"I heard that only a virgin can catch one," Justin says, scanning what he can of the neighboring treetops.
"That's unicorns," Joey says. He drops the last of their saddlebags beside its mates. "And they're finicky bastards, if you ask me. I'd rather have a good mare any day." He pats Wina, his sorrel mare, and promises her an extra brushing once they're all settled.
"No," Justin says. "It's firebirds, too. I heard that a virgin can catch one if they--"
JC finishes his own examination of the clearing and pulls Chris aside. "We should head deeper into the forest."
"No. We've gone far enough."
On the other side of their small encampment, Joey exclaims, "A golden cage! What would you want with a firebird if you were already rich enough to have a cage made of gold?"
"Maybe it's a small cage," Justin says.
No one points out that they've been sent to capture a firebird for a man who has rooms full of gold. JC puzzles over the omission. Is it kindness, not pointing out the flaw in Joey's argument? Or do they share his reservations about this mission?
"They're not like canaries," Joey says, "or... I don't know. What's another small bird? A... a baby chicken--"
Chris snorts at that. "'A baby chicken,'" he mocks quietly. "Has he never seen a sparrow? Or a finch?" JC's the only one who hears him, and he's surprised when Chris doesn't continue on with an entire litany of birds. In another life, Chris would have been Saint Christopher, Defender of the Small Creatures.
"--You'd need a cage like this." Joey spreads his arms wide, sketching an imaginary cage large enough to catch a pair of oxen.
JC shakes his head and tries to lead Chris farther away from the others, just a few steps more into the quiet of the forest night. Chris does not budge.
"No more tonight, 'C."
"We will not find it here." JC looks to the northeast, where he just knows, he knows, if they went a little farther… "Chris, I am certain of it. Please--"
"I'm certain, too," Chris says. "We go no farther."
Later, as they eat their supper of rabbit, wild mushrooms, and hard-crusted bread, Justin begins again. "I heard that when they sing, pearls fall from their lips."
"Are we still talking about virgins?" Chris asks. "'Cause in my experience--"
"Firebirds," Justin says quickly. He's doesn't know if Chris is leading up to teasing him again about being a virgin--which seriously? Why is that funny?--or if it's simply going to be another of his raunchy tales. His ears are still burning from the last one, even though he isn't at all certain what exactly 'she had me up against the wall' means. It's best to cut Chris off either way. "Pearls fall from the firebird's lips."
"Birds don't have lips," Chris says.
"From their beaks, then. Alright?"
"Pearls from their beaks? Who's going to believe that? I bet they come out from the other end." Joey makes a rude noise, and Justin stares at him aghast. "Oh, look!" Joey cries, pantomiming surprise. "I just found some pearls!"
"You're saying that they shit--"
Chris whacks Justin companionably on the back. "Ah, J, don't get upset. It's just like laying eggs, itty-bitty little eggs."
Joey and Chris laugh together, and JC is sick and tired of hearing them talk about it.
"I heard," JC says, "that their song brings life to the land. Will you make a joke of that, too? I heard that their song heals the sick and brings sight to the blind. I heard--"
"You wanna know what's not a joke?" Chris says, his eyes flashing in the firelight much as they had earlier, when he'd refused JC's request. "I heard that the cost of touching even a single feather from its tail is misery and death. And Jason was enough proof of that."
Chris has heard other things, as well--things he will share with none of them, things like Lou promising the headsman's axe to anyone who failed to retrieve the firebird. But he isn't worried; he has a plan. Lou is extravagant and over-excitable in all things, and he will forget his threats when something more fabulous comes along. Chris will prolong their journey for as long as it takes. He will lead them until they're out of Lou's thoughts and out of Lou's reach--or until they find a treasure more dazzling than a big, magically-glowing turkey.
Joey shifts in his spot, and Justin says quietly, "But Jason didn't die. I saw him. He held that feather in his bare hand when he brought it back to our lord."
"And where is Jason now?" Chris says.
Justin looks down. "I don't know," he mumbles to his feet.
"Don't scare him," JC says. "Jason isn't dead. He's just gone ahead of us to hear--to find the bird again."
"You know what Jason's like," Joey says. "Who's to say he didn't find two feathers? He ran off to sell the other one, and now he's like... first halfway-pretty girl he meets? He's buying her diamond rings and expensive things, and settling down to live the life."
Joey wants to do the same, only he's going to do it better. Jason would totally settle for the first girl, but Joey's already got a girl in mind, a great girl who loves him already. He doesn't need to buy her time or her love. He just wants to be able to shower her with pretty things simply because he can.
"He wouldn't do that," Justin says. He looks at JC and then at Chris. "Right? He wouldn't..."
"It's late," Chris says. "Justin and I will take the first watch while you slackers get some sleep."
"How is it that we're the slackers, when he's the one always arranging it so we're woken up in the middle of the night?" Joey groans as he pulls himself up. He offers a hand to pull JC up as well, but JC waves it away. He's still busy wondering why no one has said anything about wanting to hear more of the firebird's song. He can't be the only one.
JC started hearing it the moment he saw that feather clutched in Jason's hand--a quick slice of sound like music heard from a great distance, like someone opened a sealed door somewhere and a secret song spilled out until the door was slammed shut again. The feather is such an impossible thing, an echo in solid form. JC wants to touch it, to experience it with all of his senses, but no one lays hand on one of their Lord Lou's treasures. So, instead, JC is going to follow the firebird until he hears the rest of its song.
"I'll switch places with you," Justin says.
"No, you won't," Chris says.
"My momma stopped tucking me into bed every night when I was ten years old, and unless you're going to start pinning curls in your hair and smelling like lavender and being pretty, you can just sh--"
Joey laughs. "Ain't nothing that's going to make Chris pretty."
"Not even firebird magic?" Justin asks, smiling at Joey and sidling away from the swat Chris sends his way.
"Only if their song takes sight from the blind," Joey says. "'Cause I gotta admit that he sure sounds like a pretty little girl--Ow!" Joey has never moved as quickly as Justin. "And he fights like one, too!"
"You better get some sleep," Chris tells Justin. "'Cause suddenly Joey's afraid to sleep on my watch."
"I'm not afraid!"
"You will be."
They chase each other around the clearing, and JC sighs and draws a protective line of sigils around the fire. His new blanket is thick and warm, but he has no money to replace it if their foolishness causes another accident like the last one. Then he heads to his pallet and thinks for a single, blasphemous beat that he wouldn't complain if gems did fall from the firebird's mouth when it sang to him... as long as they didn't diminish the sound.
Justin's hand on his shoulder wakes JC from dreams of dancing in a circle of green fire. He'd been dancing in the flames, or maybe dancing with the flames, and they did not burn him because he'd given his word that he would not stop.
"It's our watch."
JC rubs his eyes and looks around. It's hard to see because everything still flickers flame-green and shadow-red. "Where--?"
"I said I'd wake you, so they bedded down already."
JC wasn't asking about the others, but he nods and follows Justin to the edge of their camp. Justin points to the wards which are doubled, and even trebled, in places.
"They let me practice."
Justin's sigils are intricate and amazing to look at--every stroke ends in a flourish--but they are weak, much weaker than they should be. Justin is strong and getting stronger, but he channels his power out in too many directions.
"Not bad," JC says. "But you're still distracted, aren't you?"
"Aw, man, again? I try, but you've gotta know it doesn't make any sense. How can I be 'distracted by the end result' when the end result is the whole point?"
"That's not the whole point. That's not it at all. You're too focused on the sigils, on getting them right. But you have to be able to give that up. Let them be unperfect because we're not like... like calligraphers. We're mages. Focus on the magic you're shaping. Be the magic. Be the shape."
Justin shakes his head. "No. That's how you get lost in it. Chris says you'll get lost if you lose sight of--"
JC steps across their wards and into the forest.
"It's okay," JC says. "I'm just going to show you."
"You can show me over here!"
"I don't want to wake the others."
JC can do magic quietly, but he doesn't like to. When the energy fills him, it wants to come out amplified. It's best to let it flow as naturally as possible; restraining it--when restraint isn't absolutely necessary--wears him down too quickly. The wards will absorb the sound of magic just as they would the force of an attack.
"It isn't safe."
"This is the firebird's forest. It wouldn't allow anything too dangerous to live here."
"What about the dangerous things that are just passing through? 'Hello! I'm just dropping by to bite the heads off a few travelers. I'll be out of your feathers tomorrow.'"
JC laughs. He feels lighter, freer, out from behind their wards. He smiles back at Justin. He's a good kid. JC has always enjoyed working with him and sharing the secrets of their art with him.
"Don't worry. Nothing's coming here to eat me up. And it's not like... uh. You can't get lost, not really. When you're focused on being, you just are."
"'C, no offense, but that still doesn't make a lick of sense, and would you please get back here?"
"You can't get lost, not physically, not psychically. When the magic is moving through you just right and you're totally one with it, you can get like lost in the moment. But the moment always ends... 'cause that's like the nature of moments. They're momentary."
Justin shakes his head. "Oh, man, I wish Joey and Chris were awake for this. Your lessons are always one of a kind."
"I know," JC says, and they share a smile.
When the moment passes--and just thinking that makes Justin's lips twitch in amusement--JC takes a deep breath. Justin knows that; it's the first step of grounding yourself. "But what are you going to demonstrate?" he asks. "Another ward?"
"Hmm... That's what I was going to do, but now... Maybe we should do something different. What's the most complex sigil you know?"
"A summoning? Maybe..." Justin hasn't mastered any part of summoning, but he's spent hours admiring the forms of the different summoning sigils. They're beautiful.
"'A summoning,'" JC says.
He sounds very thoughtful, and Justin realizes that he doesn't know if JC can summon. It's an advanced art, requiring an incredible amount of skill and power. He doesn't know if any of them can do it.
JC closes his eyes, and Justin gasps as JC begins to sing. He shouldn't be surprised, but he is. JC's inflection and pitch seem perfect, and Justin's tempted--he's suddenly so very tempted--to step through the wards and hear it better. If he stood close enough, he'd even feel it. The magic would rush and pull against him, making his hair stand on end, as JC tugged it up and out of the earth. But Justin's learned caution, too, so he holds himself back.
JC raises his arms slowly, and Justin can almost see the air swirling around him. He waits while JC chants the same series of syllables again and again. Watching, he forgets the sigils that JC's magic will form in the earth. He wants to move and he doesn't fight it, lifting his arms in a movement that mirrors JC's. Even his breaths match JC's, measured and deep, and he feels this strange, heavy... peacefulness that almost has him closing his eyes until something happens and JC's song falters.
Justin shakes off the alien feeling and blinks just as JC tilts his head and turns away from the clearing. That's not... That movement isn't part of the summoning; Justin's sure of it. He's pretty sure of it. He's...
A cold shot of panic runs through him, and JC takes a step--a step away from him, a step out of the circle his magic had been forming.
JC didn't walk off into the woods and disappear from sight. He took a single step and then he was just... gone.
Justin screams, "Chris! Chris! Joey! Please," and runs into the woods, as if he could chase something that simply isn't there.
They search the woods. Joey casts hunters' spells, the simple sort of passive tracking that would highlight the path of JC's travel, had he actually walked away. Joey and Chris do not believe him, no matter how many times Justin explains.
"He was here and then he was gone. Just... gone."
Chris casts an amazing spell that Justin's never heard of, a sort of far-seeing that lets Chris borrow the eyes of the small, hidden creatures of the forest. JC is out of even their sight, but Chris isn't disheartened by this.
"It will be okay," Chris says. "We'll find him no matter how long it takes."
Joey nods in agreement and says, for the third time, "He's been acting sorta strange, but we'll find him."
"Yeah," Chris says. "He's probably disoriented, he's just wandered off."
"Or maybe he cast invisibility on himself," Joey adds.
"Oh, that's a great trick. Has anyone taught you that yet, J? Oh, the things you can see, when the girls can't see you..."
Justin tunes them out. He goes through the motions of the search, but focuses entirely on holding back the hot tears of grief and guilt welling up behind his eyes.
This isn't what he wanted. This was his great adventure, getting out from the city of his birth and finally seeing something of the world while chasing dreams and learning all he could from his fellow mages. Now all of that is gone, and this isn't how it was supposed to go, and he feels like... He feels like... Was it something that he did? Is there something he can do?
He hates this feeling, guilt like iron in his gut, like something that's going to eat away at him unless he finds something to take his mind off it... finds something like throwing himself wholeheartedly into this search with Chris and Joey. You can't catch something that simply isn't there, but the chase can still be worthwhile.
"Well," Justin says, mostly to himself. "I can't drown in this."
Chris shoots a look his way, and Joey says, "You can't drown because you're on dry land. Okay?"
"I can't drown in defeat, I gotta..." Justin waves his hand, lost for words. This is the sort of thing that JC would always say for them. "I gotta..."
"We just gotta do our thing," Chris says.
"And do it well," Joey agrees.
And, separate goals leading to a shared destination, they set off again on their journey together.
But that's not how this fairytale is going to end.
JC sings the same series of syllables again and again. He can almost see it behind his eyelids, the way it reaches down into the depths of the earth, pulling the energy up, and he takes measured breaths to keep the rhythm steady, the chant unceasing, until the strain of it makes his arms ache and his body flush with fire.
He's never done this before, but he knows this magic at the same bone-deep level that he knows all of his magic. Finally, he's ready for the next step, that crucial moment when the magic begins to coalesce and--
What was that?
Did he just hear something?
His voice cracks on one note, and then he buckles down. This far along, he has to channel the power somehow. He has to stay grounded, both in the earth and in the song or the power will break free, in its most chaotic and destructive form. Yes. He keeps singing, keeps pulling.
Something is singing with him.
What--? He knows that sound!
He is surrounded in flames, dancing green flames. He thinks, "My dream!" and even as he does so, the flames shift and twist and bend into something almost solid. There are claws of white-hot light and feathers burning orange, and then the claws retract and the flames recede and the feathers smooth into supple skin. The firebird is a man, a painfully handsome man--no, a beautiful and naked man with golden skin and green fire in his eyes. How could--? He's never heard that they could take any other form, but this man is definitely the firebird. He's singing, without moving his lips or even seeming to breathe; the song is just... shimmering off of him like waves of heat and magic.
The firebird... the man... What should JC call him? This glorious, green-eyed being of magic and sound and muscle? Somehow, he still thinks "firebird" is best.
The firebird tilts his head slightly and his lips twitch into an amused half-smile. Birds don't have lips, Chris had said. But this one has beautiful lips, a mouth like ripe shiny fruit. It makes JC think about dangerous things, things like stepping forward and tasting the sound of magic.
The firebird lifts his hand and holds it out, palm up, to JC.
JC draws a shaky breath and steps forward, almost stumbling, until the firebird takes his hand. When their hands touch, the firebird's song becomes a hundred times clearer. JC hears like he never has before, and the firebird sings in a deep, dark voice that sends shivers down his spine. It is alien and horrible and beautiful and familiar. JC knows this. He knows it. He wants nothing more than to hear all of the firebird's song and to sing it with him, to shape the magic with him, until it ends.
A thousand years later, JC blinks and almost stumbles. His partner reaches out and steadies him.
"What--?" JC says. He feels like he's waking up out of a particularly heavy sleep, and there's a dream reluctantly releasing him from its grasp. "Where--?"
"You know," his partner says in a deep, lazily-drawling voice. "I once heard that when music is moving through you just right and you're totally one with it, you can be lost in the moment, and it's dangerous because when music's involved, you never know just how long a single moment can be."
JC stares at his partner. He's a strangely handsome young man, with tousled, gold-tipped hair and flame-green eyes. He's very attractive, but JC is certain that he's never seen him before.
The young man laughs, and the flames in his eyes flicker.
"Aw, JC, you're such a space cadet sometimes." He smiles like he doesn't mind, and JC doesn't know if that was an insult or not. "Have you been sleepwalking? Coming to rehearsal when the lights are on and no one's home?"
"'The lights are...' I don't..."
JC feels panic like a cold cloak falling over his shoulders, until the man smiles again and offers his hand to JC.
"Hi, I'm your bandmate, Lance. Remember me?"