They say there’s no such thing as magic. Our legends are legends, no more, and whatever truth there might once have been in them has been twisted beyond all recognition. They say that the things we don’t understand, we will someday find the answers to. They say that the mysteries of this world are the same as those of a single grain of sand — no more, no less. They say that the whole world can be reduced to a series of numbers and letters, and all we need to do is find out what those are to know everything that could ever be important.
So they say.
Cleris yawned, leaning back against the thick, mossy roots of the tree behind him. The textbook he was supposed to be reading threatened to slide from his lap, and he caught it hurriedly. Books were expensive and therefore precious, and if he damaged another one, his parents would quite likely kill him.
Well, not literally. But they would make him pay for it, and feel guilty into the bargain. Cleris smiled a little. The last time hadn’t been completely his fault, and his older sister had stepped forward to defend him. Thin, frail Ashe, who looked as though a strong gust of wind could carry her away, had determinedly stood her ground and insisted they share the blame equally. He wouldn’t let her take more than her share, and his parents had smiled, shaken their heads, and let them both off with a warning. But that hadn’t been the first time, and they all knew it wouldn’t be the last, either.
It wasn’t that Cleris wasn’t interested in his studies: far from it, they fascinated him, even if the books were written in what seemed to be the most boring style imaginable. It was simply that his mind wandered too easily, taking off on flights of fancy, underwriting the observable world with a thousand layers of illusory magic, mixing reality with the stuff of dreams. A fool’s mind, his father had teased him, but also a great one. If he could harness those dreams away from dragons and fireballs, heroes and fairies, turn them on the remaining unsolved questions of the universe, he might find himself able to answer them. To go down in history as the man who understood all of reality…
They’d both laughed, but under the friendly banter there was always more, on both sides. Cleris’ father had high hopes for his son, but whether or not they could be fulfilled, Cleris didn’t want to rein in his dreams. There was no such thing as magic, but wouldn’t it be grand if there was? If some part of the world operated not on the level of fact and logic, but on the level of dreams? If some part of the world could be the impossible, and glory in it… if a boy could be a hero, or speak with dragons, or see the dancing lights of another realm in the woods at night…
A soft voice broke into his thoughts, and he opened his eyes with a start. It was almost sunset – he’d fallen asleep! Ashe looked down at him, a smile on her pale face, her almost white hair glowing golden in the rays of the sinking sun. The only touch of colour to the slender girl was her vivid green and hazel eyes, eyes that had always put Cleris in mind of secrets that might be hidden in the forest’s depths. She was a strange thing, Ashe, light on her feet, almost ethereal in appearance — but she laughed and joked and spoke like anyone else, and listened to all of her brother’s fancies with a smile. Sometimes, he’d even drawn her out enough to tell a story of her own, and he almost envied the imagination that produced the strange, wild tales she came out with, that somehow imbued the world of magic with the ring of truth despite its logical impossibility.
“Ashe! I’m sorry, I was asleep!”
“I noticed,” she replied, smiling still. Cleris got to his feet, yawning and stretching, and bent to pick up the book. It had slipped from his lap as he slept, but thankfully had landed safely, and didn’t seem to be damaged. Ashe stepped back as he moved, watching him quietly.
“Did anyone send you up here for me?”
“No,” Ashe said. “I just thought I’d look for you. It’s been a good day.”
He smiled. “So I haven’t missed dinner?”
“No, not yet.” A quick headshake caused her hair to fly out in all directions. Even in the lightest of breezes, it settled only slowly, as light and insubstantial-seeming as the rest of her. “Are you coming back now, or will you be staying here?”
If he stayed, she’d stay with him, he knew. His slender, whimsical sister was also his best friend, and he loved her all the more for the mysteries that surrounded her. She wasn’t his true sister: his father had found her abandoned on their lands one day a while before he himself had been born, and they guessed that she was between half a year and a year older than he was. Cleris had told a thousand stories of where she might have come from, what she might have been, and she would smile and laugh and say “If only”. In truth, she didn’t care. She loved his parents as her own, the people who had raised her, and if she felt anything about her true relations, it was only a distant curiosity. In their turn, Cleris and his family felt the same about her.
He cut off in the middle of his sentence as a shooting star streaked over his head from somewhere behind her. Ashe looked up, too, catching sight of it before it left the sky and smiling in wonder. Cleris, who’d lost sight of it through the branches of the tree as it passed above him, looked back with a similar expression.
“It’s hard to believe they’re just rocks burning up in the air, isn’t it?” Any number of tales spoke of shooting stars, falling stars, any number of legends giving them a mystical significance — but legends was all they were.
Ashe tilted her head to one side, faint smile taking on a slightly mysterious cast. “It came to rest over there.” She pointed, away into the forest that grew on the edge of the family lands. Cleris turned and looked, following her finger.
“The stone circle?” He smiled. This was a game they’d played many times before, one or the other claiming to see a marvel of some kind, the two of them heading off to live a tale of adventure, if only for a short while. The forest had been everywhere from an underground tomb to the lost woods of Aireth, and its trees everything from houses to an undead horde. The stone circle, however, really did exist, erected in times long forgotten and patterned with strange symbols. It had probably been used, in those ancient times, as a site of ritual or worship, as the less knowledgeable people of the distant past tried in vain to control natural forces that they didn’t understand.
“I think so.”
“Then we have to find out what it was!” He grinned, eyes lit with a reckless light. “Let’s go!”
Ashe nodded, running alongside him as he took off for the forest. Despite her fragile appearance and physical frailty, she could outrun everyone he knew, and she kept pace with him easily. Even running, her light tread made almost no sound.
Behind them, Cleris’ textbook lay forgotten beneath the tree.
Though they were running uphill most of the way, it took less than ten minutes to reach the forest’s edge. In the low light of sunset, all but the outermost regions were hidden in shadow, but both Cleris and Ashe knew the woods like the backs of their hands. The dimness deterred neither one, and the only reason they slowed was to navigate the obstacles of bush, bramble, and fallen branch that blocked the paths beneath the trees.
By the time they were halfway to the circle, Cleris had slowed to a walk, panting. Ahead of him, Ashe stopped, turned, and ran lightly back to reach his side again. Her light summer clothes left her arms and legs bare, like his own, but not a single graze marred them. Cleris shook his head admiringly.
“How do you do that?”
“How do you run so fast in here without even getting scratched?”
Ashe chuckled. “Magic, I guess.”
He smiled back. They’d had that conversation many times before, as well. It was practically a ritual when they ran through the forest. Ashe was both more careful and more graceful than he was, with the result that while Cleris often came back with legs streaked by bramble scratches, she never did.
Deeper into the woods, where the trees were older and larger, the ground was more open. Though they were still travelling uphill, Cleris was rested enough to speed up again, and Ashe matched his pace once more.
It wasn’t long after that that they reached the circle. Whether it was built on an outcrop of bedrock or had been given strong, deep foundations, Cleris didn’t know, but it was in a clearing, and despite the passage of time, none of the ancient stones had slipped or fallen. In the dim light, a luminescent mould within the deeply inscribed carvings glowed faintly blue. He never tired of seeing that, or of the mystical aura it gave the stone circle — but for once, he wasn’t even looking, because there was something there that shouldn’t have been. In the very centre of the ring of standing stones, an egg-shaped rock rested on the time-worn, grass-edged flagstones. About a foot in diameter at its widest, and just over one and a half high, it was perfectly smooth and symmetrical, a creamy colour shot through with tints of red and gold.
Cleris stared at it for a little before slowly stepping forward into the clearing that housed the stone circle. More than anything else, he longed to ask Ashe where she had found it, but to do so would be breaking the rules of the game, breaking the illusion, breaking the spell. Beside him, Ashe moved at the same pace, an expression of absolute wonder on her face. Glancing sideways at her, Cleris felt a sudden unease. She didn’t look as though she’d put it there at all…
She didn’t answer, walking forwards slowly, green eyes wide. Moments later, Cleris berated himself. She was very good at this game, always had been — of course she wouldn’t look as though she’d been expecting it! It would hardly be real if she did! He followed, now a few paces behind, and stood behind and to her left as she knelt in front of it, touching it lightly with one hand, then resting her cheek against it.
“It’s warm…” she said, smiling, eyes half-closed. Cleris’ unease faded again. The rock couldn’t be warm. It wasn’t really real. Though how his slender, frail sister could have carried it there by herself…
He knelt beside her, resting his left hand on the rock a little way from her face — and pulling back in shock. It was warm, easily at body heat, and there was simply no way he could think of for that to be true! Ashe raised her head at his movement, looking up at him.
“You — you did put this here, didn’t you, Ashe?”
She shook her head. “The star fell here. This must have been what it was.”
“But — but there’d be a crater! A big one! We’d have heard it, felt it, it — everyone would have known!” Cleris stumbled over his own words. It couldn’t be true! It didn’t make sense at all — the only explanation was magic, and everybody knew there was no such thing!
Ashe stood up. “But there isn’t.” The look on her face was one of wonder, pure and simple, a sharp contrast to Cleris’ confused expression of mingled awe and disbelief. “There’s only this egg.” She took his right wrist, thin fingers closing lightly about his arm, a gentle pull his cue to stand and follow her. Together, they walked back to the edge of the circle. “Look. It’s real…”
Cleris looked. The egg was in the exact centre of the circle of stones. He’d both seen it and felt it: it was solid, and warm. Ashe was right… it had to be real. What did that mean? What did that mean for the world? The stories of magic, the legends… were they all true? Could they really all be true? He felt himself start to smile in sheer amazement, walked back to the egg and knelt by it as Ashe had done, feeling its warmth against his face. He fancied he could sense motion inside, something living, something real.
He stayed like that for a few minutes before realising he could feel something else, a secondary heat against his chest, though it wasn’t touching the egg. Sitting up, Cleris raised a hand to the fine silver chain about his neck and lifted it up, pulling the mounted stone that hung from it free from his clothes. He’d found it some years before, shaped just as it was now, in an unexplored part of a cave system he thought he knew fairly well, and never again been able to find his way back there. For a birthday gift, he’d asked to have it mounted into a necklace, viewing it as representative of his dreams because of the way that he’d found it — could it be more than that? The blue crystal in its silver setting was now glowing softly with an inner light, and as he closed his hand around it, he realised that it, too, was warm.
Ashe knelt beside him. “Your talisman?”
“It’s warm, too,” Cleris replied quietly, opening his hand again to show her. Its pale blue radiance lit his palm, and he thought he saw it brighten as he focused on it. What was it? What did it all mean?
Did that even matter? It was magic. That was all he needed to know to be amazed, awed and slightly afraid. What would happen now — what was happening now?
Ashe looked away from him slightly, gazing at something over his shoulder.
“Cleris, look at the stones.”
Obediently, he twisted. The faint blue light from the symbols on them was glowing brighter, and as he stood and walked closer, the light from the ones he was approaching grew brighter still as that on the more distant ones faded.
They’re reacting to my talisman! Cleris thought, experimentally moving back and forth and watching the strength of the stones’ lights change. Ashe came up behind him and touched his shoulder, making him jump.
“I think it’s waiting for something,” she said softly.
“What – the stones?”
“No, the egg. It wants to hatch.”
He looked back at the egg. The sky had darkened as the sun set, and now it, too, seemed faintly luminous, tinting the flags it sat on very subtly golden.
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know…”
Holding his talisman in his right hand, Cleris turned, slowly, surveying the stone circle. Though the sky was dark and the stars were out, the clearing was still lit with a soft blue glow. Not sure if it would work, but lacking any better ideas, he closed his eyes and concentrated on the gem in his hand.
A sudden pressure against his fingers made his eyes fly open again. The crystal was pulling against his hand, gently but unmistakeably. He switched it to his left and followed its pull, steps slow as though in a dream, as it led him unerringly to one of the standing stones. Cleris raised his right hand and rested it on the inward-facing primary symbol, feeling an ancient power under his fingers. Knowledge from somewhere flowed unbidden into his mind.
“Fire,” he whispered, focusing his strength into the stone. It glowed white, and he staggered slightly as power flowed from and through him, but now that he’d begun, he felt he couldn’t stop. Crossing to another, he rested his hand on that stone’s primary symbol and did the same again.
After that, it wasn’t as draining, but the magic guiding him blurred everything into a haze. He touched every stone, he knew, spoke the words that went with each one, until finally there was only one remaining.
“Let these powers be combined… and guided… to a new life…”
With that, the magic released him, as the stone he was touching drew on all but the last fraction of his strength. Cleris sank to his knees, leaning against it, eyes closed as the entire circle glowed brilliantly white — and then, abruptly, went dark.
He opened his eyes, blinking rapidly. What had happened? Whatever he was doing, had it worked? He twisted around, sitting against the stone, and stared.
The egg was glowing with a golden radiance, and began to crack as he watched. Ashe had stayed in place as if frozen as he went through the spell, and was still there now, pale face lit in gold. Flame licked from the cracks — and then, suddenly, the egg broke into pieces and into a brilliantly blazing fire! Though the light was far brighter than an ordinary fire, Cleris vaguely realised that he could feel only the faintest heat. Slowly, a little unsteadily, he stood and crossed to stand by Ashe, watching as the inferno died down, leaving in its place a shape that almost seemed formed of solid flame. It was a bird… a phoenix.
All Cleris could do was stare in tired amazement as the newly hatched phoenix regarded him with bright black eyes. Their gazes locked, and he felt as though something passed between them, as though for a moment he knew something of what it was to be a phoenix, a wild and free creature of magic obeying no will but its own, and for a moment, it knew what it was to be a boy. But it was only for a moment, and the bird crouched, tensed, and sprang, flying effortlessly into the night sky, licks of flame trailing from its wings with every beat. Cleris watched, tracking it even when it was out of sight through the trees, until it vanished beyond the horizon.
The clearing was dark, the talisman once more simply a blue crystal, and the sky lit only by stars. Only Ashe and Cleris’ memories bore witness to the event they had just seen — their memories, and the life of the phoenix.
They say there’s no such thing as magic. But what do they know? It cannot be denied, for we have seen the phoenix fly…
Mysteries Unite by V. L. Bending is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Written in 2007 for a competition (to write a short story using the title “Mysteries Unite”), MU won me first place! Since then, it’s become the basis for a longer work that’s currently underway.