The sky was painted in brilliant reds, yellows and purples, all bleeding and blending into one another above the darkened, slumbering forest.
I looked over my ragged net, cobbled together from frayed rope and horseshoes. I could only pray the net would hold. I could already see the net falling short, falling apart or, worse, going up in flames.
Just three. Three feathers was all we needed.
I glanced at the tree ahead of me in the clearing. High above the ground and nestled within its skeletal branches, was a nest. From what I could see, the nest was thoroughly coated in a thick, yellow resin.
So damn close now.
It had all started as a wild goose chase, a fool chasing myths in deep snow. Lured by the promise of reprieve, how could I resist?
My stomach growled, churning itself inside out.
Days had stretched out into weeks, characterized by howling winter storms, numbness and searing burns. Trudging through deep snow and biting cold, I began to think there was no nest. And then, on one cold morning, I found it, silhouetted against the rising sun.
I checked over my trap, consisting of a dead hare tied to a stake in the clearing. A crude trap, but it would work. It had to work. I took my place, crouching behind the bush, net in both hands.
Now all I had to do was wait.
The sun finally peeked over the horizon, its rays piercing the dawn sky. Shafts of sunlight shot through the canopy and fell upon the resin-soaked nest. It smoked and smoldered, the resin becoming a wrinkled black paste.
Then the nest burst into flame.
Fire raced from the crown down to the base of the tree in seconds, consuming it in a swirling vortex of flame. Mesmerizing in the way only fire could be, the flames danced and swirled across the bark of the tree. The wood crackled and popped, charred black and criss-crossed with magma-like veins. I could almost taste the sweet, heady scent of burning wood even from where I stood. The sun continually crept upward as the fire raged unabated. Finally, the fire began to retreat, leaving behind thoroughly scorched bark in its wake. The flames all moved unnervingly towards a single point, closing in from the branching crown and thick trunk. When they finally converged, the flames coalesced.
And there, where the nest had once stood, was a falcon wrapped in all the colours of a sun set. The reds, yellows and purples of its body faded into one another, beginning with the brilliant yellow on its head, down to its vibrant red body, and finally to its royal purple tail feathers. It was a sun onto itself, its mere presence lighting up the entire clearing.
The Phoenix let out a haunting screech, piercing the morning stillness under the dormant forest. It searched it’s surroundings with its black, pearly eyes, finally settling its gaze upon the carcass far below on the forest floor. With a powerful stroke of its wings, the Phoenix dived, it’s obsidian talons outstretched.
It collided with a faint thump, flapping its iridescent wings to stabilize itself. It’s claws sank deep into the tender flesh.
I almost threw the net then and there.
The Phoenix took off with the carcass in tow, only to come crashing back down, cawing in indignation.
I hurled the net, which sailed through the air before enveloping the fallen Phoenix and sending it tumbling. The Phoenix screeched, attempting to take off, only to find itself entangled in a web of robe. It entangled itself further and further with each successive stroke.
It worked. Holy crap, It worked. I tore through the bush and raced to the thrashing bird. Stooping to my knees, I grabbed it’s body, carefully avoiding the flapping wings.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay, it’s okay.” I whispered, stroking it’s body with my other hand. Maybe it understood me or something, but it gradually stopped struggling, now looking into my eyes intensely.
“Good boy, Good boy.” Gingerly, I plucked three feathers, only receiving a terrifying flinch each time. I dropped the feathers into a leather bag, their glow still spilling out from it.
“Alright, time to let you go buddy.” I began to extricate the Phoenix from the tangled net, carefully repositioning the rope to free him and avoid constricting it’s fragile wings. Then I stopped. If three feathers was all it took to help us through this year, what would six do? Seven, eight, nine or even 10? What about 20?
The Phoenix thrashed again, screeching bloody murder.
“Just a few more…” I wasn’t sure if that was more to the Phoenix, or to me. I tore into the bird, ripping off it’s beautiful feathers one by one. It’s struggle intensified, talons kicking and hooked beak snapping to no avail. With every feather I wrenched from its body, I could practically feel the flowing silk robes and taste the rich wine on my tongue. I ignored it’s strangled cawing and wild eyes, thinking, I just need a few more…
An ear-splitting shriek tore it’s way out of Phoenix, and then it’s struggles ceased. The forest darkened, it’s cry still ringing out across the new dark.
A deep cold settled on my chest, and I found myself struggling to breathe. I sank to my knees, hands shaking.
“Oh Jesus, No no no no no…”
The Phoenix was utterly stripped of its otherworldly beauty, left with nothing but raw, pink flesh. It’s wings were beyond mangled, twisted and bent at unnatural angles where the thick rope pulled tight.
The bag. The bag had no glow coming from it. I scrambled to it and grabbed the bag, tipping it over. Only black ash poured from the opening.
I covered my face with my hands, and yet I could still see the broken body of the phoenix. Something broke. I began to weep, sobbing and shaking deep in the forest at sunrise.
Thanks for reading!
This story was written by the clever and talented DevourerofStars#5717 for a Slavic Folklore-themed short fiction competition on our Discord server. A big thanks to everyone who participated, our community team who organized the event, and to the winner, for writing such a lovely piece!