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As Dreams Take Flight

"You sure you want to do this, Kiralii?" asks Corai.

His question annoys me, and I turn to look at the desert below. The river stretches unending, shimmering beneath the evening sky. It doesn't seem to fit in this world. The way it shines makes me think of something… ancient. Molten silver from a place of mystery, spilling out into the coming night.

My brother stares out into the distance, his eyes reflecting the water.

"Where does it go?" I ask.

"I'm not sure. But I'll find out."

"Will it be dangerous?"

He pulls at the jasmine bracelet wrapped around his wrist. He hasn't been fussing with it as much as the others. Some of them have several around each arm. Others wear floral wreaths around their necks in circling spans. They want everyone to see. Their symbol of becoming a worldling.

"Nothing I can't handle," he says. "After all, I'm the best flyer here."

He flashes me a grin, the feathers around his face crinkling up.

"Maybe second best," he says quickly, with the same crooked smile he used to make to get out of trouble.

I want to say something but the words all jumble up inside me. The wind slips between my feet, lifting the fine feathers along the edges of my milky talons. I look over to Corai's. His are clear and deathly sharp.

"How many summers were you when you jumped?" I ask.

"Wouldn't you love to know?" he says, smiling, his eyes fixed on the horizon. The sun has finally slipped behind some low clouds and the sky is burnt dust.

"Shouldn't she be back herding younglings, Corai?" comes a voice. Rezei no doubt. He's always trying to ruffle me.

"Hey!" Corai shouts back "If anyone has a chance at breaking my record it's going to be her."

The precipice is splintered. A few scrubby bushes and vines cling desperately to the edges of the tower. The wind rises from the valley, strong and hot. They say that the day's warmth needs to return to the sky, and it races up the edge, creating dangerous thermals and currents.

"Hey. You don't have to do this," whispers Corai. "You'll get your chance."

I set my feathers quivering to let him know how cross I am. I stretch my wings. They're not a full span yet, but there's no down left in them, and the speckles are mostly gone. They're not like Corai's, though. His cerulean plumage gleams, almost giving off its own light; his remiges are longer than my arms.

"Sun's down!" comes Rezai's voice. "Past bedtime for an eleven-summer kith!"

I try to ignore their laughter. I stay focused, staring off the edge. The desert below seems to swallow the light, and it trembles large and looming, empty and darker than night itself.

Stories slip into my head. Worldling rumors of lost kith, sun bleached feathers scattered in the sand. Creatures hunting in the night, sharp-toothed and hungry…

I turn and flee down the tower stairwell, twisting my way down away from the laughter and ignoring the shouts of Corai. I run through the maze-like laneways, tears stinging in my eyes. I make my way back to my hearth and to my family.

The younglings chirp and chatter, giggling as they race off up the streets ahead. Puffy down feathers drift away in their wake. I've spent several afternoons this week looking after them and I'm tired of their squabbling and noise.

I'm walking with Grandfather. He's a lot slower these days, his talons all gnarly and curled. He likes when I walk with him.

"Those younglings are so loud!" I say to break the silence.

"You know, you're right," he caws. "You can always tell when younglings are nearby!"

The warm evening wind tickles through the weaving lane ways bringing with it sweet fragrances. The white walls glow with the leftover warmth of the day.

I notice that I'm skipping and I stop, instead walking more firmly, puffing out my chest.

"Where do the worldlings go?" I ask.

"They follow the great river. It snakes out across the desert… Grows wider and more shallow and branches off in every direction, like the jasmine."

"Like… flowers?"

Grandfather laughs "Well, what I mean is that it doesn't flow as one. It splits off and each stream goes a different way. The worldlings choose a stream and follow that. They choose the world they'll discover."

High above, two kith swoop in carrying a huge branch, just barely keeping airborne. They're laughing and shrieking. Typical worldlings. Always showing off.

"They don't always come back," I say.

"That's true Kiralii," he says. "It is a great world out there. Some seek fortune. Others find war. Some make new lives. Only a few return. It is the way of things."

"I'd come back," I say.

Grandfather just nods.

Laughter and broken giggles tumble down laneways. My kithmates. They must be up by the fountain splashing in the spring water. I wonder what they're gossiping about, but then I set my mind straight. I don't want to waste time talking about silly things.

Grandfather draws a breath, and I follow his gaze to see the first flickering light of the pyre. Rounding the corner, there are flames—red and gold, amber and dun rising in the evening light.

Worldlings stand by, tossing branches and sticks.

"Why do we have the pyre?"

Grandfather motions and leads me to a place by the bakery that overlooks the square. It's far enough back from the flames that I can't feel the heat.

"It's a tradition that goes back a long time. It was told that once we kith didn't have wings. That we walked the world and watched the skies above. We saw creatures in flight and we dreamed to live a life free and unfettered. There was a war… a reckoning. From the flames and ashes, we took flight."

The worldlings are dancing. Singing. They jump and leap, circling upwards, flapping their wings as close to the flames as they dare. I'm certain they'll burst alight but they twist around, rising higher and higher, using the heat to move into the dusky evening sky.

I see Rezei circling above, and he catches my eye. He smirks and squawks something to the worldlings nearby and they all laugh.

I scowl and stomp up, walking away. Grandfather calls after me but he lets me go. I make my way back through the streets. I'll go to the tower.

Who does Rezei think he is anyway? He thinks I can't do it? I'm the fastest in my class. I've flown higher than anyone else in my clutch.

I climb up the stone sides, chips flaking off and sticking in my talons. I climb to the top. It's high here and the wind is cold and constant. I turn away from the flames and see the river. It glows in the moonlight. I imagine the feel of the water. A current that tugs and pulls and flows to places unseen.

I stand and stretch my wings, moving along the edge to face the fire. It seems so small. So far away. My head spins for a moment as I see Rezai and Corai and the others soaring around the flames.

I jump.

Stretching my wings out as far as I can I swoop towards the crowd. The air is cold and thin but I feel my speed picking up. The pyre below draws in quick, faster than I should let it and I can hear the crackling of the wood. I feel the heat raging from it. Sparks glimmer and dance upwards. I smell something awful and see one of my feathers singed. I try to bank and draw my wings wide to slow, but I'm plummeting closer and closer, and I shriek. Below me I hear the screams of the kith.

There's a sudden jolt and I'm spun around, night sky slamming into view. I feel strong arms around me, muscle and sinew, feather and bone clutching me tight.

"What were you thinking Kiralii?" comes my brother's voice, deep and grounding.

I curl up as he carries me home, burying my head deep in his feathers. I don't want him to see me crying.

The sounds of the kith wake me up. Chattering and laughter, talons scratching stone and the hooting of the worldlings. The room around me is empty, my youngling siblings gone. It's late. I can already smell the desert scents rising up, and it contrasts with the burnt smell that cloaks me. I examine my feathers. The ends are waxy and dry, the large flight branches singed.

"They'll be fine," grandfather had said as he shushed me to sleep.

The sound of the gong rings out, echoing and bouncing through the streets of our eyrie. Soon the kith will be singing their songs of farewell. The worldlings will be taking flight. I curse aloud, furious that they didn't wake me.

I leap from my bed and dash outside, my eyes tightening in the glare. I look to the tower that stands against the precipice—a white talon cut from a brilliant blue sky. Around it kith soar and swoop.

I race through the streets, hopping, half-flying. My shoulders ache and feathers fall to the ground. I push onwards, my lungs burning. I must get there before the ceremony ends.

I rush past startled adults and shrieking younglings. Some shake their heads and ruffle their feathers as I push past, but I pay no heed.

I am there, at the splintered edge below the tower. The world falls away. The vast sweeping desert plains roll out under a shimmering haze. The river is dull and dark in the broad light of day, its edges murky and blurred. Where it flows remains as hidden as ever.

"Corai!" I shout.

Worldlings swoop and holler, one by one they soar off across the open plains, rising on the thermals. There is no work today. No play. No flights of fancy. There is only farewell.

"Corai!"

Only a few worldlings remain, tipping their wings and soaring around the tower. One soars out and then tilts, twisting suddenly in an aerial move of grace.

Corai swoops back, soaring down to me. He rushes in, talons outstretched, eyes glittering. He swoops down low and just about knocks me over but I can see the grin on his face.

"Woke up, sleepyhead?" he shouts, his great wings helping him spin in tight circles around me.

"I'm sorry!" I yell, furious at myself. I can feel tears coming back again.

"For what?" he asks.

"For being so stupid," I say as he alights next to me. "For jumping."

"You weren't stupid," he says and he takes my hand. I clutch him tightly, tighter than ever. I don't know what to say. The wind rushes by and I want it to take me away.

"Hey," he says softly, running a hand along my head feathers. "You know what? I'll answer your question before I go."

I look back to him and I tell myself to remember his face. To remember his touch.

"How many summers?" I whisper through shaking breaths.

He gives me that same old coy smile and he jumps backwards, spinning in the air and disappearing down the precipice.

"Corai!" I shout.

I see him swing back up, so close to the cliff face I fear he'll crash and tumble away. Then he is rising, lifting up higher and back, turning to me, coming back to the edge.

"Twelve summers!" he cries.

Through the tears I sense the slightest hint of a smile flicker on my face.

He flies back past the tower and around again, his beautiful feathers gleaming, a sparkle of light burned into the day. He shouts something else but it's taken by the wind. He soars up, higher and higher still, twisting and turning against the great azure. He tips his wings and turns, flying out to the plains, rejoining his flock.

All the remaining kith are singing now. Songs wishing luck and good fortune. Their voices blend together, repeating verses over and over. I take a deep breath. I start to sing along, my voice brittle but not broken. Our songs are a goodbye. A farewell that skips and dances and is carried away with the wind.

About the Author
Paul Alex Gray enjoys writing speculative fiction that cuts a jagged line to a magical real world. His work has been published in Spelk, 365 Tomorrows, Between Worlds and others. Growing up in Australia, Paul traveled the world and now lives in Canada with his wife and two children. Paul spends his days working for an artificial intelligence company that's teaching machines how to think. He spends his nights dreaming up stories. Follow him on Twitter at @paulalexgray or visit www.paulalexgray.com.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link