Update: Urgh. I got a PM from one of those self-righteous SOBs who goes around making trouble for other people, harping on about how it's in violation of FFN's rules to have the lyrics in this story. I think it's a bunch of crap anyway, but I'd rather not make trouble, so I've had to cut the lyrics. I've kept short notes describing which parts were where, though, so if you want to look up the lyrics on the side you know which parts I'm talking about. When I get a chance, I'll upload the lyric version on my DeviantArt account.
Author's Note: A short word of explanation as to why this is being posted in such a manner - I wasn't originally planning this tidbit, but Alowl's Yule fic request was for something with... ah... a phoenix in it. I considered simply sending it to you personally, Alowl, but in the end I decided I'd post it for all to see anyway and just streamlined a few parts to prevent too much hinting. I set this up so that there are no real spoilers for the majority of my readers: I'm sure you'll pick up more of the implications, Alowl, since you're helping me so much with the plot. Definitely, you'll notice what I'm very carefully not saying here. Certain aspects of the plot have been deliberately kept obscured so far in Land Of The Flame, and I've done my best to preserve that.
Warnings: Almost none, which is a rarity for me. Just some non-graphic mentions of violence - really, it's barely a T, but I'm paranoid. Besides, given the rating of the fic it accompanies, I thought a bit of caution wouldn't hurt.
Disclaimer: We all know I own nothing about the Coldfire Trilogy, but let's not dwell on that, shall we? After all, Yule is supposed to be a happy time.
A.N.2: As stated before, I wrote this with the lyrics of Seanan McGuire's Fly Little Bird - which was recommend to me by Alowl, who is solely responsible for my new addiction to Seanan McGuire. I find myself especially partial to most of the album Stars Fall Home, River Lies in particular. This fic also takes advantage of a neat little plot device I first used in Shadow Of The Moon, but which will be making a reprise in Land Of The Flame - namely, seeress!Narilka. Unlike in SotM, however, in this one there's actually a REASON for her abilities. Sort of. This fic is woven out of snippets of the possible futures of Land Of The Flame (you know, that whole 'the future is never written in stone' thing) - while still not giving too much away, hopefully, such as how exactly Gerald crosses paths with a phoenix. The result is that this may get a bit cryptic in parts. Still, I've done my best with it: hopefully this can do justice to your mental poetry, Alowl!
It began mere weeks after her encounter with the mysterious man who had walked her home that autumn night. Narilka Lessing found herself plagued by the strangest dreams, dreams that did not fade upon waking but left her shaken and unsettled for days afterward. Dreams of shadow, fire, and death, flickers of dark figures and darker schemes. Most often the dreams were centered around the strange, pale-eyed man that she had met on the road that night, but sometimes there were others: a woman with auburn hair and vibrant green eyes, a strange female creature that seemed half woman and half cat, and a man with dark hair and warm hazel eyes.
Narilka had no idea what was happening, what strange force was causing these nightly visions. For that was what they seemed: they were too sharp, too poignant, too rich in detail to be mere dreams. It was as though she were watching snatches of a play, but the segments were out of order and the actors constantly changing. She did her best to shrug them off, though, having absolutely no idea of how much truth or meaning they might contain and no way to act on them even if she did understand. She found that inaction a great deal more difficult to stomach, though, after the dream that came to her just over a year and a half from that fateful night...
She found herself floating in a sea of darkness. All about her was a vast nothingness, shrouded in black: no hint of light, color, or solidity reached her. For a moment, Narilka was content simply to drift - many of the dreams began this way, before the scene took shape around her. What happened next, though, was new.
Soft strains of music reached her ears, haunting and sweet. Narilka turned, searching the darkness in vain for the source, but nothing was visible. The music from nowhere wrapped around her, then a voice began to sing - and a shiver ran through the young woman as she recognized the voice. How could she not? It was the voice which had haunted her dreams for months, the cool, lilting tenor of a man whose name she had never even known... a man who had changed her life.
Another voice took over the song then: this one also male, but deeper, more baritone than tenor. There was something ever so faintly familiar about it, but the memory slipped from Narilka's reach before she could grasp it, and she let it go: experience had taught her that it was all but futile to attempt to make sense of these dreams while still in their thrall. Listening to the strange melody that was building around her, though, Narilka felt a chill run down her spine.
Abruptly, the darkness began to lift, and an amazing sight took shape before her.
She saw two birds, flying side by side. One was a large swanlike bird, its feathers gleaming scarlet and gold in the dull light of a leaden, stormy sky, its wide wings stroking powerfully and its long slender neck arching smoothly. A phoenix! Narilka thought, wonder washing over her. A real phoenix! The bird was everything she had imagined a phoenix to be, beauty and fire and power wrapped in feathers and flesh.
The other was a fierce hunting bird, just as large as the phoenix, its movements grace incarnate: it seemed to flow through the air, its wingtips just brushing those of the phoenix. Though the feathers of this second bird were gleaming white, it did not shine as the phoenix did, and beneath that veneer of brightness Narilka sensed a lurking shadow. As she watched, a fierce wind rose from the storm around the birds, sweeping between them and forcing them apart.
The phoenix gave a fierce, musical cry as it fought against the winds, the other bird's sharper shriek echoing it: as Narilka watched, both avians fought their way back together despite the ferocity of the wind. As they came close enough, they seemed to reach out to one another - and as their wings met, there was a burst of rainbow light, so bright that for a moment Narilka thought she had been struck blind.
The light grew, and the scene was swept away...
She saw a magnificent building of marble and stained glass - the Great Cathedral of the Church of Human Unification, here in Jaggonath. The delicate spires and graceful arches harkened back to a bygone age of beauty and grandeur, relics of a time when faith had reigned supreme and virtue was both sword and shield against the terrors of the night. Even in the shadowy depths of her fevered dreams, Narilka felt a lull of peace at the sight of the breathtaking edifice - but the next heartbeat, that peace was shattered in a moment of horror.
Shadows were pouring from the windows and doorways of the cathedral, liquid blackness running in rivulets from every crevice and dripping down the fine marble like jet-black blood. It pooled in the corners and seeped across the level places in a sluggish tide, staining pure white marble as black as midnight. The light around the cathedral had turned fiery and crimson, like the flaming glow of sunset, painting the few places not coated in shadow with a sooty carmine shade. Narilka felt a sense of wrongness, so strong that her stomach turned, and she heard herself whimper in distress. Something was wrong, so terribly, utterly wrong...
Then a sound unlike anything she had ever heard before reached her ears - a sound like a bugle shout and an eagle's cry, a nightingale's piercing rill and the ring of a brazen bell - and a pure golden light spilled over the scene. Casting her gaze upwards, Narilka gasped: the phoenix hovered over the cathedral, shining gold flames dancing on its wings, the clean glow washing the marble below and driving back the shadows. Even as she watched, though, tendrils of the blackness reared up - and the phoenix recoiled in alarm as the darkness reached out to drag it down...
As the scene began to dissolve, swallowed by the shadow, Narilka heard the first man's voice rejoin the other in a breathtaking duet...
(Bridge and chorus)
When the dazzling multicolored light faded, she found herself overlooking the Forest of Jahanna by moonlight. From the trees before her rose a magnificent keep, its sweeping arches and delicate spires gleaming in Domina's glow: the Hunter's Keep, she realized dazedly. Her viewpoint shifted, as though she were falling toward the keep: as she came closer she saw a figure standing atop the highest tower.
It was the man that she had met that night in Jaggonath. His golden hair stirred in the soft wind, his keen grey eyes sparkling in the moonlight as he gazed out over the nightbound Forest. He was dressed in the silken finery of a Revivalist noble, a sleek cape draped over his shoulders and fastened with a heavy collar of gold: with a shock, Narilka knew who he must be.
Not merely a servant of the Forest: never that. He was the Hunter himself.
A gleam of light, warmer than the moonlight, pierced the shadows. Narilka saw the phoenix then, swooping down toward the Keep on fiery wings. Something like triumph flared in the Hunter's cold, pale eyes, and he lifted his arm in a gesture that was both offering and beckoning. A command, disguised as an offer.
The phoenix glided down on flowing wings, radiant as a crimson star. Its gleaming talons reached out, closing about the Hunter's lean arm. The scarlet wings swept forward before folding neatly against its sides, and it arched its sleek neck, its crested head dipped in an almost-bow. A knife-edged smile crossed the Hunter's lips, and his other hand lifted to stroke the smooth arch of the bird's neck, smoothing over the silky feathers. The phoenix tipped its head into the caress slightly, its jewel-bright amber-gold eyes slowly closing under the soothing motions of the Hunter's expert fingers...
The scene dissolved again, as the tenor voice began the next verse and the baritone fell silent...
She saw the Hunter standing in a darkened chamber, his flowing cloak brushing across the polished marble floor as he moved. He was standing at some sort of work table, his back turned to Narilka: as he turned around, the young woman felt herself gasp. Coiled in the Hunter's hands was a slender, impossibly delicate chain of pure gold - gold that glowed with a strange, cold, silvery-blue light. Looking closer, Narilka stared in wonder: there was some kind of power woven like silken threads through the links of the chain, twisted around and through the gold until metal and light had melded into a cohesive whole.
There was a glow of golden light from somewhere behind Narilka, and the phoenix winged forward, coming to alight once more on the Hunter's arm. It seemed anxious, though: the slim neck curved back, away from the Hunter, and the amber eyes held a warning Narilka could not decipher. It held itself proudly, yet it lifted one foot from its perch on the Hunter's arm and held it out, the talons curled harmlessly inward.
With a strange sort of cautious triumph, the Hunter began to gently wind one of the slim chains around the outstretched foot, and Narilka felt her blood run cold. Jesses, she realized with a sudden chill, staring at the deceptively slender chains. He's binding it to him... why isn't it fighting him, though? Why won't it fly away?
The Hunter fastened the jesses around both of the phoenix's ankles, but the moment the last link slipped into place, a drastic change came over the creature. It reared back so suddenly it almost overbalanced, its wings flaring wide and its crest rising as a low, vibrating trill rose from its throat: it sounded almost panicked, and Narilka's heart ached at seeing such a beautiful creature in distress. The Hunter gently stroked the feathers down again, though, and something in his touch seemed to gradually sooth the phoenix, until its head dipped in submission once more...
Yet again, the world dissolved, to the sound of the Hunter's voice...
A vast army marched toward the Forest, the banner of the Church flying proudly above them. Rank upon rank, hundreds, thousands of men rode or marched steadily onward, advancing upon the wall of dark trees that marked the Forest's border. Horns sounded over the song's melody, weapons drawn as the warriors of God drew near the lair of their greatest foe. Narilka felt cold dread steal through her, robbing her of her breath and leaving her trembling: despite the distant knowledge that this was only a dream, she could not dispel the certainty that something terrible was about to happen.
As the warriors reached the very edge of the trees, a familiar shape appeared. The phoenix materialized in a burst of gold flames, its cry ringing strident and proud over the Forest's dark trees as it hovered there for a moment, its light a fiery star against the shadows of the Forest. The warriors fell back, crying out in alarm - and before Narilka's horrified gaze, flames burst from the barren ground, ringing the army and licking hungrily inwards. The fire danced amongst the trees - yet it did not seem to touch the Forest's life at all, the bark not even so much as scorched as the flames brushed past.
In the sky above, the phoenix let out another cry - this one low and resonant with sorrow, a mourning cry if ever Narilka had heard one. As the flames rose higher, the scene once again began to fade into darkness, heralded on its way by the last verses of the song, once more sung in tandem.
(Bridge and last choruses)
Narilka bolted awake, drenched in cold sweat and shaking like a leaf. Her eyes snapped open and for a moment she simply lay there, shivering, her wide eyes fixed unseeingly on the ceiling above her.
The images from her dream cascaded through her mind in a blur of color, light, shadow, and beauty. With deliberate effort she slowed her thoughts, picking through the memories one by one, marveling at what she found. Though the legend of the phoenix had endured since the time of the Landing, no one truly believed in them anymore: they were thought to be no more than a wild myth, brought to Erna by their Terran ancestors. Had the bird in her dreams been a symbol for something else, or were the public wrong to dismiss the ancient legend as false?
Narilka rolled over onto her side, trying to shake away the dark thoughts the dream had inspired. True, some of those images had been deeply unsettling - particularly the army of the Church, and the phoenix trapped by those strange jesses - but there was no reason to lend them so much importance. If they were false, she was worrying over nothing.
If they were real, though... then something very, very terrible might be about to occur.
Hopelessly confused? You won't be for long. Just consider this a sort of second prologue, if you will: all the little hints dropped herein will be explained in Land Of The Flame. I only posted this separately because it turned into a songfic somewhere along the development process, and didn't really fit into the flow of the main fic. I hope you enjoyed it, Alowl! Merry Yule!