by BD Mitchell
Strange things start happening in the bird community, and it's up to Shri to save the day.
The other day I was digging through my old files—reminiscing, organizing, and laughing at my older self—when I stumbled across this little story. Now, I can’t rightly remember if I wrote it in high school or middle school… Suffice to say, it’s been a while.
A few years after writing “Bluefeather”, I came back to it again to edit and improve it. The story had ideas of its own, however, and rapidly transformed into my novel-style work-in-progress, "Hero of Nira" . The biggest difference is, of course, the “Bluefeather” characters are all birds, while the “Hero” characters are mostly human. “Hero” still retains many of the original names, but has added to and developed the central characters further, expanded the plot, and altogether taken the story and themes in a different direction.
Though I’m much happier with “Hero of Nira”, “Bluefeather” still sticks with me a little, if only for nostalgia.
P.S. Though the plot is different, many major characters from this story also appear in “Hero of Nira” (assuming I ever write the rest of it down). That said, spoilers ahead.
Everything begins somewhere and somehow, and the universe is no exception. Before the beginning of life, there came the great falcon, Kryon. He was saddened by the emptiness of the universe, and shook his feathers in agitation. The dust which flew from his great wings settled into the glinting particles of the stars which shine brightly today from the Beyond-Sky.
Kryon was amazed, but became lonely by the remaining emptiness, for no being can dwell past the barrier of Beyond-Sky. Kryon wept, and his tears fell down and formed the mighty waters, over which none but the flighty petrels and the wandering albatross dare cross. This Water-Sky is impenetrable to the birds of the shore, but brings into life the myriad of fish which still dwell there.
Kryon was still alone, and began to pull his down to repress his solitude. His feathers floated down to the Sky to form clouds, and pieces of these clouds broke off to form the Niraan, the Sky-dwellers. Kryon at last was happy, but disaster struck.
Out of blackness came the Rikaran, the Behemoth Miraou. The might beast felled oh so many of the Niraan before Kryon interceded. He drove Rikaran past the Beyond-Sky barrier, where he is still locked in combat for the safety of his children.
Shri’s eyes snapped open and instantly, he was alert. He had sensed movement somewhere about him, and it was enough to disturb his light sleep. His people, the Niraan, generally were alerted to every sound, no matter the lightness. Shri was no exception.
Shrugging of his Dreams, Shri cocked his head about, scanning for any danger. Although he saw none, his senses were still disquieted. He began to preen his wing, hoping that his apparent disinterest would draw the danger forward and visible.
His plan was successful. No sooner than he had lowered his head had movement appeared. Glancing up quickly, Shri caught a cat stealthily creeping up on him. He leapt from his perch just in time to avoid the raking claws of the failed attack.
The cat didn’t give pursuit, so Shri landed on a higher branch of a different tree. When safely perched, he called out to the Miraou. “Not easy shall you find us as meals, Oh Subdued One!” With that, Shri took flight again and dashed off to the Cables.
Cables are another odd invention of the Big Ones. They are wood, as are trees, and yet have but a few branches and no leaves. The oddest thing about these un-trees was that they were all connected to each-other. Running from the few branches of one to the few branches of another are thick strands of some hard string. Even the wisest of the Niraan have not a guess of the purpose of such things. They must mean something to the Big Ones, for the large walkers regularly tend these strings, clambering up the wood or raising themselves on their horrendous groaning beasts.
As puzzling as the Cables are, they serve as an ideal community meeting place for the Niraan.
Shri flutter up and gripped one of the Cables. He looked around to see who else he had joined. The Cables were more or less empty, with a few birds scattered here and there. On his right, a pair of mourning-doves were asleep with their heads tucked under their wings. Farther down, a group of sparrows were twittering madly. If Shri had shoulders, he would have shrugged. Sparrows were the gossip-mongers of the Niraan. No one ever spoke to them, and yet their network was aware of every occurrence within an hour.
Shri looked left and saw that he was sitting right next to an old mockingbird, who was staring at him expectantly.
“Good day, young lad,” it said plainly. Shri was unsure of what to do. One could be confused by the shifting speech of mockingbirds.
“How’s been harvests of late? I’ve heard news of a changing blow. What be the word?”
Shri cautiously answered. “I have heard no such rumors.”
The old bird laughed. “Rumors? Balderdash, young master. If they be rumors, then I have fur and teeth. Mark my words, there shall be dire happenings risin’ o’er the sunset. They’ll be a great loss for many by the hours of the Darkness.” With that, the mockingbird fluttered away squawking and chirping at the same time.
Shri was a bit unsettled, but spotted one of his friends. He hopped over.
“Good day, Jer!” he called cheerfully. Jer looked up. He was another jay, like Shri. He ruffled his feathers sleepily.
“Hello, Shri,” he responded groggily. “What is the time?”
“It is nearly Sun-Peak. How can you be Dreaming now?”
Jer yawned. “I’m afraid I haven’t had much luck with the harvest lately.”
“Nonsense. Follow me.” Shri launched himself from the Cable and Jer followed.
Shri led the way to one of the Walker-dwellings, a big squarish structure which must have been hollow. The two birds landed near one corner of the dwelling. Shri hopped behind a hedge and motioned to an uneven patch in the wall. He poked at it with his beak and it crumbled. Out spilled wood dust and...
“White ants!” he announced proudly. Jer dropped his tail in surprise, but regained himself and snapped up the flailing insects.
Shri smiled. “Feel welcome to come by any day to have some. Their nest is always rebuilt after nightfall.”
Jer had eaten enough. “Thanks, friend. I will remember my debt.”
“No need. It was a gift, not a debt.”
“I insist,” Jer said in a final tone. Shri left it at that.
It was night, and Shri had settled down in the crook of an old oak tree. He was drifting off, but was still alert to danger. He stood bolt upright. He sensed an invisible presence. He could detect the faint shadow of...
An owl. He ruffled his feathers in annoyance, but convinced himself to calm down. The owls were only concerned with the rodents on the ground, and rarely attacked other birds. In fact, in daylight hours it was the owl who worried, for the crows and other jays would mass together to drive off the innocent owl. Only a brave or foolish one ventured forth in the light.
At night, however, they were the masters. Everyone who was not prey accepted this. Naturally, the mice and voles had different opinions, but were rarely heard by the Niraan.
Shri ignored the owl-scent and began to find his Dreams. He was interrupted again by something. At first he thought it was another owl, but could not detect the bird to which it belonged. He tried to find a clue, and nearly fell from his perch. Somewhere in the dark, a great Thing was prowling. He thought it might have been a cat, but it was far too large. It must have been at least the size of a Walker.
Shri cowered at the invisible monster. He tried to be as silent as possible to avoid being sensed. For the first time since he first was hunted by a Miraou, Shri was afraid.
Shri left as soon as it was light enough to see. He had been Dreamless all night, for fear of the hunter catching him. As soon as light spread, he wanted to fly to any place with others. He would not feel safe until he was with his own.
Fortunately, the trees near the Walker-nests are always full of chirping Niraan spreading news, eating, and just enjoying themselves. Shri fluttered about until he spotted a group of his friends.
“Good morning, all!” he called as he perched. He wasn’t sure, but his voice sounded shaky.
“Shri?” his friend Kray asked. “Are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Shri laughed unconvincingly.
“You seem a little edgy today,” piped Jiay.
“I’m fine. Really.” Shri decided to change the subject. “Is there any good news today?”
“Oh yes!” replied Jer, who definitely had more energy than the day before. “According to the sparrows, the Barrier was breached!”
“‘What barrier?’” Kray mocked. “Honestly. The Beyond-Sky! What other barrier would we be concerned with?”
Shri was startled. “Breached, you say?”
“The word from the sparrows is the owls are all disquieted. They saw something last night in the sky. They say it is falling Wing-Dust, but it was bright. It had a large streaming tail and burned like the Sun!”
Shri shuddered, remembering the night before.
Jiay looked concerned. “What’s wrong?”
Shri decided to tell them. “Last night, I had a bit of a shock myself. I was trying to Dream when I felt something.”
“What was it?” was the unanimous reply.
“Well,” Shri continued, “it’s hard to describe. It felt like being hunted, but it was different. Whatever was hunting had no scent or sound I can remember.”
“What was it?” asked Jiay eagerly, earning a swat from Jer.
“He doesn’t know. Haven’t you been listening?”
Shri was cheered a little at his friends’ response. “At first I thought it was an owl, for they were about, but I realized it couldn’t have been. It was hunting along the ground, and it was as large as a Walker.”
The group was silent. They didn’t know how to respond to this.
Shri shrugged off his fear. “Well, night is over and it is a fine morning! Let’s forget it, shall we?”
His friends remained silent. Shri began to grow angry and ruffled his feathers.
“It was a Dream! I’m sure of it! No such creature exists, now drop the issue!”
Jer shook his wings as if shrugging of a veil. “Shri’s right,” he said. “It is no cause for alarm. Now let us fly.”
With that, the four friends leapt from their perches and fluttered off over the treetops.
It was night again, and Shri was sound asleep. He was having most peculiar Dreams.
He was fleeing. He didn’t know from what he was fleeing, but he was sure that he was. Something was odd about the whole picture... what was it... it came to him. Instead of flying from his stalker, he was running along the ground. He tried to flap his wings, but they hung limp at his sides, as useless as dying tree limbs. He scurried along the rough soil when he heard a sound from his pursuit. It was a scraping, like a beak against a stone. It chilled his blood and energized his need for escape. He heard the crunching of leaves under his own feet, but no footfalls sounded behind him, as is often heard from a Walker or an Orné. It was soft and nearly undetectable under the seemingly harsh noise of his flight. He could sense the presence closing in, but before it could catch him, he started awake.
He flung his Dreams away instantly and sat shivering on his branch. He could sense the owls again, but there was no trace of the giant predator from the night before. Somehow, this chilled him even more, and he shivered again. He buried his face beneath his wing and blocked out the sounds and smells of hunters. Let them find me... he thought. Let them come...
Daylight broke and Shri was rested but very edgy. He had Dreamed, but his visions were all of carnage and famine, things he normally did not have to deal with. He ruffled his feathers nervously and began preening them back down. Something was bothering him... something was wrong.
“Shri!” a voice called frantically. Shri jumped at the loud noise and whirled about.
Jer fluttered up and landed on Shri’s branch.
“Oh, good morning Jer,” Shri called, but noticed that so many of Jer’s feathers were out of place, signaling a note of panic.
“Shri! Come quickly! It’s horrible!” With that, Jer leapt from the tree and swooped off. Shri abandoned his grooming and followed. He quickly caught up with his worried friend.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You’ll have to see!”
Minutes later, they perched on a tree above the white-ant source. Shri flared his tail in shocked. The entire structure was coated in some billowing, brightly colored material, completely sealing it from the outside world. An odd, unsettling scent floated up from the dwelling.
“A Harvest-bane,” Shri muttered quietly after examining the odor. He fluttered down to the base and peered along the ground. Sure enough, the earth was scattered with dead insects of all sizes.
“It’s just as he said,” he whispered.
“Who?” Jer asked.
“The mockingbird. He told me a few days ago that something like this would happen.”
Jer let out a small, uneasy laugh. “Mockingbirds! You can’t seriously believe him?” He stopped laughing a drew closer. “What else did he say?”
Shri thought for a moment. “He said something about ‘a great loss’ then ‘the hours of Darkness.’” He blinked and glanced at Jer. “But what does that mean?”
Jer shook his head. “I don’t know, but I know who might. Follow me,” and he took wing again.
“Where are we going?” Shri asked.
“To the Old One.”
Jer practically fell out of the air. “The Old One!” he said in disbelief. “Anuraug, the legend-teller!”
“Oh, right.” Shri was a little abashed. How could he have forgotten? Anuraug was a raven, a large shabby-feathered old bird with a tired croaking voice. He no longer flew, and so spent his days in a hollow tree Dreaming of the Past and Future. He relied on the mockingbirds to survive, and in exchange shared his wisdom.
The two landed on a large branch of the tremendous oak tree which housed the Old One. They hopped over to a dark entrance, but were stopped by an energetic young mockingbird.
“Who, sirs, wish to be let into the smarts of yon elder?” he asked, his tail wagging up and down.
Jer didn’t know how to respond, but Shri had some experience with mockingbirds.
“We hail from the elder-pine regions and wish to consult the Old One.”
“What be the intention of this visit?” the young one squawked.
“We have need of an interpretation of some information given to us. Will you let us pass?”
The young bird glared at them suspiciously, but hopped onto an adjacent branch to admit them. “Quickly-ask, masters, for thine olden bloke needs his nest-time as well as anyone.”
“Thank you,” Shri said gratefully and moved inside, followed by Jer.
The interior of the trunk was a huge, dark open space. The wooden walls were lined with the tracks of beetle-young and other insects, as was the ceiling. In the center of the chamber was a large raised platform and a perch constructed of a thick branch. Seated on this was Anuraug. He was more impressive in person, as the stories and rumors did little to convey the size of the old bird. He must have been at least twice as large as a normal raven, and so dwarfed Shri and Jer by four times.
They crept nearer, not wanting to disturb him, but anxious to speak. Before they had the chance to decide, a low rumbling filled the chamber. A sound was emanating from deep within the Old One. It grew deeper until it came forth from his beak.
“Why do you hesitate?” came the great croaking voice. The dusty black feathers shifted slightly and Anuraug opened one large eye. Shri almost leapt back. Unlike normal Niraan, who possessed shiny black eyes, the Old One’s were a flat yellow, as if they had been filled with light from the Sun. The raven chuckled, a deep sound which seemed to shake the whole tree.
“Do I surprise you? Long has it been since I have traded my sight for wisdom. I can no longer perceive light, but I am able to sense you and find you. Why do you come?” He narrowed his eyes as if about to fall back into his Dreams.
Shri found his courage and spoke loudly. “We have come to ask of you the meaning to a message. Days ago, I was told by a mockingbird that something would happen, something terrible.”
“What were the words?” Anuraug asked slowly.
Shri blinked and tried to remember. “He said there would be ‘dire happenings rising over the sunset. There will be a great loss for many by the hours of the Darkness.’ Yes, that was it.”
“And what relevance has this to the waking world?”
“A man’s dwelling was sealed today and a blight was lowered onto the harvest near there.”
Anuraug seemed to stare off into space for a while. “This may be the old Niraan’ message, but it seems not to be. Tell me instead of your unsettling Dreams.”
Shri was taken aback. He did not expect the Old One to know of this! And what did it have to do with anything at the moment? Nevertheless, he tried to recall his nightmares from before.
“I am perched in a tree, with the owls hunting below me. I can hear or see nothing, but I know something is pursuing me, some silent shadow I feel a presence to, but not a scent or sight. I try to flee, but cannot, for my wings are damaged. I’m as helpless as a field-mouse.” Shri shuddered. “But what good does this do, Old One?”
Anuraug trembled slightly as if in laughter, but made no sound. “Little one,” he said, as of one teaching a nestling, “think harder! Are these really Dreams? Or do you merely assume them to be? Suppose your invisible wraith of a hunter exists?”
Shri was quaking in nervous fear now. Had he really been in mortal danger and not known it? “Forgive me, Old One, but I do not believe you.”
“Ah!” Anuraug’s laughter was easily perceptible now. He bent down and glared at Shri with both shining eyes. “Listen to me, youngling,” he said with a kind tone, but very seriously, “belief and trust are matters of opinions, but there are few who know the inner workings of fate. Us few legend-tellers know the path of history, and can predict the future, but only the King-Falcon himself truly sees and understands.”
Taken aback by this comment, as if he had been assaulted, he mumbled quickly another question.
“I can hear nothing of you, youngling. Speak up!”
“I asked if you knew what it was, Old One,” Shri said a little louder than he had expected.
“Can you think of nothing that could be your mysterious stalker?”
“Perhaps an Ohrohr or...”
“No, no,” Anuraug grumbled. “Your foe is much more ancient than any common animal. Something tells me you shall meet and overcome this obstacle, for the better I’m sure.” He lifted his head and sealed his eyes. “For now, I would suggest that you and your friend leave to find a meal, for it is nearly Sun’s Peak.”
Shri was puzzled, but then remembered Jer. He glanced over to see his friend with a glazed expression as if he was too awestruck to speak. Jer blinked and, with a gesture from Shri, turned to leave the hollow. As Shri himself was exiting, he heard the raven’s voice again.
“Remember this, youngling,” Anuraug spoke clearly, “I have no knowledge as to why I am to tell you this, nor even to what it means, but you must seek your past should you wish to carve a future. Keep this until it makes some sense to you, and fly in peace.”
With that, the old raven’s snores echoed through the tree and Shri left the darkness.
Three days had passed and Shri had been wracking his brain to find a meaning to Anuraug’s riddle. Seek the past? he found himself thinking frequently. It did no good, and he finally forced himself to think of other things, or rather found he had less time to think if he spent his time foraging. The harvest was getting slower; the mockingbird’s remarks made that much sense.
Shri was seated on a low branch gulping down a meager cricket when a huge rush of wings blew past. Shri ducked in time to miss the onslaught and lifted his head cautiously. A large congregation of birds was traveling towards the deep woods. Shri watched them fly past, unsure of how to react, when a small sparrow dropped down and landed next to Shri.
“What are you waiting for?” it called shrilly. “Everyone’s coming to see! It’s big news, it is!” With that, the little bird darted off to the forest. Shri decided he wanted to know what the fuss was about and followed.
Immediately inside the dense trees, the Niraan were perched in trees and examining the ground. Shri landed and turned to see what all the fuss was about. He nearly fell from his branch.
Scattered all about the forest floor were feathers and blood, and lying in several small heap were owls. There had to be at least twenty, from where Shri could see. But what sort of animal leaves its prey behind, and who can actually kill this many owls, no less?
The canopy was buzzing with rumors and panic, but Shri heard none of it. He kept thinking to himself, They’ll be a great loss for many by the hours of the Darkness. The ‘great loss’ appears to be happening, which can only mean the ‘hours of Darkness’ are fast approaching. Shri shivered although the air was warm. He did not know why, but he felt horrible dread and left the scene of the massacre. He knew he must find an answer to Anuraug’s riddle quickly; he feared the worst would happen if he didn’t.
After striving for another day on the riddle, Shri had come no closer. He drifted off at the day’s end into a fitful sleep, and encountered some truly odd Dreams.
He was perched in a titanic pine tree which he was sure would reach up to the very stars. As he stared, he noticed a single star, a bright red one, shone more fiercely than the rest. It also seemed to be larger. Shri saw the other stars flee from it as ants from a questing beak. Suddenly, the red star flashed and engulfed the rest in fire. Then, the sky grew calm and dark.
Shri’s Dream self whirled, hearing a sudden noise, and found two bright eyes glimmering in the near-darkness. He had the urge to run, certain that it was a Miraou, but he waited. Out of the gloom came the Old One, Anuraug. The great bird came and settled down next to Shri.
Clearing his throat meaningfully, Anuraug glanced at the sky and said, “It will come to pass.”
Seeing Shri’s puzzled gaze, the raven continued. “The evil will come and, in its wrath, annihilate all others.”
“But what can be done?” Shri heard himself ask.
“Patience,” the old raven muttered, his eyes narrowing. “There is one, a noble warrior who will come to lead the army against the evil. He remains hidden, but must awaken should the world be spared.”
Shri could make no sense of this. “How can this be done?”
Anuraug paused, as if considering his reply. “I am but one of the old forces in this world. Seek the other three, the Mountain, River, and Sea. The task of the Wood is fulfilled, for the quest is set. Awake!”
Shri felt himself forcefully ripped from his Dreams and found the Sun glaring at him. He set back any stray feathers and made up his mind. The Dream of Anuraug had filled him with a sense of purpose. He knew that he was responsible for much, and so decided to find these three that the Old One had spoken of. But where to start?
“So, you have returned to my counsel again, have you?” the great raven’s voiced echoed about the tree chamber.
“Yes, Old One,” Shri called. “I wonder if you can tell me of Mountain, River, Wood, and Sea.”
Anuraug’s gaze grew tranquil, as if reminiscing of events past. “So, you have heard of the Masters.”
“Four Niraan of great power which preside over their realms, although the need for leaders are less in newer days. The nearest to here would be myself, the Master of the Wood. Next on is Aerkin, Master of the Mountain. Beyond his range is the great sea, overseen by Kiryo, and the broad river of Tikakit. But why,” Anuraug seemed to drop from his memories, “have you come to me for this?”
“I was granted a Dream last night,” Shri said firmly. “I was instructed to seek out the old forces.”
“You, Old One.”
Anuraug paused, partly amazed and partly satisfied. “So, Shri, this task has fallen to you. I had not realized before that you should have this, but here it is, unavoidable. It is up to you to bring together the fate of all.”
Shri, already unsettled by his vision, was now nearing a state of panic. “But Old One, how can I manage this? I have not the strength!”
“Patience, youngling. You must have confidence. Now, you must seek out Aerkin as soon as possible, or others will fall.”
Shri nodded uncertainly and left quickly. He first decided to tell his friends about his encounters and see their advice. He neared the trees in which they usually slept and heard the rushing of a vast number of feathers. Uneasy, he noticed too many birds in the treetops. Unsure as to what he would find, he landed and peered through the branches to the forest floor.
Scattered upon the leaves was a cluster of maybe twenty bodies. Several were mourning doves, more were crows, and the rest were sparrows, finches and...
Jays. Shri saw through grieving eyes the bodies of his close friends, lying lifeless and in several pieces. He squeezed his burning eyes shut and wept silently to himself, more horrified than ever. A voice rose through his tears and told himself that, should Anuraug be right, he was the only one who could stop this. One glance at Jer’s mangled body was enough to drive all doubt from Shri’s mind. He would leave as soon as possible for the mountain’s peak.
Shri stopped, panting, to rest on a pine branch. He had been flying for two hours straight and had climbed several thousand feet into the air. He was certain he must be near the summit by now, and flapped upwards to check. Sure enough, ahead was a rocky peak surrounded by bare stone and dead trees.
Shri swooped over to the stones and perched atop the highest one he could find. From here, he scanned the horizon for anything that looked remotely like an eagle, although he wasn’t sure what size it would be, for he had never seen one before.
He was still searching when the oddest bird he had ever seen popped up. It was a little smaller than Shri and had a fat little body and a small, pointed beak. It’s oddest features were its masked face and a single feather that stood curved from its forehead as if some kind of crown.
“Hello!” it called amicably. It scurried along the ground towards Shri. It hopped quickly onto a smaller rock and stood there, bobbing its head. “What might you be doing near here?”
“Oh, I’m actually looking for someone, an eagle... named... uh...” He hesitated, for the bird was staring at something behind its back. “Uh... excuse me,” he began again.
“Oh, hello!” said the bird, turning rapidly around. “Who are you, my fine sir? What lovely clouds! Think it could rain? I’m in need of a brisk walk!”
Shri didn’t know what to do. As bizarre as mockingbirds were, they were no comparison to this Niraan. “Could I get your name?” he asked hurriedly before the bird changed the subject again.
“I’d be Querin, that’d be me. I’m the resident quail in these parts!” So that was it! This fellow was a quail! Shri had heard that quails were little help to anyone, if that much. They were as dull-witted as they came.
“Could you tell me where Aerkin lives?” Shri asked.
“Aerkin? Nope, don’t know any grass by that name, although I might have met a snail named nikreA or possibly kinAer!”
Shri decided to just ignore the bird and hope it went away. He would get his wish, for promptly, Querin let out a shriek and cried, “There’ll be logs and thistles dropping on our heads soon enough!” and scurried quickly into the underbrush.
Shri stared after the creature in wonderment, but heard a rushing noise, as if a wind was coming to meet him. He instinctively froze with his head lowered.
A dark shape plummeted from the clouds and fell onto a tall stone pillar. Shri saw that the shape was indeed and Niraan. It was maybe five times as large as he, but colored a shiny gold and featuring a cruel, curved beak. He knew that this was an eagle, and it must be Aerkin.
“Are you the Master of the Mountain?” Shri called to the bird, who was glaring at him fiercely.
“I am,” replied the eagle with a proud and commanding tone. “What concerns you with Aerkin the Great and Mystifying?”
“I have heard of no such title for you, Lord of the Peaks.”
The eagle grinned, an odd sight for such an angry looking predator. “That is because I have just made it up.” He hopped closer. “I have not seen jays near here since before the hills rose. Why have you come?”
“I have been sent on a quest,” Shri replied, “by Legend-teller Anuraug of the Old Woods.”
“Anuraug!” Aerkin exclaimed with excitement. “That old buzzard calls himself a Legend-teller now? It has been ages since I’ve spoken with him. How is his sight?”
“I’m sorry, Lord, but the Old One is blind.”
“Only to outward appearances. Anuraug knows more than perhaps I with my keen vision and excellent hearing. Speaking of which, you will get no value from asking quails. They know of nothing but their own wings and feet, if that.”
“You were listening?”
“Indeed, and be glad I chanced upon you. You would find not a trace of me from asking these locals. No one calls upon me, and so they will not know. Now, what is it you need?”
“Anuraug said I should come to you to learn something.”
Aerkin peered closely at Shri. His gaze seemed to pierce through Shri as easily as those razor talons would. “Ah,” the eagle said, “you are in need of the strength to fulfill your destiny. I would give you this as an amulet to bestow you with this skill.”
With that, the eagle produced a long cord which was looped around and knotted into a ring. To this he fastened one of his feathers, a small one, and placed it around Shri’s neck.
“With my quill about you, fear not any danger. But, listen! It is indeed close by. Follow me, quickly!”
Aerkin took flight and Shri darted after him. The eagle swooped down low over the treetops and landed in a great pine. Shri came up as well and peered to where the eagle was gesturing. By the base of another tree was a large beast. It was an Orné, a bear, and it was dead with gashes in its chest and sides.
“This is the work of your foe,” Aerkin said solemnly. “It is a daring beast who would challenge an Orné, but a powerful one to overcome it. Tread carefully and search for Kiryo near the sea’s shore. Follow the range before you and over it is your destination.” He spread his great wings. “Take care, Shri of the Blue Feather.” With that, he flew off, leaving Shri to stare morosely at the dead bear below him.
Shri again felt a swell of panic, but stilled it quickly. He would have none of that now.
As soon as he had cleared the mountains, Shri found himself descending to a shoreline. In all his years, he had never seen anything quite like the ocean. Huge and gray, it was constantly moving and Shri was sure he would be hypnotized by it if he allowed it.
Another thing Shri noticed was the numerous species of bird, ones which he didn’t recognize. He knew some as geese, which periodically flew in formations above his home, but others were completely knew to him. The most abundant by far were white birds with wide wings; they were everywhere. He decided to ask one for Kiryo.
“Excuse me,” he called, alighting on a floating piece of wood, “I wonder if you could tell me...”
“Hey, buddy, whaddaya think you’re doing?” one of the white birds shouted at him. Instantly, a flock of them landed directly in the water as a duck would and bobbed up and down in the waves.
“I was just...” Shri pleaded, but he was sure no one heard it.
“The nerve of some people!”
“I say we push him around some!”
“Ask him if he has any food, first!”
“I’m not asking him anything!
“Hey get lost!”
“You first, fish-brain!”
“Hey, there, clear off you lot!”
The last comment came from a large brown bird with a long bill. It came flapping up and quickly ushered Shri away.
“I can’t imagine why you’d want to get mixed up with gulls, mate,” it said when they were a good distance away.
“I just... uh... thanks,” Shri stammered.
“Don’t mention it. Say,” he added on inspiration, “you’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, I’m Shri from far inland.”
“How d’you do. My name’s Corrok. I’m a general all-around good fella, at least compared with the likes o’ them.” He gestured to the gulls, who were now squabbling over a dead fish on the shore.
“Right,” Shri said. “Listen, I’m looking for a bird by the name of Kiryo. Would you know him?”
Corrok eyes narrowed in concentration. “Hmmm... oh! You must mean the Mythic, the cormorant. He’s generally in his ring.”
“Here, I’ll show you. Come with me.” With that, the bird unfurled his wings, tucked back his long neck, and lifted off down the shoreline with Shri in tow.
The two soon came to a large island of stone riddled with caves in the outer wall. As they flew over, Shri saw that it was really a ring of rock surrounding a small body of water which connected to the sea outside. In the center was a large raised surface on which a large black bird was standing with its wings open, back to the sun. Corrok led the way down to the pedestal and gestured meaningfully at the black bird.
Shri hopped forward, but before he could speak, the bird gave a loud squawk, stretched his wings wider, then folded them tightly against its side.
“How nice to meet you at last, Shri,” the bird said with a hushed voice. It reminded Shri of the mourning doves back home whenever they awoke and felt social, which was rarely.
The black bird still did not turn around. “I am Kiryo, Master of the Sea.”
“I have been asked to seek audience with you, Lord of the Waves,” Shri said quietly, for fearing of breaking the aura.
“Hmmm...” the bird muttered and turned its head on its neck to face Shri, the body slowly following. Having met Anuraug, he should not have been shocked, but was anyway. Kiryo’s eyes were a shiny blue color, like a light submerged deep in water.
“So different,” the cormorant whispered, “and yet so familiar. I trust you have met with Anuraug and Aerkin, my comrades?”
“Yes, it was they who sent me here.”
“And what task have they set before you, Shri of the Far Shore?”
“Something of a grand destiny,” Shri said carefully.
“Indeed,” the bird continued. “I too have felt your burden from afar, but the blight has yet to reach my realm. The evil still has fear of the water, and the wrath which issues from it.”
“Why do you speak this way?” Shri asked curiously. “Don’t you know that death is abroad, and many suffer?”
“I do,” came the reply quietly.
“Than how can you remain calm against this?”
Kiryo smiled wistfully. “It is a secret as old as any. In the face of danger, be as calm as the sea, and rely on your foe to present his weakness. All beings have a weakness about them.”
“It doesn’t often seem so,” Shri said angrily. He was getting a bit worked up over this bird.
Kiryo clicked his beak in amusement. “You see? You are presenting a weakness to me now. In anger, you will make mistakes. Always remain peaceful, even near the threat of death.”
Shri forced his nerves to calm down. He was in fact startled. The old bird was right.
“Will you help me?” he asked.
Kiryo scooped a feather from the ground. “I can give you one of my feathers as a symbol of tranquility.” He fastened it next to Aerkin’s quill around Shri’s neck. “Remember my message, for it will aid you in the end.”
The cormorant turned around and spread his wings out again, which promptly began steaming in the warm sun. Shri turned to leave and was followed by Corrok.
Outside of Kiryo’s ring, Shri landed on a floating branch, and Corrok in the water.
“Well,” Shri began, “I must leave you here. Thank you for being so helpful.”
“Ah, no worries, mate. It was the least I could do.”
Shri flew off towards the mainland again. Now all he needed was to find Tikakit.
A few miles away, the sea turned into a large rushing river. Shri was certain that this beast would lead to Tikakit. He turned and flew over it. Soon, the sandy shore gave way to green trees and thick brush. Still, the river raged on over countless stones and boulders. He wasn’t sure where to be looking, and so perched on a tree near one of the river’s branches. This stream was quiet and peaceful, quite the contrast to the rapids downstream.
Shri knew he should ask someone where he would find Tikakit, but saw no one. He traveled a bit farther up and came upon a large group of ducks. He recognized them because they were seen near his home, but he had never spoken to one.
“Hello!” he called. None of them answered, so he continued. “I’m here looking for someone. Could you help me?” Still no answer. “Can you hear me?”
The ducks kept about their business and completely ignored Shri. Frustrated, Shri turned to leave.
“Hey! I’ll help you!”
Shri gratefully spun around, expecting to see the ducks had changed their minds, but they still paid him no heed. So who had spoken to him?
“Down here!” the voice called again. Shri’s gaze lowered until it fell on a bird about the same size as Shri. The creature was blue-gray in color and sported an unruly crest of feathers. It fluttered up and hovered in the air before Shri.
“You said you’d help me?”
“Indeed,” the bird chirped before perching.
“I’m afraid I’ve never met a bird like you before.”
“That’s because we kingfishers mainly keep to ourselves.” The bird began preening its gray feathers together. Suddenly, it perked its head up. “Be right back,” it said quickly and dove off the branch into the water.
Shri decided he would wait for the kingfisher to return. Indeed, the gray bird exploded out of the water with a small, silver fish clutched in its beak. It shook the water from its feathers and flapped heavily up the Shri’s branch, downing the wriggling fish.
“Sorry about that. Can’t afford to pass them by.” It began squeezing the remaining moisture from its wings and tail. “Anyway, you say you’re looking for someone?”
“Yes,” Shri answered. “I need to find a very great bird, the Master of the River.”
An odd twinkling appeared in the kingfisher’s eye and it stopped its grooming. “Aha! Searching for Tikakit, are you?”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
“That I do,” said the bird cheerfully. “I could show you, if you wish it.”
“Oh thank you!” Shri said. He was glad to have found another helpful Niraan. The kingfisher gestured for Shri to follow and swooped off.
As Shri followed, the kingfisher called over his shoulder, “What business have you with the Lord of the Stream?”
“I was sent by three others like him. I was told to find him here.”
The kingfisher nearly fell from the air. “You have met the other Masters?” he cried in shock.
“Yes, I have. How is it you know of them?” Shri called up to his guide.
“I too have met with them, indeed, all four of them once.”
“Really?” Shri asked.
“Oh, yes,” continued the kingfisher. “So,” his tone changed into a much more jovial one, “what do you think of the other Masters? Impressive, eh?”
“Oh, yes! They are so mysterious, I hardly know what to say around each one. By far, though, Anuraug is the most imposing, for he is both large and very cryptic. What of Tikakit? What manner of Niraan is he?”
The kingfisher smiled and landed on a branch. “Tikakit is definitely the most surprising of the Masters. I would say he is my favorite, but you’re right, Anuraug is interesting. Well, they each have their qualities.”
“What is surprising about him? Tikakit, I mean.”
“Well, for one thing he has a different personality, not nearly so dark and brooding as the rest. You’d like him.”
“When will I meet him?” Shri asked anxiously.
“Soon. You know, it occurs to me that I don’t know your name. What are you called?”
“Hi, my name’s Tikakit.”
Shri nearly fell from his branch. He didn’t expect this, though the kingfisher did, for he was twitching his head in barely contained laughter.
“You were expecting someone else? My colleagues may be large and impressive, but I am quite different.”
Shri didn’t know how to respond. Tikakit spoke through the silence. “Oh, honestly. It’s not that big of a shock. Think of it as my lesson: It is not your talons that hold the power, but the spirit behind them.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, right down to it, size doesn’t matter. Take Aerkin for example. He’s strong, he’s confident, and he has the brain to back it up. Yet even he will admit that I could best him in combat.”
“How, how... what is it with your kind? Everyone believes only what they see. I prevail because of by speed and intelligence, and do not rely on brute strength. Follow?”
Shri saw some logic to this. After all...
“The river wins by being fast and swift,” he said, earning a broad grin from the kingfisher.
“Exactly the point! Now that you’ve heard this, I suppose you’ll be needing a token. Come forward and receive your symbol of skill.” He plucked on of his blue-gray feathers and attached it to the collar Shri wore. “One more to your collection, Shri.”
Shri was definitely relieved, but something was gnawing in his mind. “What must I do now?”
Tikakit’s grin faded. “Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that.” He paced around on his perch. “I suppose you must travel back to Anuraug for whatever final judgment he is withholding.”
Shri nodded in agreement. Looking to the dimming sky, he tried to find his bearings, but Tikakit caught his attention.
“I like you, Shri, so I’ll help you again. Follow this stream as far up as the dense wood. Here will be the Wood-Master’s forest. Safe journey, Master Shri!”
He bowed his head in parting and dove back into the gurgling stream. Shri hopped off the branch and followed the river as Tikakit had said. He hoped that whatever he must do, it would be not much longer from now.
Shri hurried through the maze of trees and pushed past the stammering mockingbird guard. “Old One!” he called to the black shape, “I have done what you have asked. What task must I perform to complete it?”
“Little one,” the booming voice came, “you still have need of one final lesson. Before you come to your fate, you must learn of...” Anuraug froze, as if hearing a far off noise that startled him.
“Listen to me!” he said with a note of urgency. “You will find your way in due time, but for now, I ask you to leave this tree, and warn the mockingbirds to flee. If you insist on watching, it must be from a separate tree. Hurry!” He swept a great wing around and the gust nearly forced Shri through the entrance tunnel.
Needing no more convincing, Shri dashed outside amid departing mockingbirds and alighted on another oak. He knew the sun was only just setting, but the sky was black and rain was pouring forth. A deep rumbling sounded and a stream of white lightning flashed down and crashed into Anuraug’s tree. A loud crack sounded and the mighty oak split into many pieces and erupted into steam. After only a split second, the lightning vanished, leaving the ruins of the Legend-teller’s home.
“No!” Shri cried out to the storm. He dashed to the site, although knowing he could not help. He poked his way through the rubble and found what must have been the floor of Anuraug’s chamber and the remains of his perch. Nothing could be seen of the old raven, save a few singed feathers.
Shri was horrified. Anuraug was gone! And through his fears, Shri heard another, darker thought: What could he do now to save anyone? Anuraug had died before telling Shri the final lesson. All was doomed. And yet...
No! Shri refused to believe it. If this was fate, than all could not be lost. Shri believed in Anuraug, and knew that the Old One could not have left the world to disaster. He had faith in the raven...
Suddenly, a bright light appeared behind Shri. At first, he thought it was another bolt of lightning come to finish him as well, but it was a different color. Shri slowly turned and saw one of Anuraug’s feathers was ablaze. No, not on fire, it was merely glowing with a golden light, the same color as the Wood-Master’s eyes. It rose into the air as if on an invisible wind current, and a voice called out the Shri.
“Fear not, little one,” came the voice of the dead raven, “for it has come to pass. It is as I have said, you have found your own wings. The final lesson is faith. One is nothing without his faith that everything will come to good in the end. That is what drives the best of us. Now accept this as a emblem of your unwavering fidelity to me.” The feather floated through the air and adhered itself to Shri’s collar with the other three quills.
The cord presently snapped and rose into the air in front of Shri. He felt himself glowing, not with pride, but literally glowing blue. Aerkin’s long quill rose forward and the eagle’s voice could be heard saying, “the talons of strength.” The feather darted forward and, touching Shri’s scaly legs, turned his limbs into a solid gold color. He felt new power running through his claws.
The graceful black feather of the cormorant rose next and, with the serene voice saying, “the tranquil mind,” it touched upon Shri’s brow, turning his head black. He felt an extraordinary clarity in his head, as if he now understood everything.
Tikakit’s small gray feather zoomed forward and, accompanied by a quick “wings of skill,” changed Shri’s wings and tail to slate gray, and Shri knew they would carry him swifter than ever.
Finally, Anuraug’s still smoldering quill came forward and, touching his chest and letting the statement, “heart of faith,” changed Shri’s chest to a glossy black and gold stripe. Shri could sense a burning deep in him as if the burning feather had seared his very core. He also felt a supreme confidence, and he knew that he could avenge the deaths of his friends. But first, he needed some allies...
Shri fluttered across the open field. He knew he was going in the right direction from the trail of blood, still fresh on the soil. Trying to keep his eyes upon it in the dim morning light, he moved closer to his adversary, half-dreading the confrontation, but also filled with a strange courage.
Finally, the trail led to a large patch of thorny bushes. Shri perched in a dying tree not far from the rustling plant. He plucked up his nerve and called out to the creature.
“Shadow-monger!” he shouted with a fierceness that surprised even him. “Show yourself, bringer of destruction, or are you that much of a coward?” He then waited with bated breath.
Minutes passed and the shivering brush grew still. Slowly, a large black shape emerged from the thorns and crouched down low. Shri had expected something like this, but was still amazed.
The beast before him was a Miraou, but not an everyday cat. It was at least twice as large as a walker, was black with faint silver striping, and red-lit eyes.
“So,” the beast growled. Shri hadn’t been expecting conversation with the animal, but it spoke through the Niraan language. “You challenge me? I have swatted flies larger than you, little feathery gnat.” It communicated with such an easy and confident manner. “Do not make me slay you as well. You would hardly be a mouthful.”
Shri let out an unconvincing laugh. “You do not scare me, furred one! Your days of murder and nightmares are over.”
“You would dare to say this to me? A mere nest-creature challenges the might of Rikaran, master of the realm of the living?”
“Well prepare yourself, mighty tabby, for I shall send you to be a servant in the realm of the dead!”
With a deafening roar, Rikaran leaped forward and barreled towards Shri, who let out a squawk and charged as well. Shortly before colliding, the giant cat reared up and swung its enormous claws at Shri, who similarly stopped and fluttered about in the air, diving and dodging. Here and there, he darted in and struck with his beak and slashed with his talons. Eventually, the Miraou leapt backwards, away from the surprisingly small and agile little bird. Needless to say, Rikaran was furious.
“Why do you not fall, pest?!” he spat in rage. He erupted out again with his claws raking the air. Again, Shri swooped and whirled about in a deadly dance.
In spite of the tremendous danger he was in, he was rather enjoying this, tormenting the murdering beast, that is until a slashing claw clipped his tail feather and threw of his balance ever so slightly. This was all the advantage the cat needed. He swung his paw and slammed Shri to the hard earth.
“We’ll see now who will be the servant,” Rikaran growled, a wicked grin spreading across his jaws. He raised his other paw, but before he could strike, a loud noise echoed through the field. From over the forests the bright light of the sun began showing, and a single ray shot forward and struck Shri. The giant cat jumped slightly in surprise, for the light showed Shri in a new way. His multi-colored coat shone and glistened with a rainbow of hues, reflecting every beam which hit him. He hopped to his feet under the Miraou’s now-raised paw.
“It is not over yet, demon,” Shri said with a fierce grin. Another loud noised spread over the open space. Around the sun, a dark cloud appeared to be forming.
“Your day is done, the army is come.”
Indeed, the shape was thousands of birds of all shapes and sizes, from mighty eagles and herons to tiny chickadees and wrens. They all gathered together to form a spiraling storm around the panicking black beast on the ground.
Three shapes fell from the masses and landed beside Shri: a cormorant, a kingfisher, and an eagle.
“Got your message,” Tikakit said cheerfully.
“Fate is taking its turn,” Kiryo said quietly.
“Let us drive this demon back to where it belongs!” Aerkin shouted.
Shri nodded. He stepped forward and called to Rikaran.
“Master Miraou,” he said calmly, “this is your last chance. Surrender, or feel the wrath of thousands in vengeance.”
“Never!” Rikaran hissed with mounting rage.
“So be it.” Shri screeched to the waiting cloud and instantly it broke apart. Countless beaks, bills, and talons dove down, enveloping the raging monster. After a few minutes, the swarms dispersed, leaving no sign of the demon cat, not even a single drop of blood. Without even a backwards glance, the teeming birds scattered to return to their homes. The three Masters, however, remained with Shri.
“Well done, friend!” Tikakit said in an elated voice. He was no longer content with standing and began hovering above their heads. Aerkin shook his head disapprovingly, but turned his gaze to Shri.
“That was very brave. I know why Anuraug selected you for this. I could not have expected any better from even another eagle.” He bowed his head respectfully.
Kiryo looked as if ready to burst into applause like Tikakit, but restrained himself. “It is done, and done well. I shall wish you luck with anything in your future.” With that, the two took wing to join their excited friend.
Shri was relieved and oddly satisfied, but what came next? What was there for him now?
That night, Shri Dreamed again. He was standing in the open field where he had faced Rikaran, and judging by the clouds and sun, it was early evening. From out of the gloom, three shapes emerged. Shri stood up anxiously. They were his friends, as healthy looking as ever.
“You did it! Congratulations!” they called as the four met, but Shri felt a wave of grief and guilt. Jer seemed to see this.
“Listen to me, Shri. Do not feel for us as a loss. We all agree that it was worth it to die for such a cause. Better the few than the thousands, right?”
Kray spoke up. “Sorry for interrupting, but there is someone else who would like to speak to him.”
“Oh!” Jer said as if embarrassed. “Right! Shri, go to the old Legend-teller’s tree. That’s all I am allowed to say. And until we meet again someday, good luck!” With that, the three vanished, leaving Shri alone.
Apprehensive, now, Shri’s Dream-self darted through the trees to Anuraug’s oak, which, he was surprised to see, was still standing. He entered through the unguarded opening and found himself again in the great cavity, staring up at...
The Old One.
“Congratulations, youngling. I suppose I must stop calling you that, for you have achieved more than any but the most ancient beings could accomplish.”
Shri crept nearer. “Is this real, or is it a Dream?”
“A bit of both. It takes the place of any common Dream, but is the best and only way to communicate with the realm beyond. That is why I can speak to you with a natural consciousness.”
“Why am I here?”
“You are here at my request. I have something to tell you, and I’m sure you are sick of praise by now.”
Shri nodded, fully agreeing.
“Right, then. This may be a large task for you, but I am certain that you will be up to it. I am gone from this world, and the Master of the Wood is still needed for counsel. If you would take my position, I would be grateful, as would those needing my help.”
“But what can I do?”
“Nothing that you cannot already accomplish. Your skill is indeed forming a new legend, and although you may not feel it, you are as powerful as any of my kind.”
Shri heard these words and felt something stirring within him. It was as if a far distant memory was surfacing. He tried to explain this to Anuraug, and to his surprise the old raven grinned and bowed his head.
“Do you remember what I said to you after our first meeting? ‘You must seek your past should you wish to carve a future.’ I should hope you understand it now. Long ago, when the Niraan were still new, the raven and the jay were one kind. From my line, forged long ago, individuals showed the promise of becoming as great as any of the Masters. All of my children, raven or jay, have this gift, and only you are powerful enough to use it. I trust you to use it for the good of others. I leave you with that thought. Farewell, my friend!”
Shri’s Dream faded into waking and Shri shook his feathers. He would remember Anuraug’s final words for the remaining life he would live, and would be forever grateful to the Wood-Master. He knew now that it was time to carve his future.