By Brighid Adam
She hovered over the ruins—ancient marble columns, broken, cracked, yet a few still stood upright. The wind sang through the ruins, whipped her hair, and pressed against her feathered wings. A storm came—Good.
She flew higher into the air, flapping her great snow-white wings. To the east, great black clouds boiled. They came. She knew this storm.
To the south she flew. Past crags and hills and tumbles of weeds. She passed bodies, hordes of bodies, all milling about, aimless, drooling, dead-eyed. They tangled in the weeds, fell into crags, walked into each other, bouncing one off of another, ceaselessly.
The storm would cleanse.
And then the Winged One saw Her. A golden light to the south—blinding, golden, truth.
“My lady, He comes quickly from the east.”
“Then so we gather our own to the sacred waters,” the Lady of Light said. The Lady floated above the great river, her face whiter than lilies and lips the deepest vermillion.
“There are others?” The Winged One asked. She glanced towards the east, where the turbulence spilled forward, rolling clouds, like black stallions, thundering across the sky. “We must hurry to safety…”
The Lady of Light lifted her perfect emerald eyes, she looked towards the north. She stretched out her hands and a silver glow filled the air, brighter than the rising morning star—and for a moment, the world was awake, mindless eyes looked to the south, a glimmer of remembrance, but then the gloom settled back again. The Lady panted to catch her breath.
“Go north. One has awoken.”
“But the storm—He comes! We have no time…”
“Then hurry. This soul is weak, exhausted from battle.”
The Winged One bit her lip, longed for the protection of the world tree, of the sacred head waters of life, but the Lady, She had spoken. And so, the Winged One flew north. The black clouds, the thunder, the lightning, the gusts buffeting, this army of blackness marched across the sky, there were no stragglers. He came. In the storm head, the face of a skull screamed, shadowy arms spread forward, stretching out, reaching, combing through the earth, tearing loose ruins, opening gulches and ravines as wind dug furrows across the dirt and stone.
The Winged One flew harder, faster. She crossed a plain, on which sat a broken palace and a great throne, empty, made of sapphire. Adjacent, a temple, a crumbling ruin: empty, forgotten. Yet many of the blind, the mindless, the men void of life, these wretches wandered and bumped through the courtyards and halls of onyx and gold.
They deserve the storm, she thought, before shaking the dark thought away. What would the Lady of Light say, had She heard that thought?
The Winged One flew north.
In the distance, to the west, she heard a call—the familiar pull. An ocean of jade sparkled. Above the radiance, in the air above the great ocean, floated great islands and towers, each tower a library, each library filled with scrolls of ancient knowledge, true wisdom, more wisdom than a single soul could contain, an eternity to read and study and—
A blinding flash filled the sky from the south. She smelled smoke, singed feathers. Her skin stung. From the south, from the Lady of Light, the flash had come, a reminder—find the girl. The Winged One startled; she was over the ocean, with the chalk cliffs nearly out of sight. Without realizing, she had flown towards the knowledge. She changed course and flew back towards the chalk cliffs, towards land, towards the storm.
Wind pushed against her, hard. Hair whipped and pulled, fine white feathers came loose and were gone. And she was not alone. Ravens flew in and out, some saw her, but she ignored them. Below her the birds feasted. Bodies wounded, falling, dying. Blood spilled from sores and gashes, intestines slopped upon the field. The wounds were without cause. Not a single weapon littered the field.
A crow flew up from below and flew besides the Winged One. A gust nearly threw her to the ground, but the crow flew on, without making so much as a single flinch or tail adjustment.
“An uncommon sight,” said the crow. “What brings you so far into my realm?”
“A girl. She has awoken.”
The crow’s eyes gleamed black. “These are fields of death…not birth.”
The Winged One flew on, always searching, never taking her eyes from the ground. Rain slapped against her back and legs. “Where is she?!”
A swarm of ravens and crows covered the ground below. So thickly had they swarmed, that a black glow radiated into the world, as a miasma of darkness. A few tendrils of white light broke through the blackness. Down the Winged One flew, past the ravens, past the crows, past the mists of pain and suffering and death. On the ground, the wind died, cut off by the swarm. Even here, a few bodies wandered, but with their bones picked clean, little more than rickety skeletons.
And there was the girl, a young woman curled in a ball, weeping. The small tendril of light reached out from the girl’s chest. Yet so did a black tendril, from the girl to the ravens and crows above.
The Winged One tried picking the girl up, but could not—the girl was too heavy. They would have to go by foot. But the protection of the great oak, far to the south, was beyond range. The Winged One looked for shelter, pulling the girl along. The girl stumbled, barely able to walk, barely aware of her own steps. They had to reach shelter soon, they—
A gust slammed into them and took the Winged One down. The girl cried, screamed, and she too fell. Another gust. All but one crow remained. The storm had come. Rain cut into the stone, each drop a piece of fire, brimstone. Smoke filled the world, choking and strangling. Burnt stone. Sizzling flesh. The skeletons disintegrated, their essence adding to the storm’s strength. The bodies, the wanderers, the soulless, they were sucked away, blown upwards, torn asunder by the winds.
The girl whimpered, cried out in pain. The Winged One crawled to her, placed her body atop the girl, using her wings to shelter. Brimstones fell upon feathers, upon her wings, upon her skin. The Winged One, she screamed.
“Aid us!” she shouted to the crow, to any that would hear.
“Where is your Lady of Light, the beacon of the south, the giver of life?” The crow floated on the wind as though the storm were no more than a breeze. The vapors, the fire, they never touched the crow.
“Please!” Another brimstone struck, searing a hole through her right wing. The Winged One cried out.
“Do I serve you?” The crow lazily dodged another meteor, and that same fiery, hurtling stone struck the Winged One’s thigh, shattering bone and cauterizing flesh in polluted bubbles.
The Winged One fell forward, she landed upon the girl, making a shield of flesh and feather. Sparks filled her eyes and nostrils. She coughed and choked and burned alive. The girl screamed.
“You will give me honor,” The crow said.
A pillar of fire fell from heaven and struck the Winged One’s right side. The wing burnt down to a smoldering stump. The Winged One shuddered and sobbed, completely weak. The Winged One had failed. The Lady of the Light had sent her to meet death.
But a shadow grew, a cool shade covered them the Winged One and the girl. The crow grew in size, wings became arms, chest to a woman’s breasts, clothed by a feathered vest, and her beauty…Pale skin, ice eyes, straight and smooth and jet black hair. She stretched out her hands, she stretched herself above the Winged One, above the girl. The heat died. The darkest night fell upon them. The crow, the woman, her face smiled down, lovingly. The Winged One lost awareness.
The light from the morning star reached the Winged One first. The girl still slept, peacefully, without a glow or a shade. The crow had left. A palace filled the plain, with an empty throne of sapphire sitting atop, reaching up towards the sky. Wildflowers spilled across the field, reds and blues, their sweetness born aloft by a cool breeze.
The Winged one rose and stretched up, reaching her wings upwards. She tested them, flapped them, she hovered over the ground. And then she saw them. She gasped and lost rhythm and fell into the loam. Her wings—previously they had been the purest white, but now, now the white mixed with the black, snow white interspersed with jet, swan and crow, life and death. She lifted her face and screamed and sobbed.
The girl startled awake.