Published: December 11, 2011
Retracing his steps from earlier in the day, the paint stallion kept his cyan eyes downcast. Their luminous color had the nasty tendency to shine through the dark, and at the moment, his path skirted around the other Wraiths. Using his eyes to keep watch for obstacles in his path, his ears twisted in every direction to listen for strangers.
Honestly, truly, he did want to make more friends and be more social, but his intentions were keen on avoiding others for tonight. With what he had in mind, he wanted to be alone.
Just that day, he had met and made a new friend. She was a stunning mare by the name of Mirren. Her pale coat and dark mane had absolutely fascinated him.
Since all of his species had been pretty well the same in color. There were fractional differences in their physics, hues, and posture, but for the most part, strangers couldn't tell them apart. That was all he had ever known, as most birds were like this, and he associated mostly with other birds. Now he was done up in two colors and hadn't seen another soul like himself.
Sadly, he would be a liar if he claimed that her colors hadn't made him think of Brod, who was inversed, dark brown with a pale mane. Flaxen maned with a chocolate pelt was how he had heard the temperamental stallion described. Both flaxen and chocolate were new words to him, but he liked the sound of it.
Shaking his head irritably, he wondered why he was thinking of that stallion again. Sure, Brod had been the first Wraith to speak with him, but Zbura couldn't even call him a friend with confidence. Their interactions consisted of Brod picking at him, and him annoying him in return. All the two shared was a few minutes of mutual agitation.
Yet, he could rarely get the stallion out of his mind for long.
Stubbornly, he told himself it was just because Brod had been the first Wraith he had gotten to know. That could be the only logical reason.
Of course, he wasn't the first Wraith Zbura had met. Myth took that honor. The sweet tempter had been the one to lead him away from true and total death to this life. She had been the one to convince him to be a Wraith. Often times, he wasn't sure if he should thank her or curse her for that.
Then again, Zbura hadn't been around her enough to have to sort out an answer to that. There had been occasional glimpses of her tan pelt, but nothing more. It was just as well. He didn't really like being around females.
Except for Mirren
Zbura could honestly say he liked her. She was amusing, easy going, and friendly. While she did trip over herself, it was literally, rather than the annoying figurative flirtatious way. The hue of her pale, lavender heartstone also caught and held his attention. From the first time he had glimpsed, memories had stirred from the color. Unlike so many of the terrors triggered, these were happy recollections of a time long gone.
Dawn stained the sky, barely bright enough to make visibility any better. Zbura stirred, his makeshift nest feeling even more cramped than usual. As his eyes opened, he realized that the weight against his side was warm, not the cool, prickly leaves of bushes.
Shock, joy, and trepidation rocketed through him.
It hadn't been a good dream. Reality had finally put them together. They were really together.
Impulsively, he scrambled out of the nest and went to a nearby thicket. It took him only a few minutes to snap several of the blooms free and return. With patients he had never had before, he waited for those beautiful cyan eyes to open as he waited with the flowers in his beak.
Gasping in sudden agony, Zbura stopped. Bracing his legs, he let his head loll as he struggled to regulate his breathing. Rough, ragged pants forced their way out of him as he tried to convince himself it was psychosomatic. Even if it was just in his head, he fought not to collapse because of it.
From the center of his cyan-to-aqua heartstone, pain pulsed. It followed along the brutal crack, shooting into his body. The pain was so intense it made his vision blur and his knees buckle.
He hadn't been a Wraith very long when he had gotten the crack. In fact, it had been within the first week. Still uncertain on his feet, he had volunteered for a mission. At the worst possible moment, he had stumbled and suffered for it. A Hellhound had struck his shoulder, putting him out of commission for several days, and then a Monyel had gotten a hold of his stone.
Zbura couldn't count the number of times his fellow Medics had told him he was lucky that he hadn't lost it completely.
Since then, the wound on his shoulder had slowly but surely healed. Now all that was left of it was tight skin that occasionally nagged at him. Unfortunately, it was looking as though the cracked heartstone would never mend itself. He supposed that was fine. At least the meant he was still living.
Somehow, it seemed unfair that he couldn't recall Devon without the pain flaring with vengeance.
Slowly, almost grudgingly, the pain ebbed away. Imagining the pain as a falcon's talons, Zbura found some comfort. Struggling and trying to escape only made it worse. Playing dead until it moved on made the process go quicker. Some things provoked it, but some attacks were unavoidable. He only had to learn how to survive it.
Free from agony again, he hesitantly started walking. Silently, he mused that someday, he would be comfortable enough with the other Medics to ask if there was anything to be done. If his heartstone decided to flare during a mission, it would be bad for him and all Wraiths dependent on him.
A memory of the last mission he had been on stirred.
A chill crept through the pain stallion as he tried to focus on the memory. It was like grasping at smoke: it slipped out of the hold of his mind. The more attention he put into it, the more was wasted. Something had happened, something important, but he couldn't recall what. In fact, he couldn't remember much of the mission at all.
After a while, he gave up on the pointless pursuit and took off at a quicker pace.
Earlier, he had been exploring with Mirren. She had been a Wraith longer and knew more places than him, and she had shown him something that he found more than a little interesting. Now, he was finally returning to investigate alone.
The vast majority of his time was spent in Maple Grove, so he had not heard of Mirror Lake. Not many spoke to Zbura, and he had never cared for listening to conversations he wasn't involved in. Otherwise, he might have heard of the place sooner. Apparently, the lake reflected the realm of the living at night.
Darkness had fallen, and he had not been able to sleep. Now like a thief in the night, he crept along the edge, looking for somewhere that he could gaze into the dark depths alone. He did not want company in his guilt.
On the end farthest from Maple Grove, he finally found a vacant stretch large enough that he wouldn't be disturbed. With a final glance around to reassure himself that he was alone, he began his approach.
Each step seemed to weigh on him, pushing the breath from his lungs. He didn't want to go, didn't want to see, and didn't want to know. At the same time, he did. In a way, he needed it, needed what the lake could surely show him. His whole world had revolved around himself, but his heart had embraced many. He wanted to know of them again, wanted to reassure himself.
Conflict cut down deep, divide him to the very core and making each step smaller than the last. Finally, he was at a complete standstill. Resigned, he settled himself into the grass. Near enough to look, at least, he only needed to peek in until he could gather his strength.
As long as it took for him to draw close, it took longer for him to gaze in. Despite all of his conviction and determination, he stared into space. At that moment, he realized that once he looked into the water, there was no going back. Whatever he saw, he would not be able to forget. The knowledge of what he had lost would be fresh once again.
His heartstone was aching again. This time, it was a dull, slow throb that matched his heartbeat. It wasn't agony, but an unforgiving reminder.
He had forgotten about them.
Victory, who helped raise him and inspired him to spread his wings
Crevan's teasing and squabbles that had made him strong
Sunny and Megan's lessons in balancing bravery and kindness
His mother's gentle gift of life and love
His repayment had been forgetting them on some endless quest. Not even a stray thought have been given to them.
He had died and moved past their realm, and they had gotten more attention in the few weeks he had been like this. The twisting guilt inside of him doubled, its effects the same as every time he considered it. A voice called him out on mentally and physically abandoning them, while sickening feelings twisted inside of him.
Gradually, his gaze moved lower. It was a strain to tentatively move his eyes downward. An eternity passed before him, but he was still unprepared when his eyes landed on the water.
At first, there appeared to be nothing. Almost hopefully, he considered that it was just a myth or even a blatant lie, but slowly, the flickers of starlight merged together. Ploddingly, they gained size and began to take shape. With an eagerness he hadn't felt before, Zbura's gaze flickered between each shape, stunned as each became more recognizable.
Megan was the first to become visible. It was fitting since she had been the first to hatch. Her head was bowed to preen her feathers, but her eyes were focused on a small gaggle of males not far away. It was apparent that she was as obsessive as always about her looks. The knowing smile on her face said she also knew how to use and take advantage of them now.
Craven's powerful form took shape next. With a pretty, little female, he swam side-by-side, a silent connection apparent between them, soft and warm. It was hard to believe it was truly Craven that showed such tender joy towards another. Any aggression Zbura had shown in life paled in comparison to his brother.
Summer's shape finally appeared. It filled Zbura with pity and sorrow to see her alone. The way her eyes held such utter despair and loneliness confirmed what he suspected. She had found her mate before he had even left, but now he was gone. He wished that he could be there to comfort his sister and maybe even have taken guidance from her. After all, swans mate for life, and even after life, he was struggling to handle losing Devon.
His concern for his sister was completely forgotten when he caught sight of a hatchling.
Without realizing it, he shifted forward, his ears pricked with interest. A blue/green glow emanated from his chest as he became stupidly hopeful. The light of joy burned his surroundings, brighter than it had ever been before, as, for only a moment, he thought he was seeing one of his own children. One of his and Devon's chicks had survived and been adopted by another.
Instantly, he swelled with joy, pride and love. This unknown chick became the center of his world, the fruits of his love, labor, and death.
Then it was jerked away.
His mother suddenly appeared, nudging the chick lovingly towards a pond. The angle shifted so that he could see several chicks along the stretch of lake he had grown up on. It was millions of hours away from where his chicks would have been. This was one of his brothers or sisters, not sons or daughters.
A rough, wordless sound of pain escaped Zbura. It was as soft as a murmur, but it expressed an agony so severe that he could barely breathe. In fact, he didn't want to breathe.
Struggling against the tears, he finally realized something. Much worse than the agony of loss was the devastation that hope left.
He wasn't sure if he could survive.