive winged wonder and I would barely reach his knee.

His eyes were his standout feature though, little chips of the bluest winter sky. They were icy in colour, looking like shards of crystal. Or tiny parts of glaciers, or trapped stars, twinkling with a brightness that didn’t seem real.

His big mouth split in two as he grinned, showing little pointy white teeth. The grin, combined with the frigid, friendly blue eyes was slightly disconcerting. But the warmth with which he glowed, burned was reassuring and the way he sat back on his hind legs and his tiny little paws reached out to me told me one thing.

This little creature thought I was his mother. Hesitantly, I picked him up and he wrapped his forelegs tightly around my neck, so tightly it almost hurt. Despite myself, I grinned, feeling his soft body against mine was comforting. Right then, in that precise instant, I knew that I’d found my life partner. Much the same way as dad knew when he met his crazy, wild swiftblade friend and mum knew when she had met the shy and quietly efficient sunstreamer that she’d found hers, I knew, the moment the small grey Phantom smiled and hugged me that nothing would ever replace him, nothing would ever take his place. He was mine, my partner, and my best friend. I thought the match was quite appropriate considering I’d been born with a Greater Fire Affinity, just like my mum.

Something in the back of my mind niggled a little, wondering what to call him. What could possibly be an appropriate name for such a curiously off colour Phantom?

It hit me in the stomach in a way I can’t describe. Somehow I just knew. I held him out at arms length and stared deep into his eyes.

“Winter,” I said softly. The only change I saw was a softening in the icicle eyes of his. But something else changed too, something intangible, impalpable but no less real. That was it, the bond was set and so was my life.

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~ by reliquiaen on April 12, 2012.

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