Published: October 25, 2011
Just as he was beginning on adulthood at nine months of age, Zbura made the decision to leave home.
His siblings had been swift and eager to settle down with the first compatible mates they happened across. Unlike them, he wanted more than a mundane nest life. In fact, at that time, he intended to never settle down.
Victor's presence in his life created a window to the vastness of the world, and such had sparked the desire to see it. His mind told him he couldn't see it all, but his heart dared him to try.
The anomalous bird hailed from the north, so Zbura decided to start in that direction. On the same day that he bid farewell to the last of his siblings, he set out, following the internal compass that pointed the way. It was easy going until he came to a large expansion of water. He soon learned how to fly with minimum effort, reserving energy for the long plights between landmasses.
Traitorous skies and unfamiliar landscapes poised a challenge for him, but he accepted. Exploration and discovery, in very many ways, took the place of a mate and chicks in his life. Even as he fought against violent gales and fled from hail stores, he believed himself content to live like that forever.
There was nothing more freeing than seeing what would come next.
It was just before his third birthday that he reached the mass of than that the humans had labeled "the UK." The journey seemed almost impossible without the assistance of humans. For a waterfowl that should have only traveled to suit the weather, it was unnatural. When he finally reached Great Britain, it warranted him a bit of fame.
Many of the birds that already lived in the area were eager for his story, none more so than the white swans. While many of them had resentful prejudice towards him, they were just tolerant enough to listen to his stories. When others talked him into telling a story, they were always sure to appear. It still didn't take him long to figure out that he wasn't very welcome.
Always keen for a fight, he often put himself in the way of the other swans. This angered to them to no end, which he enjoyed immensely. Soon, his stories lost their interest and the white swans mobbed him on sight. He didn't understand their aggression, but truly didn't mind.
Though his mind continued to boil with wonder lust, his heart led his feet in circles, keeping him in the area and in trouble. Stories of other black swans circled, so he naturally assumed that some homesickness kept him around in hopes of meeting them. He hadn't crossed paths with once since leaving home, and for him, that felt like a very long time ago.
Three weeks of traveling through the small country came to fruition a cool spring morning. Zbura's first encounter with his northern brothers was far from complimentary and explained the prejudice he had faced.
Unlike his own flock, they were rude, belligerent, arrogant, and aggravating. They spoke with heavy accents and grew loud at the slightest provocation. So different were they that he questioned if they were even the same species. There seemed to be no similarities between them and the southern birds he had grown up with.
His first brush with them resulted in a squabble, and after that, he frequently found himself in quarrels with them. They infuriated him with their ignorance, and he was not above tossing a casual insult just to provoke them when that stupidity came to a head. It took him very little time to become well known in the northern flock and just as well disliked.
Their ire hardly fazed him. The dolts would have been beneath his contempt had they not been disgracing their kind. As it were, he had no problem with fleeing if he found himself losing. If they thought he was a coward, he could care less. None of them were worth being incapacitated. His life was more important, and he always gave them something to think about.
One of the few times that he had wounds to nurse, he finally paused to wonder what he was doing. He should have left long ago. His purpose of lingering had been fulfilled, so it was only rational to leave. Nothing was there for him, but he still hadn't brought himself to leave.
The very same day he resolved himself to depart, regardless of his impulses, a reason to stay appeared.
This reason went by the name Devon. In all honesty, their paths had crossed unnervingly frequently, and each time, Zbura had felt inexplicably drawn to him. At the same time, his rational mind rejected the notion violently, forcing him to attempt to steer clear of the younger cob. He had no interest in associating with someone that was nearly his exact opposite.
Zbura was an excellent specimen of their species, strong, large, and agile. Devon was perpetually sickly, stuck on the small side with a slight, nearly fragile build. It was easy for the small male to chuckle and disregard matters that would have left Zbura raging for days. Things the larger cob felt indifferent about made Devon burst with passion and commitment.
Fundamentally and realistically, a relationship or even simple friendship was impossible. Staying apart seemed even more so.
The colony of black swans was stretched far apart, and Zbura constantly traveled. It should have been easy to keep away from one another, but they seemed to always end up feeding at the same time or stretching their wings and meeting in the skies by chance. Chance encounters repeated so often that they grew cross, almost aggressive with each other.
Distant observations revealed just how sweet natured Devon really was, making his bristling odd. Of course, Zbura's temper flared in return, but not in retaliation. The temper of the smaller cob hardly mattered. He merely grew angry at himself for wanted Devon and took it out on the smaller male, since he was in part responsible for making him want the impossible.
That day, he ceased caring what was "possible" and what was not.
Preparing to leave, he had been filling himself up in one of his favorite areas. All of the best vegetation was in that area, so he tried to visit every day. Since it was early, there wasn't any chance of competition, so he wasn't paying much attention to his surroundings. That was when Aaron and his gang had jumped him.
Aaron was another large male that occupied the same general area as him. The two had gotten into scraps before, but usually they were fairly matched. Outnumbered and trapped, it took only a moment for him to realize they wanted him dead, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Zbura continued to fight, but he knew that he was as good as dead. The sheer mass of them forced him beneath the surface several times. Hissing and squalling in frustration, he lashed out at them, but it wasn't enough, because no sooner did one of them back off than another leapt forward eagerly. He was already beginning to feel faint when his salvation arrived.
Looking over at the smooth, sleek form of his beautiful mate, Zbura felt the familiar burst of affection, just as he did every time he recalled the day they finally accepted their mutual attraction.
Devon was best described as adorable. Physical strength, however, applied to him in no stretch of the imagination. He had been hatched in a large clutch and small from the start, but that only been part of the cause of his tiny body. There had been a dramatic mutation that had made him radically different from everyone else. Since he had an extensive family, he hadn't suffered much for the oddity he couldn't control, but he was still soft spoken and sweet beyond compare.
That day, he had charged into the midst of the fighting and attacked the largest cob, his own brother Aaron. The diversion had caught enough attention for Zbura to gain control and start fighting back. There were still too many, but with the two of them, they had been able to escape.
After that, they had flown around for a few hours, laughing and bumping against each other playfully, both excited and oddly relieved. Darkness came and they nested together. For the months that followed, he didn't even think of leaving.
Rustling his feathers and dipping his beak into the water, Zbura tried to clear the last of the sleep from his mind. For a few minutes already, he had been floating listlessly in the water, looking up at their nest on the bank.
It was early morning, and the sun hadn't completely risen so there wasn't much light see by. Night creatures began to settle not far off and song birds were rousing in the distance, but Devon was still asleep. His petite love was settled gingerly over their eggs, careful even as he wondered through dream land. He looked happy, and it infected Zbura in a way that he had trouble understanding.
As the fun finally spread across the lake, it almost instantly began to create a light fog. As the vapor swirled around them, it cast their eggs into a murky light, making them appear more green than white. Tucked carefully beneath the coal black feathers, they couldn't have looked more beautiful.
Arching up, over the short expanse of bank so that he could brush his beak against Devon's chest, Zbura sighed happily. With his eyes blissfully closed, he listened to the heartbeat of the one he would always love.
The light, affectionate nibble of Devon's beak along his neck sent a trickle of guilt through him. He hadn't meant to wake Devon, and he felt worse because he wouldn't suffer for it. Ever cheerful, the smaller cob was content to groom him in silence after been impolitely woken.
It was Zbura's secret heaven.
He remained stretched out so that Devon could groom him easily until his neck was aching. It was an awkward angle, and his muscles screamed with relief as he drew back. Scrambling up onto the bank, he rubbed against Devon before touching beaks with him. Meeting the unnatural, blue gaze, he asked softly, "How are you feeling?"
Unnatural, bizarre, odd, strange, queer; these were all words that described Devon. As much as he loved his mate, Zbura couldn't deny this.
Devon's feathers were softer than any other bird he had met, except perhaps the owls. His bones were even frailer, his wings utterly silent, and everything about him seemed delicate. The most beautiful, strangest part of him had to be the azure orbs that would always remain in Zbura's mind.
Everything about Devon made him unfit, unhealthy, but Zbura didn't love him any less for it.
Shifting to rub his cheek against his mate, the smaller cob actually considered his answer and returned his gaze to Zbura's before deciding, "Drowsy, but the chicks will be coming soon, so I'm already excited."
The way his eyes lit up at the thought saved the older cob from considering his own feelings too closely. If he was honest with himself, he would acknowledge that while a large part of it was excitement, just as much was fear that bordered on terror.
He was horrified of what was to come, what would be expected of him, and what he might end up doing. Everything in life built up to parenthood, and even though he was starting later than most, he didn't feel prepared. There was so much about him he wanted to change, because he knew his edges weren't polished. The thought that he would be too sharp, too rough, or too quick to anger with one of their young scared him. He never wanted to alienate one of his own babies, but his temper was almost uncontrollable.
"You'll be an amazing father."
The words surprised him, and as he refocused on that bizarre gaze, the black swan made a soft sound of thanks before nuzzling his mate again. No one had ever been able to read him so easily, but Devon always knew just what to say. He didn't have to voice his worries to have them soothed when he was with his love.
With his face still against the soft, black feathers, he told Devon with certainty, "You will be absolutely brilliant."
It was the truth. Devon would be an amazing father: understanding, patient, tolerant, sweet, and encouraging. He would teach their chicks to follow their dreams and heart, never backing down from what was right. He would show them that violence didn't have to be the answer to every problem.
Zbura didn't know what knowledge he could offer their young. All he had ever known and acted upon was never backing down from a fight and maintaining a strong façade. Those weren't things he wanted his chicks believing.
Once again, Devon seemed to read his mind. Arching his slender neck elegantly, he slipped away from Zbura to slide down into the water. Shaking himself, he looked up at his mate and offered, "Why don't you go eat and work off some of your nerves, you silly goose?"
Goose was usually used as an insult, but Zbura had never loved a pet name more. Joining his mate in the water, he nuzzled against Devon for a moment before letting himself drift just far enough that his mate could dip below the water to wash his face.
As Devon came up, shaking the water from his feather, he added encouragingly, "I am awake now, so I can watch the nest until you come back."
Getting out and burning some of the energy that was suddenly radiating through him sounded painfully appealing, but he still paused to ask, "Are you sure?"
Exasperation seeped from Devon's hiss, and it was no surprise when the other nipped at Zbura playfully.
Giving into the other's urging, he shrank back and then let himself be chased off, filling with mirth as his mate called after him, "Just come back before I get old!"
Given permission to roam for a while was a relief for Zbura. Though he didn't want to go far at such a crucial time, he was eager to be moving none the less. Since the time he was a hatchling, he had loved moving and exploring. Staying with their nest all of the time was not his definition of fun, but Devon was there, so he really didn't mind.
Making his way to one of the rich feeding grounds in their territory, he moved and dined calmly, in no great hurry. Since he had been told to leave, he knew that it would be some time yet for the chicks to hatch. He didn't have to worry about missing anything. The most important thing at the moment was getting enough to eat and using some of the energy that still bubbled just below the surface.
It seemed just getting out on the lake was enough, because he felt immensely calmer as he skimmed the surface for loose vegetation, relaxing in the brisk water. That serenity didn't last long, because soon Aaron appeared.
Months had passed since the fight that had ultimately brought Devon and Zbura together, but Aaron still wasn't happy about his brother taking a mate with an outsider. Zbura couldn't care less. The belligerent male was nothing like his gentle mate, and occasionally it struck him that he and Aaron had more in common than Aaron and Devon.
Dipping his head swiftly to get a final mouthful, Zbura shook himself to clear away the water before carefully posing himself. His neck arched, his wings halfway raised, his body language was challenging, but dignified. He was ready to fight, but reserved enough to not provoke it, at least, not until he approached the other male.
Aaron's territory overlapped with Zbura's and the feeding patch was part of the shared ground. They met near the edge that marked solely Aaron's, but neither paid much attention as they slowly circled each other.
Both were now fathers, with nests full of eggs and mates waiting for them. Neither could very well risk getting wounded and leaving their loved ones uncared for, but they had a long history. That history was filled with violence and anger, and they weren't keen on turning their backs to each other.
To say that there was no love lost between them was an understatement.
"Zbura, where is Devon?" Aaron asked casually, dipping his head to pick up some of the floating vegetation.
Keeping his head high and his posture stiff, the older cob answered simply, "At home."
"Ah, that is right," Aaron murmured, his one and feigned surprised an act of forgetfulness. Zbura knew exactly what he was trying to do. Since he refused to acknowledge that he and Devon were more than friends, he "forgot" that they had a nest and chicks on the way.
It was impossible to actually forget. From the moment Sabrina had left the nest, there had been open speculation and so many rumors that even someone that knew nothing of them would know about their relationship. Zbura wasn't truly a part of the flock, and even he had known about the gossip.
If Aaron wanted to play games, however, it wasn't his place to call the other out. Tempting as it was, the fight might last more than a few moments, and he wouldn't do that to Devon or his chicks.
He would not miss the most important moment in his chick's lives starting a fight with a prejudice idiot that would never change his views.
"You know," Aaron declared abruptly. Lifting his head and meeting Zbura's gaze, he told the other in a tone of blatant disgust, "I find it absolutely amazing that you and Devon haven't been punished as egg thieves."
Suddenly, the idea of explaining himself to Devon for being late didn't seem like such a bad one. At least then he wouldn't have to deal with Aaron's mouth for a while.
Someone could only tolerate so much abuse for so long. If it was directed just at him, Zbura could have ignored it, but he wouldn't stand by while Devon's own brother insulted him. Eve had known what she was getting into when she had their eggs, and she had left willingly. Being called an egg thief was the highest of insults and he would not stand for it.
With a challenging hiss, he launched himself at Aaron. The two large cobs crashed into each other, both rearing and eager for war. Lashing out rapidly with beaks and wings, they aimed to harm, rather than cripple.
Zbura knew that it would upset Devon if Aaron died, and Aaron was wise enough to not tempt Zbura's reserve.
A flash of beak, a slash of wings, the slam of their hollow chests meeting, and then they broke apart. More and the invisible thread would snap and one of them would get seriously hurt. Both of them had plenty of reason to avoid that.
He was panting, but more from controlling his aggression than any exertion. It was difficult to keep himself from lashing out and seriously harming Aaron, but he managed to contain to do so. The other male also shrank back, suffering the same internal battle.
Their breathing slowly evened out as they remained poised, ready to fight. A small eternity passed as they glared at each other, both longing for an excuse and each refusing to offer it.
Finally, obligation won out over barbaric pleasure. On some unspoken cue, they both turned away and departed without as much as a backwards glance.
It was amazing. One moment, he was burning with the anticipation of fighting, and the next, he was haggard and sore. Angrily, Zbura decided to broach the topic of moving nests. Once the chicks were strong enough, they could find somewhere a bit farther away from such idiocy.
The notion of changing their nesting site stirred Zbura's adventurous nature. Though he had transverse their territory from one end to the next dozens of times, he still felt compelled to look again. He was a nomad at heart, even more so than most of his kind. Lingering left him restless, taking even more away from his short fuse.
Had Devon not been there, Zbura would not have either. Since he was, the only option was to swallow his wandering nature. It was bitter, but his mate kept it from driving him insane. Unfortunately, when they were apart, Zbura could feel himself edging on insanity.
Suddenly feeling tired, he shook off the thoughts and looked around him. The terrain of the pond was hardly any different from that at the feeding area, but he still knew he was close to home. Spotting the small thicket that concealed their home, he sped up just a bit. It was then that he was struck with the sense of wrong
Something was very, very wrong, but Zbura couldn't figure out what. Something seemed off, but nothing stood out. There were no unusual sounds, no strange movements, and nothing seemed disturbed.
Abruptly, it struck him why there were no unusual sounds: everything was deathly silent.
Neither insect nor animal stirred, all hidden away as best they could. Most creatures kept a safe distance from their nest, but even there was nothing moving. He had only seen such stillness a few times before.
Panicked, he spread his wings, speeding himself on desperately. Practically flying up the bank, he nearly toppled over himself when he froze in shock, unable to do anything but stare at the carnage left of his happy home.
Soft, black feathers floated atop the water and were strewn across the nest. The wind made them stir, and the waves made them bob. Their individual movements somehow seemed to make it worse.
Fragile, foam green shell fragments littered the ground and what remained of the nest. Each piece seemed tinier than the next, smashed ruthlessly. It was sickening.
Brittle, aged twigs were scattered and cracked across the ground. It had once been his home, but now it was merely a distorted mess. He couldn't quite make sense of it.
Limp, ashen forms lay lifelessly from branches of the thicket and on the ground. Some were half eaten, others simply crushed. All of them were still painfully easy to recognize.
Brilliant, pungent, red blood mixed with water. It seeped into the ground and dripped off of the bank into the lake, slowly fading from there. The memory of it would never fade so easily.
A delicate, black form lay crushed next to the mass of twigs. Nothing could adequately describe the pain and defeat that form expressed.
It was whispered like a prayer. Before it received an answer, the same darkness that had shattered their once beautiful returned.
Not so much as a growl warned him for the dangerous approach. One moment, Zbura was numbly looking at his mate, and the next second, he was facing the death that had taken him.
Hissing with aggression and challenge, he twisted violently so that he wouldn't be crushed by the paws. The dog had attempted to slam him into the ground, but he wriggled free. Leaping back, he wracked his feet over the dog's face, not even considering fleeing.
Not easily deterred from what he viewed as a game, the dog pounced again, maw opening and aiming for the elegant neck. Unable to save his neck and get free, Zbura jerked violently so that the other caught the top of his wing. It was painful, but not deadly. It also gave him the chance to begin striking the beast in the face with his beak.
His free wing beat randomly, smashing against the side of the dog's head, while his feet furiously clawed at the furred chest. There wasn't much to hold onto with his beak, but he continued to peck as hard as he could.
Unfortunately, the dog soon released his wing and went for his throat again. His attention was raptly focused on attack, and he didn't have the sense to dodge. Just as the other struck his throat, he went for one of the vulnerable eyes. Unfortunately, it was too late. The hold on his neck kept him from doing any lasting damage.
Screeching at the unfairness of it all, he continued to struggle, but as the dog's head whipped back and forth in a violent shake, he grew weaker and weaker.
Finally, Zbura began to fade. All he knew was pain: the pain of loss, the pain of wound, and the pain of the unknown. Soon, his life would end and he would not have avenged his mate. Already, his wounds were too severe to heal from. Quickly, blood flowed from him, drawing him closer to the darkness.
As he was cast into the air, he felt as though he had been released like an abused toy, abandoned to be lost and forgotten.
Crashing into the ground, he found himself reflected and sent into the air, out of control yet again. This time, however, he didn't seem to land.
"Hello," a soft voice cooed in greeting. It was obviously pitched low so not to startle him, but it did anyway. In such a violent, painful moment, anything soft or gentle was alien and even more terrifying than the enemy.
Jerking up right and away from the source, Zbura wield around wildly searching to see what had spoken. He was shocked by what he saw.
No longer was he lying in the shattered thicket of his home. Instead, he was in a strange world. There was something familiar to the shape of the trees and the shade of the long grass, but it was still foreign to him. The earth beneath him had none of the twigs, and he couldn't even smell the lake that should have still been very close.
How had he managed to go to such a strange place so quickly?
Above there was a soft, golden light. It didn't seem to come from the sun as most light did. In fact, it was painless to look into, but still filled him with a sort of warmth. That warmth soothed his physical wounds but did very little to free him from the heartbreak infused with his very soul.
Mocha brown fur was the first thing he noticed when he finally looked towards the source of the voice. Blinding hard and looking again, he saw that the soft, brown fur sat atop sandstone colored hooves, much like the hooves of the goats that he had once seen. The dark fur faded into a soft, warm color caught between tan and beige. The beautiful colors were suspended over long, strong legs.
Slowly, so very slowly, he continued to look up over the body. The chest was opened, almost like a gaping wound, but no blood leaked out. Instead, there was an oval gem colored like a delicate flower. Though there was no visual indication of this, it almost seemed to pulse with life, drawing his attention.
The powerful chest was the same mix of tan and beige, but a caramel color dripped over the shoulders, intermingling and blending elegantly, especially apparent to him along the elegant, but strong neck. The creature's face was completely caramel colored, except for the soft brown nose and startlingly purple eyes. Even amethyst paled in comparison.
Though this creature was odd, Zbura was struck with a mix of admiration and fear for it. He had seen similar creatures on his journeys, but never so close and never had he felt such admiration.
"What are you?" he demanded, his body swaying from weakness. He didn't realize that the wounds had slipped away, vanishing into nothingness. His strength was slowly returning, but he was still viciously sore, mostly on the inside.
Stepping closer, the creature slowly lowered its massive head closer to the bird. In greeting, it blew on him as it explained, "I am a wraith, and if you so choose, you could become one as well."
"Why would I want to?" It was rude, but the words were all too true. Though there was something beautiful about the beast, it was still four knobby legs and no wings. He couldn't imagine why anyone would chose to be that when they were already a bird.
"If you do, you have another chance at life, a second life."
Amazing how a mere dozen words could completely change his opinion.
Long face, oddly colored eyes, awkward build, and no flight would be worth it. If he could return just long enough to get another chance at avenging his love, anything would be worth it.
"I'll do it," Zbura agreed instantly, lurching to his feet. Shaking himself so that his feathers fell into order, he repeated with certainly, "I will take my second life and become a wraith."
The already large eyes widened farther with surprise. The brilliant, purple hues caught the sunlight as sandy bangs danced across the narrow forehead, propelled by a slight breeze. Snorting abruptly, the creature stepped back and declared, "Well, you've certainly made my job easier."
Before he could even think to regret his choice, he was falling back into the darkness, crashing back to earth finally, and returned to life, fully healed.
For a moment, he lay on the hard, unforgiving ground. Before him, he saw two very clear, very different paths. One path was simple: he would rise up, take to the sky, and never look back. He would go on to live a full, long life. Maybe chance would lead him to love again, or maybe he would die alone. Either way, he would live to see another day.
The second path was even simpler. As soon as he made it to his feet, he would begin to search for the beast that had ruined everything. The instant he located it, he would attack with all he had. He would die, probably just as quickly, but he would at least leave the dog with a few more scars.
No matter what, the moment he died, he would become a wraith.
For the first time in his life, as he got to his feet, he felt a sense of purpose. Shaking himself once more to organize his feathers, he decided there was no point in dawdling. He had a monster to find.