Birds slips out of the Cascade, tightening her cloak against the rain, and heads for the gate in the garden. She dials in a location far West, where she has arranged to meet Saraj of the western Circle.
alsoquin The gate spins into life, and as Birds steps through, she emerges into a beautiful locale: a sand garden, great improbable shapes twisted into the sky and held fast by Exalted magic, upon which grow the uniquely craggy salt-eating plants of the Southwest.
alsoquin Saraj sits upon a bench, idly drawing in the white stones upon the ground with his sword-point. He is different than Birds remembers him -- vast, ugly scars run down his arms (and one up his neck to his right ear), and one hand has been replaced with a carving of black jade and gold.
Birds bobs her head in greeting. "Saraj, it's been so long, and we haven't had the opportunity to make friends. How are you treating the world lately?"
alsoquin Saraj rises up and waves with his golden cutlass. He smiles broadly, and the deep happiness to see another Chosen of the Sun is no less visible for the lines of pain and suffering that are newly present atop it. "A thousand greetings, Birds-of-Trinity." He laughs. "We had begun to suspect that you would never call us."
Birds settles beside him on his bench. "We have dearly wished for the leisure to, but ...things have happened. I myself am here on stolen time."
alsoquin Saraj nods. "An ill wind has blown in our sails for some time now. When Creation enters the long night I am worried about what will come out the other side." He looks grim for a moment, then laughs again. "It should count itself lucky that wonderful people like you and I are here to save it!"
Birds shares the grim look.
Birds "Night is already starting to fall, I think. It should!"
alsoquin Saraj nods. "You were pretty cryptic in your message, ma'am. Why is it that you have broken silence to meet with us here today?"
Birds "I hoped to borrow a bit of sorcery and secrecy."
Birds explains her plan: to mystically transform her face and anima using an artifact of her design, and reenter the world with a new name.
alsoquin Saraj raises an eyebrow as Birds describes her plan, and looks a little quizzical; but as she finishes, he laughs heartily again. "That is quite the deception! I commend you for your audacity."
Birds smiles. "Thank you! I know that with the likes of Thirteen Blooming Flowers (and Cerin) around, it will not be long until I am exposed to my Circle, but it is the rest of the world that concerns me."
alsoquin Saraj nods again. "I suppose you will be requiring the services of Bitter Elm, in that case."
Birds "I would love to speak with her. Oh, which reminds me, I have brought you some wine and honey cakes from our vineyards."
Birds unwraps the basket from its slightly damp blanket.
alsoquin Saraj looks in the basket with undisguised interest. "That is astoundingly thoughtful. I guarantee you they will be put to excellent use." He takes the basket without delay and stands. "Come with me to the Black Salt Cliffs."
Birds climbs carefully off the bench, stepping gingerly on the ground. "I will have to get used to walking again. Lead the way!"
alsoquin Saraj leads on, through the streets of Gemeldan, cheerfully describing the seven-ridged black-stone architecture style of the locals, or the unusual wyld-tinged fauna that frequent the island. It is not a tremendously long walk to reach the cliffs, where jutting spurs of pitch-black salt have crystallized over the crashing waves far below. (...)
alsoquin Upon one particularly long such platform stands, back to the land, a thin, waifish girl, her pale yellow dress flapping in the breeze and her pale arms extended to each side; seven spheres of light circle around her with a calm rapidity, but where Birds remembers their golden hue, they now shine in a cold, bleaching white.
alsoquin "Elm! Someone's here to see you!" Saraj shouts, the slightest hint of paternal concern slipping unbidden into his voice.
Birds murmurs to Saraj, "Your home is a wonder of natural beauty. I think...I think Cerin would love to paint it someday."
alsoquin Bitter Elm turns around, slowly, her sightless eyes not focusing on anything, but her attention clearly drawn to where the other two Solars stand. Carefully, slowly, she begins to walk back down the spur of land towards where they stand, not speaking a word until she's arrived.
alsoquin Bitter Elm nods to Birds-of-Trinity. "Hello," is her only statement.
Birds nods. "Bitter Elm. I'm Birds-of-Trinity, but I am hoping you can help me change that."
Birds explains the plan again.
Birds "I'm aware that I can accomplish this with my personal magics, but I hope for a more...effortless...execution using sorcery and artifice."
alsoquin Bitter Elm nods. "I have mastered the art of the Transcendant Pyre Rebirth. I believe that will aid you in what you seek. It may be... painful."
Birds cocks her head. "I haven't heard of this art."
alsoquin "I plucked its knowledge from the dying lips of the beast Gazurin with every ounce of my will. It has never been used in this age of Mankind." Bitter Elm's orbs seem to flash and shine slightly as she speaks these words.
Birds That will be a princely secret, Birds muses. "I would be honoured to be a part of it."
alsoquin Bitter Elm nods. "Then please. Divest yourself of all belongings and step out onto the ledge." She gestures to where she stood moments ago.
Birds does so, setting everything in a neat pile.
alsoquin Saraj looks over the scene with a bit of a concerned eye, and whispers something quietly to Bitter Elm, who nods confidently, though this clearly does not entirely satisfy the Dawn. He walks away to avoid glancing at Birds' nakedness -- that would be improper! -- and heads back into the city to wait.
alsoquin Bitter Elm begins to gesture with her hands, mumbling in a tongue older than Old Realm as she does. Her spheres begin to spin faster and faster, more maniacally, and a pale white Essence flows out from her body, drawing in the air the almost invisible shape of a great, thin bird, while wisps of white-on-white fire burn behind it.
alsoquin The incantation seems to take an eternity, and as she chants, Birds sees a fire -- white, like that in her anima -- begin to burn at her feet.
Birds looks at the fire apprehensively, but...there's no turning back now.
alsoquin Bitter Elm finishes her incantation and holds her hands up straight above her head, as she speaks JI, the word spoken by the Primordials as they added the final touch to Creation.... and at that word, the fire rises up and burns, burns... the pain is beyond almost anything Birds has ever before experienced.
Birds thinks, Bitter Elm is fortunate that she was ASKED to do this, and indulges in a very, very satisfying scream. There has been so much to scream about lately.
alsoquin The fire climbs up Birds' body, and she can feel it... consuming every part of her. The darkness overcomes her, and for a long moment, she learns what it is not to exist.
alsoquin It is then that she finds herself someplace intimately familiar -- the Twelve-Shaded Peacock Gardens of the Ten Dynasties. But the pleasure-trees are not in fruit, and the poem-singers that give voice to the desires of the wind stand silent and unmoving.
Birds looks around, taking in the unraked footpaths and mossy fountains. What has happened here?
alsoquin By the gate, two of the Peacock Guard stand, though their stance is wrong and their clothes tattered and stained. One looks up to where Birds stands. "Núiyal. After a thousand times a thousand years, you have returned."
Birds "What have I returned to? This place is empty and broken as an eggshell."
alsoquin The other turns, speaking through dead lips. "Our kingdom lies in ruins under a dead sky. The king pines for what is gone and does not rise. Without you the light of all that we were is gone out, and only our husks remain."
Birds stamps on the ground in irritation. "Bring the king to me."
alsoquin The guards stamp their feet and salute, off-tempo from one another, and move into the gate. Ten minutes pass, and then: a litter emerges, borne on the shoulders of the nearly dead, and within, the king... no more than a shadow, an outline, of what he once was.
Birds "Maj--no, I cannot say that word. It is a lie. What have you done to yourself?" Birds does not salute or bow, but she does move to the king's side, shooing away the bearers absently.
alsoquin "Núiyal Kól." He speaks, in what is barely a voice. "Always I have been called the king of this land, but truly it was you who stood at its heart. Each day, the sun rose upon us only by your grace, and set only for your beauty. Until you left us, to follow the hawk that lit upon your seat, and the sun went with you."
alsoquin "Where did it lead you, and why have you returned?"
Birds "All over thirteen worlds. I've returned to tell you...you have to be the king of this country! That is what your crown means. I cannot rule it for you."
Birds "That, and to say goodbye forever."
alsoquin The king's empty head nods, as if he could have expected no other statement from her. "Where do you go? What hawk bids you to follow it today?"
Birds considers this, pacing, realigning tree branches and kicking debris from the walkways.
Birds "You are perhaps aware of current events in the world at large."
Birds "They have led me to conclude that it is maladaptive to go on as I have, as a poet-baker, a maker of art and happiness."
alsoquin "And what shall you make instead?"
Birds "So as Núiyal left the world before, Birds-of-Trinity is leaving now, so that I who have been those people can be what I need to be...someone who opens doors."
Birds "A liaison, or...perhaps even a thief."
alsoquin "And how do you speak to those who love you? Whose hearts pine for you? How shall we go on when every moment reminds us of the aching chasm where Núiyal once stood?" Though barely even a person, Birds can see the hints of two familiar faces in his eyes as he speaks.
Birds "I'm sorry."
Birds climbs onto the top of the litter, to get a better look at the failing gardens.
alsoquin The gardens are disrepaired and overgrown, but in their unkempt state they possess a new, raw beauty... as if their very heartache is somehow more powerful and beautiful than the forces that wear them down.
alsoquin The still wind that blows through, poemless, is somehow rejuvenating.
Birds "You didn't have to love me. Should I betray you terribly? Would that allay the pain? Should I mash this country in the gears of the Sunlands, so that you can be a commoner instead of a king?"
Birds "I think I cannot do those things. I chose to leave you...you have to choose to leave me too."
alsoquin The king is quiet and thoughtful for a moment, and tears -- real tears -- begin to run down his cheeks.
alsoquin "You are right. You are the hawk, and I am the king... and though a hawk may visit a king, it is a king's place to rule... and a hawk's place to fly away in search of prey, not to be bound by leather straps at the king's arm." The tears seem to somehow grant reality to the king's empty body -- he is still old, and decrepit, but now seems almost to be an actual human being.
alsoquin "So I bid you farewell, and know that I shall never see you again - Núiyal, or Birds. I ask but one thing before you depart."
Birds "Of course, ask it."
alsoquin "Speak to me one last time, that I might think of it and smile in future days. Tell me the story... of Phoenix of Ashes."
Birds wipes at her eyes - it is unseemly to tell stories in that state - and climbs down to sit beside the litter, among the wildflowers that have begun to grow in the grass.
alsoquin The trees, the wildflowers, the mossy fountains, the stock-still poem-singers and unruly guards -- all seem to tilt their heads, as if to listen closely to Birds' story.
Birds She kisses the king's hand, and begins, "In a country where the old ways had been forgotten, new flowers were growing, and the first rains of spring were sparkling on the horizon..."
Birds "And the castles and houses were empty, and the people had loaded their caravans with tents and silk and dried fruit, for a long long journey."
Birds "And one of them went another way, leaving nothing behind but footprints and a promise to write, because there were so many places in the world left to see."
alsoquin All of the people and things that listen to Birds' words are moved to tears, and weep openly with joy as she tells the story. And as she does, she feels, in those tears, the reverse of what she felt before -- cool water, washing down over her, quenching the fires. The world grows dark again....
alsoquin And after another eternity, Phoenix draws her first breath, naked and curled into a ball, upon the black salt promontory, far above the sea.
Phoenix opens her eyes, unmoving, and takes in the world again. She listens to the sea, feels the salt, smells the wind. She props herself up on her elbows and looks for her clothes.
alsoquin A pile of belongings sits not far from where she lies, though they do not appear to be exactly the belongings she -- another she -- left behind...
alsoquin Bitter Elm looks on with satisfaction from her position far below, but does not speak.
Phoenix runs her fingers through her newly white, wavy hair, and digs through the belongings to find a hook and a bag of pearl and metal beads. Before anything else, she strings these in her hair.
alsoquin Bitter Elm watches with interest.
Phoenix soon finishes dressing and goes to Bitter Elm. She puts a hand on the sorceress's shoulder and nods. "Thank you."
alsoquin The tiny Solar merely looks upon her and nods herself.
Phoenix "I will find Saraj and the others in the city?"
alsoquin Bitter Elm nods again. "I expect he is waiting for you." She pauses for a moment, as if in deep contemplation, before speaking again: "Welcome."
Phoenix picks up a black salt pebble and starts boring a hole in it with the blunt end of the hook. "Thank you again. It's good to...arrive." Busily drilling her new bead, she ambles toward the city.